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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 9-14

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What Is the Role of Catholics in the Public Arena? An Introduction

Sr. Catherine Patten

When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago founded the Catholic Common Ground Initiative in August 1996, he also released a statement, Called to Be Catholic. It decried "the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership" and challenged American Catholics to "reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively--a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation."

Since then, the Initiative has developed programs to support that vision. One of them is an annual conference, a weekend meeting that gathers Catholics with conflicting views on an issue to speak directly to each other.

The Fourth Annual Cardinal Bernardin Conference in March 2000 proposed a twofold question: What is the role of Catholics in the public arena? What are the opportunities, obstacles, and obligations for the church's mission of evangelization in the contemporary United States culture? The Initiative then asked Michael J. Baxter, [End Page 9] C.S.C., David Hollenbach, S.J., Michael Novak, and David Schindler to jumpstart the dialogue at the conference by writing papers with their personal responses to the question. The authors also were asked to begin with a specific example and then to develop the presuppositions and assumptions underlying that example. These are the first four papers printed here. The fifth, by Philip Gleason, provides a historical perspective as it examines the changing experience of Catholics in twentieth-century America.

The conference proposal further specified a primary focus on lay Catholic involvement in the economic world as workers, managers, owners, and consumers, taking into consideration the political and cultural forces that impinge upon and result from the economic system. Only secondarily did it take into account Catholic institutions or the role of the church itself in the public order.

Michael Baxter begins by examining the plight of his students at a Notre Dame job fair and the life choices they are making. He laments the cultural assumptions about the good life that draw them toward corporate careers promising material prosperity and away from "rigorous discipleship." And he ponders his own difficulty as a teacher trying to present such choices to middle- and upper-middle-class, assimilated Catholic students. He prefers a radical discipleship--being poor with the poor, working on their behalf, and critiquing unjust structures in the light of the gospel. Dorothy Day provides a model for him.

Baxter also acknowledges that the indebtedness of many recent graduates limits their freedom to choose an alternative lifestyle, for example, with a Catholic Worker community. And so, tongue in cheek, he suggested at the conference that Notre Dame University might celebrate the Jubilee by forgiving the debts of its graduating seniors!

Although Baxter and David Schindler in some ways represent the two extremes in the discussion, they agree on one point. Both believe that the "liberal" acceptance of a dichotomy between the [End Page 10] sacred and a neutral secular order is false and harmful. Schindler argues that the human person is, before all else, drawn by a loving God into communion with the Trinity. The love of family members for one another is the human experience closest to divine communion. As his example of such familial love in action, Schindler offers the careful and attentive preparation of a meal. This fundamental relationship of love is to be extended into all other social, cultural, political, and economic activities. The Christian, therefore, must cultivate the contemplative virtues of receptivity, patience, and attentiveness.

Schindler criticizes American utilitarianism that evaluates activities and things in terms of their usefulness. Such a view begs the question of the nature of the thing in itself. So, for example, the Internet, which simultaneously compresses and extends space and time, is not "good" or "bad" primarily in terms of what it is used for (pornography...


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