The Architect of American Catholicism

The Architect of American Catholicism February 5, 1997

As Cardinal Joseph Bernardin entered the Loyola University Cancer Center he found his path blocked by a mass of news crews.

The Chicago cardinal faced surgery for pancreatic cancer and this crisis came on the heels of another media storm, when he was accused of sexual abuse. Thus, America’s best-known Catholic prelate paused for yet another impromptu press conference.

“One of the first questions asked was, `Cardinal, which did you find more difficult or more traumatic – the false accusation or the diagnosis of cancer?’ I immediately said, `The false accusation,'” recalled Bernardin, describing the 1995 scene in a posthumously published memoir. “They asked me to explain, so I told them that the accusation had been the result of evil. It was an attack on my integrity. .But cancer is an illness. It doesn’t involve moral evil.”

Bernardin completed “The Gift of Peace” only two weeks before his death on Nov. 14. It begins with former seminarian Steven Cook’s accusation of sexual abuse. However, Bernardin said he quickly realized that Cook – who has since died of AIDS – wasn’t to blame, because “certain critics of mine” used him as a pawn. In this story, the forces of “moral evil” are represented by Catholic traditionalists out to “get” a progressive cardinal.

While Bernardin did not name names, he included enough details to point reporters toward Father Charles Fiore of Lodi, Wis. The outspoken Dominican priest has publicly acknowledged he was the target of the cardinal’s accusations, while denying that his one conversation with Cook had anything to do with bringing charges against Bernardin.

“Only two people know what Steven Cook and I discussed on Nov. 10, 1993: Steven Cook and I. Cook is dead,” said Fiore, in The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper. The bottom line: Bernardin didn’t like people openly raising questions about his theological beliefs and private life, said Fiore.

Ironically, “The Gift of Peace” offers little evidence of peace among American Catholics. While some hail Bernardin as a great peacemaker; others insist that he chanted, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Conservatives say he built his career on media events in which those who defend centuries of doctrine were pressured to dialogue, and then compromise, with dissidents who reject the Catholic faith.

“Bernardin was the favorite prelate of those who despise the idea of prelacy. He was the hero of those who view the entire Catholic ecclesiastical system as sinister,” said conservative historian James Hitchcock of St. Louis University. “In fact, the more people liked Cardinal Bernardin, and praised his role as a great reconciler, the more likely they were to be critical of traditional Catholic doctrine, the authority of Rome and, especially, the current pope.”

In 1968, Bernardin became the first general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic bishops and later was elected its president. In this era, he built a powerful bureaucracy that traditionalists said resembled the National Council of Churches or a left- wing think tank. Then Bernardin guided the writing of “The Challenge of Peace,” a national pastoral letter that challenged the morality of nuclear weapons and put him on the cover of Time. Shortly after becoming Chicago’s cardinal, he delivered his 1983 “seamless garment” sermon linking abortion with other social issues, such as the death penalty, nuclear war and welfare.

Conservatives were outraged, saying that this offered politicians a theological smoke screen, at the strategic moment when the pro-life movement had its best chance to affect national policies. This wound never healed.

“The real issue between Fiore and the cardinal was abortion,” said Father Andrew Greeley, a controversial writer and sociologist. “Sex abuse was simply something to skewer him on.” In general, conservatives “thought he was not hard line enough on abortion. It was not enough to oppose abortion. You had to do it their way.”

Meanwhile, many progressives say that Bernardin was, at times, too cautious in pushing for change or perhaps too loyal to Rome. This obscures the fact that he changed the very structure of Catholic life in this country, said Hitchcock.

“The key is whether we are Roman Catholics or, as the press now likes to say, ‘American Catholics,'” he said. “Well, Cardinal Bernardin was not the symbolic leader of this so-called American Catholic church. He was its architect.”

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