Creating Common Ground (a Lenten discipline): Old First E-pistle 02.23.12

Creating Common Ground (a Lenten discipline): Old First E-pistle 02.23.12

How delighted I was to find the POWER clergy caucus looking at the work of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

I lived in Chicago for two years right after college, ’83-’85. With the newly-elected, first African American Mayor Harold Washington and Cardinal Bernardin, Chicago had some impressive years of public leadership by two courageous men.

Bernardin became concerned that the Roman Catholic Church was beset by divisions that had become so adversarial as to cut off various groups within the church from one another and thereby the whole body. Bernardin developed a strategy towards a solution, what he called COMMON GROUND.

Bernardin’s analysis rings even truer in the larger body politic of the U.S. in the years since his death in 1996. As citizens divided by political interpretations, we barely speak the same language. We can no longer even agree on what the facts are.

In a curious confluence of politics and religion, this week’s headlines have been filled with ministers and candidates comfortable, even confident calling into question or passing judgement on the authenticity of others’ faith.

I’ve never heard anyone at Old First, even in the most heated, passionate disagreements, call another’s theology “phony” or “unbiblical.” But still, I offer you Bernardin’s principles of engagement because they can help us towards humility at church and in the other conflicted arenas of our lives with others.

Bernardin exhorted the church’s leadership, both clerical and lay, to REAFFIRM and PROMOTE the full range and demands of authentic unity, acceptable diversity, and respectful dialogue.

Bernardin was not just trying to dampen conflict. He wanted to transform its effect on us… that we might begin to mine our conflicts for their constructive power. Ultimately, Bernardin believed that which divides us can become the common way to better understanding– understanding ourselves and articulating for our world the meaning of discipleship of Jesus.


We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth.

We should not envision ourselves or any one part of the church as a saving remnant. No group within the church should judge itself alone to be possessed of enlightenment.

We should test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on living individuals as well as for their theological truth. Pastoral effectiveness is a responsibility of leadership. (I’d go even further and suggest that people matter so much that “pastoral effectiveness” IS A TEST of theological truth!)

We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. They deserve civility, charity, and a good-faith effort to understand their concerns. We should not use labels, abstractions, or blanketing terms in response to differing positions…

We should put the best possible construction on differing positions, addressing their strongest points rather than seizing upon the most vulnerable aspects in order to discredit them. We should detect the valid insights and legitimate worries that may underlie even questionable arguments.

We should be cautious in ascribing motives. We should not impugn another’s love of the church and loyalty to it. We should not rush to interpret disagreements as conflicts of starkly opposing principles rather than as differences in degree or in prudential pastoral judgments about the relevant facts.

We should bring the church to engage the realities of contemporary culture, not by simple defiance or by naïve acquaintance, but acknowledging both our culture’s valid achievements and real dangers.

See you in church,


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