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Discourse vs. discord

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Long-held religious views have been drawn into the deepening "culture wars" over moral issues such as abortion, divorce and homosexuality. Churches find themselves struggling to define - even refine - their own theology.

Some Protestant denominations, whose democratic structures allow for decision-making via ballot, are finding themselves deeply divided over those issues. Factions split off, and in some cases, members who feel strongly enough form new churches altogether.While such moral issues are also hotly debated in the Catholic Church, the need for such discussion doesn't mean that parishioners can pick and choose their doctrine, according to the Most Rev. George Niederauer, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake.

Catholism is not about shopping around, he said, and most Catholics know it. "They are here to stay. They know that assembling a cafeteria tray of selected Catholic items for their spiritual meal in life is hardly a whole-hearted surrender to discipleship in Christ. And the frequent intolerance of the Catholic right and left bothers them, as do the issues with which they struggle."

Speaking Sunday during the annual Aquinas lecture at St. Catherine's Newman Center, the Most Rev. Niederauer said, "The church is a communion and its people, not a modern corporation or political entity. . . . Life in the mysterious communion of the church cannot be reduced to a negotiation of contrary opinions; we must operate within the bounds of and be accountable to both the tradition of the church and the living magisterium exercised by the bishops and the Chair of Peter."

The "chair of Peter," or the pope's divine authority, means that while the factions in the Catholic Church may rage, the ultimate authority and the final say rest with bishops and the pope - rather than delegates from the local congregation.

The Most Rev. Niederauer spoke of what Father Avery Dulles called "communal Catholics": faithful who treat the church as a nurturing home held together by family and friends but who don't accept the teaching authority of popes and councils, especially in moral matters.

"But Catholicism is a public faith," the bishop warned. "A universal union with all our sisters and brothers around the city and around the world who share our faith in the teachings of the church, our experience of her worship and prayer and our giving of ourselves in love to God by giving ourselves in love to one another."

While differences of opinion among Catholics about church life and even faith are inevitable, the Most Rev. Niederauer said, "too often the expression of differences becomes a cycle of accusation and defense, with opponents casting doubts on each other's basic faithfulness or openness."

And he warned the hundred or so people in attendance to avoid "either-or statements which endorse one heavily judgmental theory or proposal of explanation to the exclusion of all others."

To do so, he said, "betrays our Christian calling. It seems to me that the core of our discipleship in Christ is the call to make our own the values of the kingdom he preached and to proclaim them to the world around us by living them there.

"If that is true, then one of the most savage betrayals possible for us disciples is for us to make our own the values of the world and then bring them into the church and behave toward one another in a worldly fashion. Name-calling, the politics of victimhood and entitlement, negative smears of those with whom we disagree; these are the ways of those who confront one another in the world around us."

Consequently, one of the toughest issues for the Catholic Church is not what issues deserve to be discussed, but what form the discussion should take, he said.

That question has generated its own little furnace, calling forth answers as heated and divisive as anything being discussed.

The Most Rev. Niederauer called on Catholics to engage in "authentic dialogue." Such discussion "is one of our principal means of working through disagreements within the church," he said. "However, if we don't know what dialogue is and is not, if we do not know how and why we engage in it, we cannot usefully discuss any tension or disagreement we experience. Knowing how to approach problems honestly and wisely is much more important than any single problem we approach. That same principle applies to dialogue and the subjects about which we engage in dialogue."

At the center of the bishop's remarks was the Common Ground Initiative, promoted by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, archbishop of Chicago, just weeks before his death a year ago. The Most Rev. Niederauer quoted liberally from the cardinal while explaining the need for dialogue.

Formation of Common Ground, which promised among other things a series of conferences to stimulate "a new kind of dialogue," Cardinal Bernadin said, would help define the Catholic Church's future. It was a response, he said, to "mean-spiritedness" in debates among Catholic Americans.

It didn't bring unity, according to Philip F. Lawler, who issued a "Special Report" on the Common Ground Initiative. Instead, other American cardinals and bishops lined up on both sides to debate the initiative's approach to debate. At the heart of the storm is the question of the teaching authority of the church.

The Most Rev. Niederauer calls Common Ground "a promising approach to a need for principled dialogue among Catholics within the church." But even within the diocese, some ordained leaders say it lacks definition and shape and is therefore "flawed."

Not everyone agrees that the debate is even important, the Most Rev. Niederauer said. "Father Andrew Greeley responded to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative by saying that he thought it concerned only embattled eccelesiastical elitists and other full-time church workers. Greeley thinks the people in the pews couldn't care less about this entire matter."

And while the bishop agrees that Catholics are not going to leave the church over it, "I still suspect that more and more American Catholics are troubled, distracted or confused by polarizing debates and attacks. . . . They may become more and more discouraged and turned off, more and more inclined to tune out."

In introducing Common Ground, Bernadin worried that the dangers threatening church life and unity show up "not so much in schism and rebellion as in hemorrhage and lassitude, complacency, the insidious draining of vitality, the haughty retreat into isolation, the dispiriting pressure of retrenchment."

Genuine dialogue, the Most Rev. Niederauer said, is a "fragile and vulnerable experience in the present day. One reason is the general fraying of civility in discourse on any topic in our time and especially on matters of ethics, morality, religion and public life. Another reason for the fragility is that dialogue is not explicitly designed to resolve problems, which most people look for in a discussion."