Sed Contra: No Quick Fixes

Deal W. Hudson
April 1, 1997

It was kind of Commonweal to invite me to a discussion of the Common Ground Project. We gathered at Fordham’s Law School, representing a wide spectrum of Catholic opinion—the editors of Crisis, America, National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, and National Catholic Register. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to address our differences on doctrine and dissent. But despite the energetic direction of Peter Steinfels from the New York Times, and a very hospitable atmosphere, the result was disappointing.

I argued that the Common Ground Project lacks collegial support, contains questionable assumptions about Christ and the Church, misunderstands dialogue, divorces doctrine from pastoral ministry, and very likely will cause further doctrinal confusion in our parishes. I concluded by repeating the recent statement made to Crisis, by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, the new director of the project, that the topics of women priests, the right to homosexual activity, and abortion would not be discussed as part of the project.

The supporters of Common Ground appeared stunned by the news that these dissenting issues were officially off the table. (Lipscomb later commented that although the Church’s teaching was clear on these issues they were likely to come up in the discussion.)

Notre Dame’s Scott Appleby, the day’s keynote speaker, suggested that the ever-widening distance between Church doctrine and its “pastoral” ministry was the key issue. I had argued it was not acceptable to encourage a pastoral ministry that was not first and foremost informed by Church teaching. The documents of Vatican II clearly attest to this priority, despite its interpretation by those who would use that distinction as a cover for ignoring doctrine.

Appleby wondered out loud if most Catholics today know what it means to belong to a Church with an authoritative dogma. This emphasis on pastoral ministry, he suggested, has completely replaced an awareness of doctrinal matters. Unfortunately, the meeting was called to an end at that very moment.

The shadow of Vatican II was cast over the entire discussion. Tom Fox of the Reporter, in particular, seemed surprised by my assertion that Vatican II had little to do with my reasons for being Catholic. He spoke about the importance of his experience, about Vietnam, and his compassion for those who are in pain and marginalized. Given the opportunity, I would have suggested to him that Crisis readers attest to the experience of pain and marginalization in the Church in the letters I receive daily.

The doctrinal issue is not who is in pain; that is a matter of mercy. The issue is: Who is trying faithfully to follow the teachings of the Church and who is trying to overthrow them? My friend Joop Koopman of the National Catholic Register spoke eloquently of his paper’s commitment to “radical centrism” and to the “vital center.” We all know the Register to be a reliable and accurate guide to Catholic teaching, but I wonder if this strategy for defending orthodoxy is adequate to the situation we face today.

If by “centrism” Koopman means finding the truth of the Catholic faith between the extremes, then he is making the same mistake as Common Ground. If he means, which I think he does, some kind of spiritual abandonment to the heart of Christ and his Church, then the word “centrism” doesn’t belong in a doctrinal discussion. It is like saying that all Christians need to do is focus on Christ, ignore the debates between “left and right,” and the Gospel will be let loose to transform the culture. It doesn’t work out that way.

The Common Ground document itself claims it is useful to separate our personal experience of Christ from the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Two things happen when Christ gets detached from his Church. First, the so-called personal experience of him usually ends us sounding much like the prevailing ideologies of the day—feminism, multiculturalism, psychologism, etc. Second, the political relevance of the Gospels passes into the culture without the scrutiny of the doctrinally informed conscience. We don’t end up with more Jesus, but with less.

There are no quick spiritual fixes for the problems of being Christian in the public sphere. The work is hard, there is no avoiding wrestling with the human sciences like economics, ethics, and psychology. How many times do we have to say it? This is precisely what the Catholic tradition has embraced over the centuries—the integration of God’s revelation with the world’s wisdom for the sake of the common good. For Christians working in the world, there is no pure center, no escape from the need for Christian intelligence, no escape from the demands of prudence.

I spoke candidly to an audience obviously committed to a different purpose than ours at Crisis. True civility, hospitality, and sympathetic listening were evident throughout. If only next time we could start where we left off.

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