The Consummate Conciliar Cardinal
JOSEPH BERNARDIN was the very embodiment of Vatican II. Just as we can best understand spirituality as it is lived by a saint, anyone exercising leadership in the Church need only look to Cardinal Bernardin's life for an authentic interpretation of the Council's fundamental ecclesiology. Commitment to the council was, for him, a matter of structure and style.
Bernardin devoted his energies to the structures of implementing collegial and participative leadership as set down by council: the triennial Synod of Bishops, which was meant to effect a kind of permanent council, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the expression of unity among the bishops of the United States. Literally on his last day, as he lay dying, his aides ensured that he was informed about the progress of his last project, revisions in the “mission and structure” of the conference of bishops. Earlier, as chairman of the special committee of bishops that prepared the pastoral letter on war and peace, he provided a model for the leadership of the U.S. bishops—in which the teaching office of the bishops was enhanced by drawing on the wide range of knowledge and experience to be found among theologians, military and diplomatic experts, and the people of the Church—structuring a moral argument that made demands on personal conscience and public policy. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, he oversaw a planning process that was necessarily complex and arduous because it engaged thousands of people throughout the Church in consideration of the future of ministry and education in the archdiocese.
Cardinal Bernardin's approach was not merely a matter of structure and strategy, it was a characteristic of the very style of the man. By nature he respected all of life and every person, even his accusers and detractors. The patience he demonstrated in trying to forge bonds of unity and positions of integrity among persons and positions that seemed irreconcilably opposed to each other was rooted in that respect for persons and his enduring belief that we have more to gain than to fear from each other. This was what distinguished his approach not as compromise of the truth but as the attainment of a richer understanding of truth. It both challenged us, as individuals, and strengthened us in communion with one another and the Lord. His very quiet manner invited trust and dialogue, assuring us that his ego was not at stake or in the way of pursuing the best course for the Church. His was a curious combination of caution and courage.
Even when he might be entitled to focus entirely on himself—when cancer invaded him or accusations besmeared him—he both confronted the situation as fully and directly as possible and turned the occasion into an opportunity to serve the Body of Christ as well as the body politic. Think just of the last days, when his own struggle with cancer became an opportunity to minister to others similarly afflicted. His final days became an occasion, not for self-pity but for exemplifying and expressing to the U.S. Supreme Court how each person's life, even in the face of death, has meaning and value for the whole human community, which would be tragically ignored by approving physician-assisted suicide. Here he was carrying through in person the consistent ethic of life he had so wisely offered to the Church and nation as a way of understanding both the sacredness of every life and the community of all life.
I came to know Cardinal Bernardin most directly these past four years in discussions about how to improve our ability to understand and address critical pastoral issues by broadening and deepening the dialogue among people who have not been listening to each other because they have been divided into camps. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative and its founding document, “Called to be Catholic” was vintage Bernardin. Stating from commitment to Christ and the teaching of the Church and accountable to both the boundaries of authentic teaching and respect for differences, the initiative is, in the title of the Cardinal's last public address, both “faithful and hopeful.” Here again the cardinal was consistently conciliar, bringing together people of diverse views and positions to contribute to the ongoing search for ways to enhance the community and mission of the Church. This was no settling for any lowest common denominator, but the pursuit of the richest possible understanding that emerges when sincere people respectfully unite in careful dialogue. It is no wonder that Cardinal Roger Mahony has described the project as the last and fitting legacy of Cardinal Bernardin to the Church. I was deeply saddened when Cardinal Bernardin told me on Aug. 29, the 55th anniversary of my own father's death, that the cancer had returned and there was little time left. From the beginning he has made clear provisions that the initiative not depend on him, and he has assured continuity with the agreement of Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb to succeed him as chair. It will go forward as one modest and conscientious effort to search out ways for the Body of Christ to carry out the mission of Christ more effectively in our time and culture.
Ultimately his conciliar manner was more than a matter of structure and style, it was a theology that had become a spirituality for Cardinal Bernardin. The new understanding of the Church as expressed in the documents of Vatican II is inevitably replete with ambiguity, compromise and incompleteness that often makes agreements on authentic and orthodox interpretation difficult. When this is true we can do no better than to consult the life of one who embodied this ecclesiology.
Msgr. Philip Murnion is director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York.
A Final Plea for Life; Letter to the Supreme Court
Dear Honorable Justices:
I am at the end of my earthly life. There is much that I have contemplated these last few months of my illness, but as one who is dying I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life. I know from my own experience that patients often face difficult and deeply personal decisions about their care. However, I also know that even a person who decides to forego treatment does not necessarily choose death. Rather, he chooses life without the burden of disproportionate medical intervention.
In this case, the Court faces one of the most important issues of our times. Physician-assisted suicide is decidedly a public matter. It is not simply a decision made between patient and physician. Because life affects every person, it is of primary public concern.
I have often remarked that I admire the writings of the late Father John Courtney Murray, who argued that an issue was related to public policy if it affected the public order of society. And public order, in turn, encompassed three goods: public peace, the essential protection of human rights and commonly accepted standards of moral behavior in a community.
Our legal and ethical tradition has held consistently that suicide, assisted-suicide, and euthanasia are wrong because they involve a direct attack on innocent human life. And it is a matter of public policy because it involves a violation of a fundamental human good.
There can be no such thing as a “right to assisted-suicide” because there can be no legal and moral order which tolerates the killing of innocent human life, even if the agent of death is selfadministered. Creating a new “right” to assisted-suicide will endanger society and send a false signal that a less than “perfect” life is not worth living.
Physician-assisted suicide also directly affects the physician patient relationship and, through that, the wider role of physicians in our society. As has been noted by others, it introduces a deep ambiguity into the very definition of medical care, if care comes to involve killing. Beyond the physician, a move to assisted-suicide and, perhaps beyond that, to euthanasia creates social ambiguity about the law. In civilized society the law exists to protect life. When it begins to legitimate the taking of life as a policy, one has a right to ask what lies ahead for our life together as a society.
In order to protect patients from abuse, and to protect society from a dangerous erosion in its commitment to preserving human life, I urge the Court not to create any right to assisted suicide.
With cordial good wishes, I remain
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
Archbishop of Chicago (Nov. 7)
- November 24, 1996