From the Excelsis File – November 1996
Praise stretched itself to it’s limits in the obsequies of Joseph Cardinal Berdardin. Newspaper after newspaper was jammed with fulsome raves of the late Archbishop of Chicago, right down to the editorial pages where, curiously, even the usually anti-Catholic wolfpack in the mainstream press mourned like First Communicants. From these odd sources mere words seemed inadequate in the expression of gratitude to this Episcopal giant who bestrode the American Catholic Church for so long. Did they sense here a kind of fellow traveler?
Further, how did he manage to keep his fellow bishops in his thrall for well on thirty years? It is apparent that the Catholic Church in America bears the “Bernardin” imprint. Even casual observes quickly note that Episcopal style of almost every American bishop mimics Bernardin’s cool yet mushy style. Has any other bishop of the century exerted more influence than he? Hardly. Let’s inspect the record.
By the late 1960’s this youngest consecrated bishop of the American hierarchy (36 years old) had deeply imbibed the spirit of the Second Vatican Council’s theological experts, the so-called periti. What was this spirit? Mostly it was talk. Lot’s of it. They called it dialogue. Endless dialogue.
His first task was immediately to reconfigure the corporate agency of the American bishops, dividing it between the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. Both would embody the new periti spirit. Gone was the old authoritarian model. Gone, too, the certitude. In its place, the Conciliar periti modus demanded a ceaseless breezy style that engendered mounting questions and confusion. Certitude did exist, of course, but only theoretically.
With his fetching “I am Joseph, your brother” Bernardin tutored his fellow bishops in an informal leadership hitherto unknown to that high Apostolic office. Cleverly, he recast gravitas as pretense – have you tried kissing a Cardinal’s ring lately? – and reserve as insouciance. This became the operative principle for everything in the NCCB, from pastoral letters to the reformation of the liturgy. He wielded a powerful veto on any episcopabili who did not meet the strict “pastoral” criterion.
Midway through his ecclesiastical tenure, the Cardinal joined major figures of the American hierarchy in sponsoring the pernicious Call to Action. This assembly of dissenters was the culmination of his beloved dialogic process. Call to Action boldly proclaimed an “empowered” laity to announce a renewed conversation on such issues as priestly celibacy, divorce and remarriage, and contraception. Of course, such as this caused alarums in the halls of the Vatican, but he charmed them. He told them these were simply growing pains. They backed down. But there was still more to come.
When the Cardinal promulgated his “Seamless Garment” doctrine, the applause was deafening. He managed to stitch together all the pressing issues of liberal justice – nuclear weapons, the homeless, capital punishment, the aged – together with the problem of abortion. Crude preoccupation with abortion would now seem atavistic against this noble sweep of “life-issues.” The chattering elites called him a genius, and abortion assumed its relative place amongst other breaches of justice. No longer was abortion such an eyesore for striving Catholics.
To say such accomplishments are impressive means simply that they made a deep impression. The Church in America is surely the Church that Bernardin built. But to say his accomplishments deserve praise is quite another matter. That judgment presupposes an agenda very different from the classical Catholic one. We can say with certainty and with no fear of dishonoring the dead, that all he did to the Catholic Church in America is something for which he must now render account before Divine Justice. Requiescat in pacem. And may God help him.