The Common Good
January-February 1997

Grappling with the Tough Questions

by Kimberly Burge | January-February 1997

The hunger for dialogue in the Catholic Church.

First, an appropriately Catholic confession: I'm not a "cradle Catholic." I didn't attend 12 years of parochial schools, didn't grow up praying the Rosary and memorizing the catechism. Raised a Southern Baptist, I joined the Catholic Church nearly three years ago, at age 25.

I hate the term "convert"; I've been a Christian since I was 9, and didn't see this path as a radical alteration in my spiritual journey. Rather, I found a congregation where I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, found a commitment to working for justice and racial reconciliation, and a pastor and spiritual mentors who allowed, even encouraged, me to ask difficult questions, both of myself and of my community of faith. In the Catholic Church, I discovered people with a hunger to enhance and renew the Christian faith and grapple with the big questions while remaining within the institutional church.

Now, voices calling for dialogue on controversial issues are arousing criticism from those who claim that the teachings of the Catholic Church do not leave room for discussion.

The "We are Church" referendum currently circulating in the United States calls for "genuine dialogue in the whole church" on a range of polemic issues. More than 2.3 million Catholics in Germany and Austria signed the referendum. In the United States, reformers are seeking one million signatures of American Catholics by Pentecost 1997. Regardless of where people stand on specific issues the referendum raises, the overriding theme of participation and discussions by the laity is emerging from across the Catholic spectrum.

More than 5,000 Catholics gathered in November for Call to Action's national conference at Cobo Hall in Detroit, site of the original bishops' Call to Action conference in 1976 where more than 1,300 lay, religious, and clergy delegates, appointed by local bishops, began a process of building a more inclusive church.

BEFORE HIS DEATH, even Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a man well-respected by hierarchy and lay people alike, faced criticism for his Common Ground Project, which calls for public discussions by people of various perspectives on issues affecting church life. Fellow Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston apparently viewed the endeavor as unjustified, claiming that the church's common ground is "found in sacred scripture and tradition and it is mediated to us through the authoritative and binding teaching of the magisterium." Bernardin responded, "I am convinced that, in the United States today, dialogue is a critical need. The church is built up, not brought down, by genuine dialogue anchored in our fundamental teachings."

The criticisms of dialogue seem based on the fear that lively discussion by all the faithful, whatever their viewpoints, will create divisiveness and undermine the church's moral teaching. The polarization, however, already exists. And church history—such as the period leading up to Vatican II—shows that a clamor for reform, from clergy and laity alike, can lead to a revitalization of church teaching and practice. Responding to this hunger for reform with a declaration of "The issue is closed" helps neither to bring the church together nor to deepen the spiritual life of believers.

Perhaps our next step entails looking to the person of Christ for guidance. Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees to reinterpret the laws and traditions passed on to them. When presented with the opportunity to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus openly defied the condemnations of religious leaders and instead focused on the needs of the man with a shriveled hand. This controversial act didn't win Jesus any followers among those leaders, and Jesus remained "deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts" (Mark 3:5).

A living church must constantly strive to reinvent itself as a representative of Jesus Christ, who was more than willing to discuss contentious issues of his day. Eclectic viewpoints may indeed lead to tension, but they are also vital and necessary for a new understanding of the workings of the Holy Spirit in continuing revelation. Simply burying conflict can only stunt the growth of the church and its parishioners, clergy, and leaders.

In "Called To Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril," the document that launched Cardinal Bernardin's project, all seekers—from radicals to conservatives—are invited to join together in a search for common ground. "The revitalized Catholic common ground...will be marked by a willingness to approach the church's current situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts. It will mean pursuing disagreements in a renewed spirit of dialogue....We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth."

The statement continued, "Solutions to the church's problems will almost inevitably emerge from a variety of sources." Or, as retired Archbishop John Quinn put it, "[A]mid the certainties of faith, still the church does not have all the answers ready-made, that she must struggle and search for the truth."

All those sources bring a perspective and a passionate faith that together form the Catholic Christian community. Many people have asked me lately, "As a woman, why in the world did you become a Catholic?" I found in the Catholic Church people asking the hard questions, people willing to allow me to join them on their journey for a church constantly striving to be reflective of the love, compassion, and mutual respect that Christ brought to earth. I'd hate to see the open spirit of dialogue that led me into the church snuffed out by voices in the hierarchy telling me, and thousands of others, not to ask the tough questions.

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