Concerned with an ever-intensifying polarization within the church, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made a proposal for something he called Common Ground, an ecclesial space within which persons of very differing ideologies could meet.

Looking at this, it is important to note what he did not propose. He did not, as is often the assumption, recommend centrist ground, but common ground. There is a difference. 

An old axiom reads: In medio stat virtus. Loosely rendered, this says that virtue lies in the middle, between any two extremes. That can be a wise statement. However, that is not exactly the common ground envisaged by Bernardin. Common ground is not some negotiated middle, some acceptable common denominator, between two radical extremes. As Jim Wallis, who is very sympathetic to Bernardin’s proposal, recently put it: “We certainly don’t want to sacrifice prophetic politics for a mushy middle.”

His is an important insight. The common ground that is so badly needed in the church, and in political life in general, is not what is achieved by a skillful negotiator who gets two sides to make the necessary compromises. That would leave us precisely with a mushy middle, mediocrity, the lowest common denominator, ground devoid of prophecy, oatmeal served-up with chamomile tea.

Common ground should not be fantasized as the meltdown of two extremes, the left and the right compromising enough with each other so as to produce a reality salt less enough so that everyone can live with it. The left and the right each bring an important prophecy and real common ground must include the salt of each of them.

Hence common ground is to be achieved not so much on the basis of compromise, but on the basis of each side, right and left, beginning to hear and accept the truth that the other is bringing.

Thus, to offer some examples:

  • Common ground will be found when left takes seriously what the right is saying about personal responsibility and accountability, even as the right takes seriously what the left is saying about communal rights, racism, and gender equality. When the left can meet the business community with enough nuance and admit that government isn’t the answer for everything and the right can see what our present government and business practices are, in fact, doing to the poor, we will be standing on some common ground.
  • Common ground will be found when, in the area of sexuality, the right takes seriously what the left is saying about the place of passion, even as the left takes seriously what the right is saying about central is the role of chastity and purity in the structure of any stable society or personality.
  • Common ground will be found when the left begins to hear what the right has been saying about how important the institutions of marriage and family are to the very foundation of our culture, even as the right begins to admit that heterosexual dysfunction, and not any concession made to a gay or lesbian rights, is at the root of divorce and family breakdown in Western culture.
  • Common ground will be found when the right begins to hear what feminism has been saying about how the present economic and social structure of Western society is, in fact, anti-family and anti-child, even as feminists begin to hear what the right has been saying for a long time, namely, that a woman’s right to choose is not the only moral issue involved in the question of abortion.
  • Common ground will be found when the deconstructionists of hierarchy on the left begin to hear what the right is saying, namely, that the eclipse of hierarchy is not only doing in patriarchy, but also matriarchy as well, and is leaving us at the mercy of a new set of commandments who answer to no God and whose demands that we be significant are infinitely more crippling and dehumanizing than ever were the hierarchical imperatives of the past. But this can only be heard when the right hears more clearly what the deconstructionists of hierarchy are saying, that is, that the world and the church are full of many bad, mostly male, leaders and institutions.
  • Common ground will be found when the right begins to take the place of chaos, creativity, and ambiguity more seriously, even as the left begins to understand how important are stability, order, and clarity. Common ground will make enough place for both creativity and stability.

As a current Sojourners’ slogan puts it: Not from the right, not from the left, but from the Spirit. Common ground is not a mushy middle. It is the ground created by what is carried in prophetically by both the right and the left. Long live Cardinal Bernardin’s vision and spirit!