Catholicism, Conversation, Ethics and Moral Theology, Justice, Social Justice

Apostle of Common Ground: In Memory of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

Today (November 14th) marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), who served as Archbishop of Chicago and president of the US bishops’ conference. In his ministry, Bernardin served the local, national, and universal church with all the energy of a missionary. He faced personal attacks and false accusations against him in a spirit of humility. With his life and ministry cut short by pancreatic cancer, the eminent church leader bravely faced death in a public way that gave hope and comfort to many suffering with cancer.

Despite the continued unfair criticisms waged against him, I believe that Cardinal Bernardin was the most important and visionary cardinal in the history of the American church. Given the continued divisions, polarizations, and problems facing the Catholic Church today, Bernardin offers us an important twofold witness.

The Consistent Ethic of Life

On December 6th, 1983, Bernardin delivered the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University in New York (Go Rams!). The lecture took place shortly after the release of the US Bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response under his leadership of the committee that drafted the controversial document.

In his address Bernardin situated both the Catholic concern for peace and justice, the Catholic opposition to nuclear weapons, and Catholic pro-life concerns in what he called “the consistent ethic of life.” In the talk he describes this ethic as follows:

“Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visable in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality-of-life posture translated into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care.”

Later, Bernardin takes a term “the seamless garment,” coined by the lay peace activist Eileen Eagan to describe this consistent ethic of life position—“from womb to tomb.” The notion of the seamless garment, is taken from John 19:23 in reference to the seamless garment of Jesus.

From this foundation, Bernardin points to contradictions that emerged in the political dialogue of the 1980s—and have only intensified in today’s political climate. In a 1984 address at Georgetown, he explains:

“We face today a curious paradox in our society: some groups assert a positive role for the state on a range of socioeconomic rights but want a neutral state on abortion. Others seemingly see the social role of the state exhausted when the child is born. A compassionate society must be capable of caring for the human person before and after birth. The state has responsibilities both to protect human life and to promote the dignity of each citizen, especially the least among us.”

This issue is illustrated around tax policy and the role of government. While it is fashionable in many circles in the United States to call for a minimal role of government and the elimination of taxes, Catholic social doctrine (as the recent statement by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace illustrates) offers a different perspective. Speaking at Georgetown in September of 1996, Bernardin addresses this point directly:

“Solidarity points towards the neuralgic issue of U.S. politics: taxation. Taxes are one way in which the state facilitates our responsibilities to each other. Tax policy is a secular issue, but it is rooted in moral obligations we have to one another. A fair tax policy, one which obliges each of us to play a role in sustaining the human dignity of all in our society, is a requirement of distributive justice. In Catholic teaching, paying taxes is a virtue. Taxes help us to meet our pre-existing obligations to the poor.”

Catholic Common Ground

A second contribution and legacy of Cardinal Bernardin has been the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.  Troubled by the divisions, name-called and simple lack of charity within the Church, Bernardin made efforts to bring together voices and experiences of a diversity of leaders. After years of informal gatherings with so-called “conservatives” and so-called “progressives,” he led a group in drafting a document in 1996, “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril”, released August 12, 1996. (http://ccgi.ctubeta.com/called-be-catholic). [It is a document well worth reading]

Critiquing the “dynamic of fear and polarization” in the American Church, the document concluded with a call to responsibility:

“It is imperative that the Catholic Church in the United States confront the issues and forces that are shaping the future. For this, we must draw on all the gifts of wisdom and understanding in the church, all the charisms of leadership and communion. Each of us will be tested by encounters with cultures and viewpoints not our own; all of us will be refined in the fires of genuine engagement; and the whole church will be strengthened for its mission in the new millennium.”

Just a few months before his death in August, 1996, Bernardin launched the Catholic Common Ground Project. In October, the cardinal delivered one of his last public addresses at the first meeting of the project.

Since 1996, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative has taken on a number of actions to facilitate dialogue, communion, and a sense of common mission within the church. From its new home at the Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative continues this important work. (www.catholiccommonground.org).

The legacy of Cardinal Bernardin poses three questions for me:

  • What is the state of common ground and dialogue in the American Church today and society more broadly?
  • How do we witness to the consistent ethic of life?
  • What can we do to facilitate common ground in the Church locally, nationally, and globally?

While some may feel that these issues are things of the past, the present political discourse in the lead up to the 2012 election highlights the continued relevance of both the consistent ethic of life and the search for common ground.

I’ll end this brief conclusion with a quote from the end Bernardin’s wonderful reflection, The Gift of Peace, written just thirteen days before his death from pancreatic cancer on November 14th, 1996.

“What I would like to leave behind is a simple prayer that each of you may find what I have found—God’s special gift to us all: the gift of peace. When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times. We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential. We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us. And we become instruments in the hands of the Lord”

About Kevin Ahern

Kevin Glauber Ahern, PhD is an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. He defended his doctoral dissertation in Theological Ethics from Boston College in 2013. His dissertation was entitled “Structures of Grace: Catholic NGOs and the Church’s Mission in a Globalized World.” From 2003 to 2007, Kevin Ahern served as the President of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS-Pax Romana), an international network of students in over eighty countries. He continues to be active on the boards of several national and international networks, including he Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the board of directors of America Press and as a Vice-President of the ICMICA-Pax Romana, He has edited the Radical Bible and Visions of Hope: Emerging Theologians and the Future of the Church, both with Orbis Books. When not teaching, writing, or going to international meetings, Kevin enjoys hiking, Cape Cod, and spending time with his wife. Follow him on twitter at @kevin_ahern

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  1. Pingback: It’s Time to Stop Blaming Cardinal Bernardin | Daily Theology - February 8, 2014

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