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Pope Francis breathes new life into Cardinal Bernardin’s contested legacy

(1983) Pope John Paul II places a red biretta on the head of Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago as he was elevated to cardinal during a Feb. 2 consistory at the Vatican. Cardinal Bernardin was one of 18 new cardinals invested at the service. Religion News Service file photo
(1983) Pope John Paul II places a red biretta on the head of Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago as he was elevated to cardinal during a Feb. 2 consistory at the Vatican. Cardinal Bernardin was one of 18 new cardinals invested at the service. Religion News Service file photo

Pope John Paul II places a red biretta on the head of Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago as he was elevated to cardinal during a Feb. 2, 1983, consistory at the Vatican. Bernardin was one of 18 new cardinals invested at the service. Religion News Service file photo

(RNS) The election of Pope Francis in March heralded a season of surprises for the Catholic Church, but perhaps none so unexpected – and unsettling for conservatives – as the re-emergence of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model for the American Catholic future.

While there is no indication that Francis knows the writings of Bernardin, who died in 1996, many say the pope’s remarks repeatedly evoke Bernardin’s signature teachings on the “consistent ethic of life” – the view that church doctrine champions the poor and vulnerable from womb to tomb – and on finding “common ground” to heal divisions in the church.

Ironically, the re-emergence of Bernardin — a man who was admired by a young Chicago organizer named Barack Obama — is exposing the very rifts he sought to bridge, especially among conservatives who thought his broad view of Catholicism was buried with him in Mount Carmel Cemetery outside Chicago.

Francis, for example, repeatedly stresses economic justice and care for the poor as priorities for Catholics, and he warned that the church has become “obsessed” with a few issues, such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and needs a “new balance.”

The new pope has also sought to steer the hierarchy away from conservative politics and toward a broad-based view of Catholicism “that is not just top-down but also horizontal” — focused on dialogue in the church and with the wider world.

“The point that (Bernardin’s) consistent ethic makes is exactly the same point that Pope Francis is making – let’s look at the whole picture and not just focus almost exclusively on three or so issues,” said Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., who had been close friends with Bernardin since the 1970s.

“I certainly think that if Cardinal Bernardin were alive he would be very pleased with what Pope Francis is saying and doing,” echoed Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, retired archbishop of Galveston-Houston, whose 1998-2001 term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was seen as one of the last in the mold of Bernardin.

“The consistent ethic of life theory that Bernardin proposed is getting a second look,” Fiorenza said.

Several other bishops, church officials and observers agreed. But if those assessments are manna to Catholics hungry for a new direction in the church, they are anathema to conservatives who believe Bernardin epitomized everything that was wrong with the U.S. church before Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI pushed the hierarchy to the right.

“The Bernardin Era is over and the Bernardin Machine is no more,” the conservative writer George Weigel wrote in the journal First Things in a 2011 essay that trumpeted the end of a time “in which a liberal consensus dominated both the internal life of the Church and the Church’s address to public policy.”

The fact that Weigel and others would still be driving a stake through the heart of Bernardin’s legacy – as Peter Steinfels put it in a rejoinder in Commonweal magazine – 15 years after his death is a testimony to the stature Bernardin once had, and the angst he can still inspire.

In fact, a generation ago, Bernardin was viewed as the quintessential American churchman – a longtime president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and then its resident wise man, coaxing the hierarchy into approving landmark documents on war and poverty that shaped the public debate on faith in America.

Yet the “John Paul II bishops” who came to power in the 1980s and beyond saw Bernardin’s style and views as too accommodating, and too reluctant to mount the barricades on behalf of a more assertive Catholic identity marked by a few hallmark issues rather than a spectrum of teachings.

In the end, the cardinal who championed consultation and reconciliation was unceremoniously pushed aside by many of his own colleagues. In 1996, as he approached the end of a poignant battle with pancreatic cancer, Bernardin launched the “Common Ground Initiative” as a final effort to try to end the growing polarization in the church.

But in rare public rebukes against one of their own, churchmen such as Cardinal Bernard Law, then of Boston, questioned Bernardin’s project in ways that are strikingly similar to the criticism Francis has faced from conservatives.

Now, however, Francis is pope, and that gives Bernardin’s acolytes some measure of hope. But the real question is whether the U.S. hierarchy is too far removed from the Bernardin era for it to make a difference.

(1982) The Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk (right) succeeded Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin (left), who became archbishop of Chicago in July 1982. Religion New Service file photo

(1982) The Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk (right) succeeded Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin (left), who became archbishop of Chicago in July 1982. Religion New Service file photo

In 2010, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., a Chicago priest who had served under Bernardin, was in line to be elected president of the USCCB when conservatives engineered the election of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan instead, a maneuver seen as the definitive end of Bernardin’s influence.

“While there are still those in the conference who might like to return to the Old Ways (of Bernardin), the pope isn’t interested in that and neither, in my judgment, are a critical mass of the bishops,” Weigel wrote in an email.

While Weigel sees few similarities between Francis and Bernardin, many others see a broad overlap, and they say that Francis is leading by example, whether the American churchmen see Bernardin’s shadow or not. They also say that Bernardin’s approach is needed more than ever as the hierarchy has strained to speak with one voice on crucial issues.

“I think the conference has missed the skills of Cardinal Bernardin,” said Sheehan.

The same could be said for Catholics in general, said Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings, Mont., current chair of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which has struggled to remain viable in the years since Bernardin died.

“I find it ironic that it’s almost easier for Christians to talk to Jews or Muslims than it is for some Catholics to talk to each other,” Warfel said. He added that, like Bernardin, Francis “is really providing a witness to a way of leading. … He doesn’t just want to have window-dressing dialogue.”

The Rev. Thomas Nairn, a leading Catholic ethicist who has edited two books on Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, also notes that despite attacks on Bernardin himself, the principles that he preached remain embedded in Catholic discourse.

Papal encyclicals and documents from the U.S. bishops, such as their election-year guide for Catholic voters, reflect Bernardin’s “seamless garment” ethic that decries the death penalty as well as abortion and poverty. Bernardin’s ideas are central to the DNA of the Catholic health care system, and ethicists and moral theologians invoke his ideas, even if the younger generation prefers to associate them with John Paul or Benedict.

“Cardinal Bernardin always talked about the consistent ethic as both a principle and an attitude,” Nairn said. What is new, he said, is that Francis “has returned not only to the principle of the consistent ethic of life but he has also returned to Cardinal Bernardin’s tone.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • One of the sad chapters in the past 30 years was when Cardinals O’Connor, Hickey and Law publicly discredited Cardinal Bernadin and the Common Ground initiative. Invoking Bernadin is “spot on” David. Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, who served as President of the USCCB in the early 90’s, embraced the consistent ethic of life and was a friend of the Cardinals. Pilla played a crucial role in President George W. Bush’s support for the refundable child credit, which lifted 500,000 children out of poverty. John Carr recognized this as one of the greatest accomplishments of the USCCB.

  • To have an ‘ethic of life’ you first have to have life.

    Bernardin was a disaster. It is not fair to compare P. Francis to him.

  • Magdalene writes: “To have an ‘ethic of life’ you first have to have life.”

    If the US Catholic hierarchy actually cared about the poor and cared about life after the womb, they would not have opposed the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” which the actual deliverers of care, the religious orders of nuns, supported. Instead, the hierarchy, right-wing supporters of the Republican party, preferred to allow the poor to go without adequate medical care (and pre-natal care) and in many cases to die prematurely as a result. The voices of the hierarchy were silent during the government shutdown which affected the delivery of nutrition and health care for many including the poor and aged. The old Papal encyclicals defended the quality of life after the womb even insisting on a living family wage that would allow workers to live in indignity. The true Catholic understanding of life goes beyond mere existence and considers the quality of life, even the non-material qualities such as dignity.

    As a result of the nun’s testifying on behalf of the Affordable Care Act, the bullying male hierarchy demanded their silence even on issues of prudential social policy. The only notable accomplishment of the present hierarchs has been their continuing protection of child sexual abusers in their midst.

  • Magdalene- you must be from outside of Chicago, since only people outside of here would think of Cardinal Bernardin as a disaster. The majority here still mourn his loss- of both his life and his incredible teachings that are trying to be killed

  • I’m from Chicago the Archdiocese is in schambles. I don’t miss Bernardin and only feel sadness for Cardinal George who inheritated his mess. If the Chicago gay men’s choir sings at your funeral and the masons induct you postmortem…enjoy your seemless garment.

  • What’s adding new life to liberal spins on the Catholic Church’s teachings isn’t Pope Francis, it’s a new deluge of misinformation about what the current pope said. (This has been going on since Vatican II.)

  • “I find it ironic that it’s almost easier for Christians to talk to Jews or Muslims than it is for some Catholics to talk to each other” Sadly, some of the comments above show this to be true.

  • There are a number of testimonies which were brought up about Cardinal Bernardin being an active homosexual who abused many priests an seminarists.
    Are they hearsays, slanders or confirmed facts?
    For example, Mr Stephen Brady has a thick file on him and many other gay clerics among his acquaintances.
    He is so quoted in Mrs Randy Engel’s book “The rite of sodomy” and that of Michael Rose “Good bye good men”

  • The Archdiocese was much healthier under Bernadin that it has been under George. I remember when Cdl Bernadin spoke, he had no trouble getting a microphone and someone from the news media. Cdl George pretty much has to say something inflammatory to get anyone to pay any attention to him.

  • They were slanders. The one time a serious accusation was brought against Bernardin, the accuser admitted that his accusation was false and begged Bernardin’s forgiveness for lying about him.

    I would suggest that is not a good witness in this matter. To expect (now, happily, out of business — any website which praises Malachi Martin deserves to be put down) to tell the truth about Bernardin would be like expecting Ann Coulter to start telling the truth about those on her political left.

  • The real mess was caused by Bernardin’s predecessor, Cardinal Cody. Cody died just before he was to be indicted for embezzlement. ($1 million was known to be missing from diocesan funds.) Cody was, of course, a staunch conservative.

  • I have to agree. The so-called Consistent Life Ethic/Seamless Garment was a horrifying development. It directly contradicted the teachings of both Augustine and Aquinas as well as the traditions and history of the Church. It seemed wholly constructed to simply provide political cover to pro-abortion liberals.

    But then again, Bernardin was always more of a Leftist political activist than sincere and faithful Catholic clergy. It was a job well-done when JP II and Pope Benedict rejected the CLE.

  • As recent events have proved, the ACA is ultimately going to result in fewer people with health insurance and less available health care.

    It was a disgrace for clergy or religious to lobby in support of that abomination.

  • Dear God, I am so bloody sick & tired of whining, weeping right wing catholic whackos. JPII that grinning politician and Benedict the Rotweiller, Yes indeed, just what we need more of. Thank God we have a pope from South America who knows what it is to watch his country and the rest of Latin America kowtow to the good ol’ fascist USof A both politically and religiously. It’s great fun listening to all the whining apologists on so-called catholic radioio explaining what Francis “really”meant when he spoke. Well, if we still believe that the Holy Spirit has a name in picking the person for the job then I’d suggest that Francis meant exactly what he said and this country and its so-called catholic church better get use to it. It’s a new day gentlemen and ladies and the high drag ecclesiastical carnival with Benedict spending a fortune on his costumes is over. Spellman and Hoover are gone and soon so will Benedict go to his judgement. If any could match the US for persecuting the people of Latin America it would be Benedict.

  • Everyone is on Coulter’s political left!

    Yes I agree… the only serious allegation was retracted on the man’s deathbed as he begged forgiveness from Cardinal Bernardin… It was a memorable act of forgiveness on the cardinal’s part…

  • IIRC the allegations collapsed when the dates of the alleged activities failed to make sense logically. Cardinal Bernardin said a mass to support Mr. Brady’s spiritual and physical health.

  • Sorry, my comment was in error with respect to the name of the accuser. Mr. Stephen Cook was the seminarian who claimed that Cardinal Bernardin (then in Cincinnati) abused his position of authority.

  • Three months after Cardinal Bernardin’s death- I had a dream. I had not even been thinking about him. it seemed more than a dream. please don’t laugh. This was something unsought. In this dream Cardinal Bernardin said he was going tom perform two miracles. he was going to cure an old man and an infant. he said that he was going to be known as the ” patron saint of the falsely Accused” Now I was NOT looking to be the news bearer of this. I honestly did not know what to do because this was more than a dream. I feel that I failed the poor man. I tried to find out if Bernardin was canonized or if a petition had been started on his behalf. now I have to let you know that I was not and am not a fanatical catholic. I was NOT a regular church goer so this dream unnerved me and I just know that no one would believe me. But has there been a petition started to canonize him? He showed a great deal of compassion for the man who accused him of abuse,.

  • The black and white generalizations of this article are not “news.” It’s a slanted, biased opinion that leaves out large parts of the picture and ultimately divides. Considering Francis and Bernadin in the contrived “conservative v liberal” paradigm is so superficial and adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. This is a hack piece.

  • Has anyone done research on the Chicago Boys’ Club? One of the detectives is still alive if you want the goods on Bernardin. Andrew Greeley knew the shenanigans that went on when priests died in strikingly similar circumstances and Bernardin tried to muscle the cops out of finding out too much. Strange that the woman involved with one of the priests died suddenly too. I wonder does Himself in Rome know about this. I sure hope so.