COMMENTARY: Pope dons Bernardin’s seamless garment

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of”My Brother Joseph,”published by St. Martin’s Press.)

UNDATED _ What the weary Pope John Paul II said so dynamically on his recent pilgrimage to this hemisphere will be remembered long after the last trash from the attendant spectacle has been recycled.

The frailest looking man midst the prelates and presidents turned out to possess the greatest strength. The pope radiated the enormous spiritual authority not only of his office but of his own battered but faithful person. In scandal-sated America, it was like bathing in the sunlit Jordan of Jesus’s baptism after trailing for months through the sewers of Les Miserables.

John Paul’s visit resembled what film distributors call an”event movie,”an opening of a blockbuster that transcends the ordinary premiere because of its star, special effects, and big crowds trying to get in.

The pope, however, emerges less as a star than a prophet, the impact of whose preaching will be greater than the excitement of the gathering. His remarks were nothing less than revolutionary about the application of Catholic faith to everyday life.”And so, America,”he said, making his own a famous phrase of his predecessor, Paul VI,”if you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace truth _ truth revealed by God.” In short, religion is not merely for the Sabbath or for our own devotional soothing. Neither can it be professed as a passport to salvation. Faith demands we take such roles as we can in the drama of our times. John Paul II identified that explicitly as standing up for life wherever it is at risk in what he termed a”culture of death.” The pope not only recalled the great themes of Paul VI but employed, as the foundation for his own argument, the moral linkage of pro-life issues presented first by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in an address at Fordham University a dozen years ago.

John Paul unambiguously connected the principal pro-life position against abortion and other problematic questions, including the death penalty, poverty, racism, sickness, hunger and even the environment.”The gospel of God’s love for man,”John Paul II argued,”the gospel of the dignity of the person and the gospel of life are a single and indivisible gospel.” In 1987, Bernardin, then chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life committee, was roundly criticized by extremely conservative groups for proposing that pro-life issues are members of the same moral family and their relationship with each other could not be denied. He grouped them naturally together in what he termed the”consistent ethic of life.” Others called this the”Seamless Garment,”a term Bernardin never used because the metaphor seemed to make all pro-life issues equal. The late archbishop felt, for example, that while such issues as infant nutrition deserve the support of Catholics, they did not possess the same powerful moral valence that opposing abortion does.

The pope’s affirmation of the consistent ethic theme _ Catholics are called in conscience to support all pro-life questions _ defines Catholicism as a faith for those who wish to embrace rather than flee the world.

Catholics cannot plead a faith in private but must be counted in public on the moral content of the great human conflicts of the day.

John Paul has thereby done something with great implications within American Catholicism. He has completely disarmed those extreme critics of Bernardin who have, even after his death, derided his”consistent ethic of life”as”soft on abortion.” By employing Bernardin’s own moral reasoning about the integral quality of pro-life morality, the pope has signaled that, over two years after his death, Bernardin remains the prophetic leader of Catholicism in America.

Although he did not mention his name, the pontiff all but said American Catholics should follow Bernardin’s thoughtful approach to be in harmony with the moral tradition of the church. Nothing would have pleased the late cardinal more than seeing his pro-life vision appropriated by the Holy Father, and his critics will have a hard time spinning their way out of this extraordinary papal validation of his”consistent ethic of life.”


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