National Catholic Register


The Cardinal



November 24, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/24/96 at 1:00 PM


Much sooner than anyone expected, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has died. His legacy will undoubtedly be the subject of lively debate for years to come. Even as he lay dying, he inspired contradictory sentiments, admiration and love, as well as bitterness. What was the nature of the cardinal's genius? What about his less successful policies and efforts?

The Register is hardly in a position to make these judgments. In fairness, it must be acknowledged that, especially in the 80s, the archbishop of Chicago was a target of frequent criticism in these pages. Other publications were even more caustic in their attacks. Many conservative commentators were eager to take a crack at the man they considered the prime architect of the bishops' conference and, therefore, the man responsible for many of the policy statements and pastoral initiatives that they felt were inappropriate or even harmful for the Church's mission.

Most notably there was the U.S. bishops' 1983 letter on war and peace, with its call for unilateral moves toward disarmament. Reagan, critics now say, proved the effort wrong; by being tough and investing in a huge military build-up, he eventually brought the Soviet Union to its knees. Nevertheless, Cardinal Bernardin was behind the comprehensive consultation process that went into the making of the pastoral, an approach that would profoundly mark the bishops' future endeavors, such as the 1986 letter, “Economic Justice for All” and many other pastoral documents.

The cardinal had a gift of enlisting people in joint projects, of moving toward compromise and, up to a point, a reconciliation of differing visions and wants. That, one could argue, is a peculiarly American genius, one eminently suited for U.S.-style democracy. Obviously, it doesn't always fit the workings of the hierarchical structure that is the Church, a body, after all, that was founded by a single Person and is governed by a single leader, the bishop of Rome. Still, in his commitment to collegiality, the cardinal brought a definite dynamism to the workings of the institution, an energy that, no doubt, will be a lasting legacy.

For many, the cardinal is associated with the so-called “seamless garment” theory, the unfortunate genesis of which term he explained in a Register interview last summer. He spoke too quickly at the time, he said, later preferring instead to describe his position as a “consistent ethic of life,” a vision, he felt, that was affirmed by the Pope in Evangelium Vitae. At one of his final public appearances, Sept. 9 at Georgetown University, he again stressed that abortion, assisted-suicide/euthanasia and capital punishment are related as life issues. But that doesn't mean that there is a moral equivalency between abortion and the death penalty, as many of the cardinal's detractors continue to insist he meant. Sad to say, he will be remembered by some as a Church leader who wasn't strong enough on the abortion issue.

Perhaps his gift for encouraging dialogue—now enshrined in the Common Ground project—had an unintended downside. Catholics basically at peace with Church authority and teaching felt less attracted to or, perhaps, welcomed in, the cardinal's characteristic consultative approach. Cardinal Bernardin was a consummate modern Churchman and his ways weren't for everybody. Their merit, however, is undeniable: He wanted not to cut off, but to include, as much as possible, those whose lives and views are in tension with traditional Catholicism. This approach often left conservative Catholics feeling angry and that is unfortunate. However, that should not diminish the life and work of a formidable Church leader. In his Register interview, Cardinal Bernardin put it thus: “I don't feel the need to explain. I have a long record of 30 years.… My record is open and I have nothing to apologize for. Have I made some mistakes in some judgments? Yes … but I think the record will show that that I're tried to be a faithful servant.” May he rest in peace.