CHICAGO -- The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is in a "time of peril," according to a document that calls on the church to heal its deep divisions.
The paper -- "Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril" -- was released yesterday by a group led by Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who announced plans for a Chicago conference next year to find common ground on crucial issues. Bernardin and others who released the document called for other Catholics to join them.
Some of the divisions within the church mentioned in the document are the role of women in the church, human sexuality and other areas of morality, the role of the church in politics, the morale of priests and the relationship between the pope and American church leaders.
At a news conference yesterday, the cardinal said, "I have been troubled that an increasing polarization within the church and, at times, a mean-spiritedness have hindered the kind of dialogue that helps us address our mission as a church and our concerns as a church.
"As a result, the unity of the church is threatened the faithful members of the church are weary and our witness to government, society and culture is compromised."
Bernardin, one of America's most prominent Catholic leaders, has headed the Chicago Archdiocese since 1983.
The group includes seven bishops, a number of priests and nuns, and several lay Catholics, including former Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania and John Sweeney, the new president of the AFL-CIO. Casey did not return a request for comment yesterday.
There are 60 million Catholics in the United States, and polls show that many disagree with official church teachings on such things as artificial birth control, the ordination of women and whether priests should be allowed to marry.
"It is a bold and welcome initiative," said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
"He's been dedicated to uniting the church, and he rightly recognizes that the church today is divided on fundamental issues."
Just how fractious the debate over such issues has become was evident in reactions yesterday to Bernardin's announcement.
"The cardinal seems to be abdicating the teaching and ruling authority he has for the sake of some ethereal dialogue," said Paul Likoudis, news editor of the Wanderer, a conservative Catholic publication based in St. Paul, Minn.
"It's time for sanctions [against those who dissent], not dialogue."
One group that has received sanctions is Call to Action, a liberal organization that advocates the ordination of women, among other causes, and saw several of its members threatened with excommunication by a bishop in Lincoln, Neb., earlier this year.
The group's co-director, Dan Daley, said Bernardin's announcement "creates a climate for listening more carefully to different perspectives. If we can turn down the heat and increase the light, then hearts and minds can change."
Still, he said, he did not think that a conference would go far enough in addressing his organization's concerns.
The cardinal was careful not to take a stand on any of the issues that the paper suggested for discussion, but he has made clear he follows church teaching and has never publicly disagreed with the Vatican on doctrine.
The initiative is necessary, Notre Dame's Appleby said, and reflects the prelate's reputation as a conciliator within the church. He said there is much in common for Catholics to gather around, especially their shared belief that the church was directly founded by Jesus Christ and the unity that comes in receiving communion.
Still, Bernardin's call for dialogue is at odds with an increasingly conservative Vatican that has expressed little interest in listening to dissenting voices.
"He's spending some personal capital that he has built up over his career," Appleby said of the 68-year-old cardinal.
"He's making a stand, not in defiance of Rome, but he is exercising his prerogative as bishop of Chicago to create room for discussion."
Pub Date: 8/13/96