The Search for Common … Sand

February 1998By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR.

The Search for Common Ground: What Unites and Divides Catholic Americans.  By James D. Davidson, et al. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 287 pages. $24.95.



The Search for Common Ground is, according to the ads for this book, “ground-breaking.” Huh? Breaking the ground before it’s been found? So send the scribbler who wrote that ad copy off to a course in Bonehead English!

Despite the mental cramps induced by the ad-copy writer, I wanted to read this book because it is, again according to the ad copy, “the most extensive” social-scientific study (ever undertaken, presumably) of what American Catholics believe. It sounded like a book I needed to get familiar with.

Well, maybe it is indeed “the most extensive” study, but now, having read it, I must say that I didn’t discover anything I didn’t pretty much already know. I did, however, find the book’s editorializing on behalf of accommodating dissent in the Church quite significant. No doubt many NEW OXFORD REVIEW readers will be surprised that a book with this message would be published by Our Sunday Visitor Inc., instead of by, say, Orbis or Paulist Press.

As for the data, the book tells us that post-Vatican II Catholics (those born after 1960) are more likely to “espouse beliefs and practices…counter to traditional Church teachings” than are older Catholics — and, going beyond the data, it claims rather overconfidently that this generational difference is permanent (the “approaches to faith and morals” of post-Vatican II Catholics “will never be the same as those currently held by their parents and grandparents”).

What do post-Vatican II Catholics believe — or not believe? In focus groups they said things like, “Your religion is within you. It’s your relationship between you and God. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant.” When one of them was asked whether a “good Catholic” goes to Mass weekly, the answer was: “No…why have a middle person when you have a direct line to God…? I’m a good Catholic because I’m a good person.”

As for the survey results, when post-Vatican II Catholics were asked if the following are “always morally wrong,” only 47 percent said homosexual relations are, only 31 percent said abortion is, only 20 percent said premarital sex is, and only four percent said artificial birth control is. Forty-one percent “strongly agree” that there should be priestesses in the Church while only 19 percent “strongly disagree.”

The authors do not seem troubled by these survey results. And no wonder! While the book claims that its seven co-authors, all Catholic, represent both “liberal” and “conservative” views, the authors state collectively that they “do not agree with the Church…on each and every issue of faith and morals…,” that they do not favor “outdated beliefs and practices,” and that they are open to exploring “ideas that are more suited to conditions at the turn of the new century.” The authorial voice dominating this book is definitely liberal.

What does seem to bother the authors is that post-Vatican II Catholics are relatively ignorant of the content of the Faith, are less religious than older Catholics, and thus are less committed to the Church — indeed, are so uncommitted as to have hardly any institutional loyalty at all, thus threatening “the long-term viability of the Church.” So the authors would like to see some firming up in the area of catechetics, but only some. They show how catechetically challenged they themselves are, for they assert that Vatican II turned the Church “away from its earlier emphasis on sin and punishment,” with the result that “without the guilt attached to mortal sins and the fear of eternal damnation, Church leaders cannot command as much compliance with Church teachings as they used to.” Moreover, the authors treat “pluralism” of belief and practice as a fact of life in the Church. Pluralism is fine, they can be heard saying, but when it endangers the institution, it has gone too far — in other words, orthdoxy comes and goes, but Churchianity is forever.

Finding Common Ground is the key to institutional self-preservation, in the eyes of the authors. Hence they advise Church leaders to “respect” and “accept” the “spiritual and moral diversity” found in the Church today.

Of course, this advice is all wrong, tragically wrong. It overlooks the truth of Catholic doctrine and is oblivious to the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church’s doctrine. It also reflects short-term thinking, lacks historical understanding, and is even sociologically flawed, for countless studies of Protestantism in the U.S. have shown that those denominations that have sought popularity and institutional self-preservation by following the Sirens of religious diversity and pluralism have wound up losing more and more members. To apply the words of our Lord (Mt. 10:39) to the situation before us: Churches that seek to preserve their institutional life will lose it, but those that risk losing it for His sake will gain it.

Just in case the reader of this book gets bogged down in all the statistics and doesn’t pick up on its message, Dean Hoge tells us in the Introduction that what the book means is that “no one should expect traditional Catholic institutions to survive unchanged.” To facilitate change, says Hoge, “we need to begin discussion [i.e., dialogue] and experimentation now,” and “every aspect” of the Church will need to be “reassessed” in terms of its fit with the spiritual needs and wants of post-Vatican II Catholics.

That The Search for Common Ground was published by Our Sunday Visitor Inc. is revealing — not about the book, but about the Our Sunday Visitor corporation.

That corporation has a reputation for being orthodox and does lots of valuable work — especially with is periodicals, Catholic Parent and The Catholic Answer, and with many of its books, such as Sisters in Crisis — but in certain other areas it has been suffering from a failure of nerve of late. To be sure, there is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, a season for everything — a time, shall we say, for mellowness and a time for militancy. We are now, it so happens, in a period when the heartening pontificate of John Paul II is winding down, and the forces of dissent are coming on strong in an attempt to control the mind of the next Conclave and take the Church in an Anglican direction.

We will only lull ourselves to sleep if we tell ourselves — a popular line among the orthodox — that the ardent dissenters are greying and will soon disappear. Hey, we orthodox Catholics are getting older, too, and younger Catholics (as this book confirms) have already largely bought into the positions of the dissenters. If younger Catholics aren’t outright campaigners for dissent — if they are notably absent from Call to Action meetings — it’s surely because they see no need to campaign for positions they take for granted and see as constituting an irresistible force.

And just because John Paul has named many new cardinals, we mustn’t assume that the next Conclave will be no sweat. Certain of those cardinals have turned out to be disappointments, and others are question marks. Consider this: Tom Fox is the Publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, which James Hitchcock described recently as follows: “Over its more than thirty years of publication, almost the sole purpose of NCR’s existence has been to mount increasingly bitter assaults on almost every aspect of official Catholic teaching….” Speaking at the Western Conference of Call to Action in Los Angeles in August 1997, Fox, who for years was a telephone confidant of Cardinal Bernardin (made Archbishop of Chicago and then given the red hat by John Paul II), told his audience that Bernardin had told him that NCR is “a light in the darkness.” Fancy that! Moreover, Fox told his listeners they’d be “astonished” if they knew how many prelates are supporters of NCR — presumably secret supporters, like Bernardin. Quoting highly placed, anonymous sources, Fox explicitly confirmed what many of us have come to believe: that many cardinals and bishops are merely pretending to support John Paul. And Fox revealed that one cardinal told him that if he becomes pope, he will immediately ordain women — and never mind that John Paul has let it be known that the Church’s inability to ordain women is an infallible teaching.

Above I mentioned the forces of dissent which are now coming on strong. We can no longer assume that the pontificate of John Paul will defeat those forces. Moreover, those forces — and they’re formidable — are only the ones we can see. Behind them are other battalions of dissent, probably much more formidable and led by high-ranking prelates, which are as of now hidden.

The Catholic Church is in deep crisis, a big showdown is looming, and the maneuvering over the future of the Church is in full swing. In the holy name of St. Thomas More, this is no time for mellowness. Challenges must not intimidate us; they must be faced, responded to, and overcome. To shrink from this task could mean that the theological, moral, and spiritual condition of the Church will worsen in future decades, and the souls of our children, grandchildren, or other loved ones will be further imperiled. The moment of truth has arrived. Yet now — of all times! — Our Sunday Visitor Inc. is having some difficulty in mustering intestinal fortitude.

The publication of The Search for Common Ground, which identifies post-Vatican II Catholics as the Wave of the Future, is one case in point, and here’s another: Our Sunday Visitor (the weekly paper published by OSV Inc.) recently refused to print a NEW OXFORD REVIEW ad strongly critiquing the Common Ground Project of Cardinal Bernardin (though not mentioning him by name).

But there’s more. Our Sunday Visitor (OSV) published a heated letter accusing an NOR ad that did run in OSV of being guilty of, among other things, “virulent intolerance.” The writer admonished the editors of OSV — presumably in the name of tolerance — that the ad was “quite out of place” in OSV. Later another letter-writer objected to another NOR ad in OSV for violating the spirit of inclusivity and nonjudgmentalism, and concluded by urging the editors to exclude that ad from OSV (“Please do not run that ad again”). Then, after more protests from offended readers, Our Sunday Visitor Inc. blinked, retreated, and banned both ads, plus 14 other NOR ads, from OSV and all its sister periodicals. A total of 17 different ads banned! It’s a sad story, one I had not intended ever to bring up in print, but which, given the book under review here, is just too conspicuously part of a pattern to remain silent about (my decision to air the matter was confirmed by a wise, disinterested party with whom I consulted).

Other cases in point could be cited, but enough. The lesson is that OSV Inc.’s involvement in the search for Common Ground (and its book of that title has been in preparation for several years) is not enabling it to transcend the civil war in the Church, which sometimes seems to be its desire. Cardinal Law called Common Ground a “deception,” and to fall for it is to start choosing sides, the side you may not have wanted to choose, namely the wrong side. Anglicans claimed their via media was common ground for both Catholics and Protestants, but it was only a stalking horse for Protestantism. Likewise, today’s Catholic Common Grounders promote their via media as a way of healing a divided Church, but it’s only dissent in subtle disguise.

Jesus didn’t mention any Common Ground. The only ground he recommended building on was solid ground (Mt. 7:24). Eerily, The Search for Common Ground undertaken by OSV Inc. only encourages us Catholics to build on sand, which Jesus sternly warned us against — “and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it fell, and great was its fall” (Mt. 7:27).

While Common Ground is an imaginary thing, there are at least two types of common ground in the Church — that which the orthodox share with one another, which is rock-solid ground, and that which the dissenters occupy, which is actually groundless, for it’s merely shifting sand.

Between these two types of common ground one must choose. So, on second thought, the ad-copy writer who said this book is “ground-breaking” spoke accurately, perceptively, even brilliantly. (No, don’t pack him off to Bonehead English. Give him a Pulitzer Prize!) For when orthodox Catholics move toward Bernardin-style Common Ground, they will sooner or later find themselves breaking their common ground with their orthodox brethren, which is the only common ground worth having. Let’s hope that OSV Inc. will cease this “ground-breaking.”

Let’s also hope OSV Inc. will cease its complicity with the kind of “ground-breaking” represented by this book, for we Catholics, whether young or old or middle-aged, don’t need to “break ground” for any reconstruction of the Church in the new century — besides, we’d only be breaking sand, an easy but pointless project. After all, the stone the builders rejected (1 Pet. 2:4-7) was long ago laid as the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-20), and the Household of God already stands on solid ground. To be sure, that cornerstone is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8) to many, yea, to many who are studied by social scientists, but it’s a stone, a rock, that cannot be broken. Likewise, the edifice of orthodoxy is offensive to many (“intolerant!” they cry), but it will endure, weathering any storm.

Message to Our Sunday Visitor Inc.: Take heart!



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