Bishops, Catholic Social Teaching

It’s Time to Stop Bashing Cardinal Bernardin

You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

I was dismayed, but not all that surprised by Nicholas G. Hahn III’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It has become fashionable in conservative circles in the United States to blame everything they dislike in American politics and religion on Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago. With the papacy of Pope Francis and the need for a new archbishop in Chicago, the legacy of Bernardin is again attracting much attention. joseph

Toward the beginning of his opinion piece, Hahn rightfully points out: that “those trying to interpret Pope Francis, on the left and the right…see in him a reflection of their own hopes.” The risk, as he suggests, is that we remake the pope into our own image.  Unfortunately, his selective and uncharitable reading of Cardinal Bernardin does just that.

The most vicious (and ridiculous) of the Bernardin-bashers is by far Michael Voris, a sensational conspiracy theorist who often blames the late Cardinal for everything from “ObamaCare” to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. But the Bernardin-bashers also comes from more serious voices. George Weigel, for instance, wrote an often-cited article in 2011 that (falsely) portrays Bernardin as an authoritarian, Chicago style political boss who imposed his “left-wing” Catholicism on all the other bishops in the United States—as if they were fooled or force to elect him as the president of the conference.

If one, like Hahn and Weigel, dislikes the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice—the easiest thing to do is to blame Bernardin. If one dislikes the pro-poor empowerment efforts of Catholic agencies like Catholic Relief Services or the Catholic Campaign for Human Development—blame Bernardin. If one disagrees with the Catholic Church’s critique of individualism, capitalism, racism, and the United States’ hawkish position on foreign policy—blame Bernardin. If one feels uneasy with bishops and popes speaking about healthcare and education as rights and public goods—blame Bernardin. If the president of the United States has learned something from the Catholic tradition…

Joseph Bernardin’s moral vision, best articulated with the phrase “consistent ethic of life,” should make us uncomfortable. Rooted squarely in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition, this vision challenges all of us to humbly reflect on how our politics, lifestyle choices, and ideologies promote or harm human dignity, with particular attention to the least among us.

In his article, Hahn accuses the “Catholic left” of trying to “resurrect the ghost of Bernardin.” However, the so-called Bernardin ghost gets far more attention from those seeking who want to find someone to blame for the fact that the Catholic church’s position does not clearly match with American partisan politics. It is not  easy for people who deeply adhere to partisan divisions to realize that the Catholic moral vision challenges all partisan and human ideologies. Rather than accepting the breadth and depth of the Catholic social and ethical tradition, the temptation is to pick and choose.

Pope Francis washing feet on Holy Thursday

Pope Francis washing feet on Holy Thursday

In Caritas in Veritate, his 2009 social encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI surprised many who looked at him through the limited partisan vision of American politics, by making strong arguments for social and distributive justice including an appeal or governmental regulation of the economy. Rooting the encyclical in Paul VI’s vision of integral human development and John Paul II’s teaching on solidarity and human dignity, Benedict clearly presents a consistent ethic of life framework.

In his response, which was seen as absurd by people in the Vatican Curia, Weigel presented a new conspiracy theory. Maybe because Bernardin was no longer around to blame for Benedict’s holistic approach to social justice, he blamed the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In his article titled “Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red and Gold,” Weigel urged readers to disregard anything in the text that offered a critique of American conservative positions.  In the text, he claimed, one should distinguish between those sections written by a supposed gold pen by Benedict and those written by a supposed red pen by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace that forced their opinion on the pope (a very strange claim to anyone who knows how the Curia operates).

One of the main ironies with Weigel, Hahn and other Bernardin-bashers is that they end up becoming just like the so-called “cafeteria Catholics” they disdain so much.

Bernardin’s commitment to the consistent ethic of life is deeply rooted in the Gospel and the holistic vision of the Catholic social and ethical. Catholic doctrine has emphasized this point in different ways. For example, Pope Paul VI frequently appealed to the notion of “integral human development” and the church’s vocation to work for the development of “all people and the whole person.” Like Bernardin, Pope John Paul II often addressed the connections between pro-life issues and social justice in speaking for a culture of life that extended from “conception to natural death.” John Paul II’s homilies on his visits to the United States, for instance, stress the interrelationship between a wide range of social issues including anti-abortion efforts, solidarity with the poor, and the military disarmament. More recently, Pope Francis has not been afraid to critique both the structural evils within global capitalism and the throw away culture that accepts abortion and euthanasiafurnishingsMy_Pictures2

While I do not know what the future holds for the Catholic Church in Chicago or anywhere in the world, I suspect that the papacy of Pope Francis and the increasing prominence of global Catholicism will be frustrating for Hahn and other Americans (including liberals) obsessed with the partisan divisions between Republicans and Democrats. In his response to another Bernardin-basher in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Fr. Bryan Massingale summarizes the consistent ethic of life (CEL) this way:.

The CEL is deeply rooted in the church’s official teaching and is not a recent invention to provide a “liberal” cover to vote for pro-choice candidates. This is why one finds CEL advocates (such as the famous “Nuns on the Bus” participants) working for a strong network of prenatal support for unwed mothers, just wages, adequate unemployment coverage and comprehensive health care reform. Because measures such as these facilitate a choice for life at its beginning, ending and every stage in between.

Rooted deeply in the Christian tradition, the message of Bernardin is challenging for us all and is not always easy to accept. Bernardin’s message of the consistent ethic of life is challenging to us not because it deviates from the Catholic tradition, but because it radically reflects the fullness of that tradition—a tradition that does not fit nicely into our conservative or liberal boxes. In the end, however, the value of human life is more important than our political or partisan worldviews. Bernardin summed it up this way:

A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life…. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

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


7 thoughts on “It’s Time to Stop Bashing Cardinal Bernardin

    But you don’t need to mention the names of detractors… even ‘negative publicity’ is still publicity.
    Attrition is the best ‘policy’… just a thought.

    Posted by Chris Nunez | February 10, 2014, 2:20 pm
    • Thanks Chris. I agree with you! I also do wonder if we need to name (in a spirit of sibling correction) the destructive and divisive attitudes that threaten Christian unity and deny the fullness of the Catholic faith. We need to say basta! But, you are right – let’s avoid free publicity too, particularly when there are people making money by sensationalizing ecclesial debates.

      Posted by Kevin Ahern | February 10, 2014, 5:32 pm
  2. This is a wide-ranging comment from someone not in the Church Magisterium:

    Joseph Bernardin’s moral vision, best articulated with the phrase “consistent ethic of life,” should make us uncomfortable. Rooted squarely in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition, this vision challenges all of us to humbly reflect on how our politics, lifestyle choices, and ideologies promote or harm human dignity, with particular attention to the least among us.

    May you spend many hours meditating on this, and many years on the defense of this minimalist position.

    Posted by James Stagg | February 12, 2014, 4:10 pm
    • Thank you James for your comment. I actually spend many hours meditating about this point and have spoken with many bishops, members of the Roman Curia and theologians on the legacy of Bernardin (a member of the Magisterium). My point is that the consistent ethic of life is very Catholic. We can see the same meaning in the writings of John Paul II on the Gospel of Life (from conception to natural death) and Paul VI and Benedict XVI on integral human development. One bishop who is now a cardinal in the curia told me that the he could not understand why Americans hate the late cardinal so much who is seen by many in Rome as a holy bishop.

      As an aside, theologians have often been considered part of the magisterium–well into the late medieval period. I don’t claim that title, but it is worth noting.

      If you have a statement from an authority in the church (Holy See office, curial position or cardinal) that condemns the consistent ethic of life, I’d love to see it. If it is so bad, then why haven’t we seen an outright condemnation?

      Thank you for the invitation to meditate more on the consistent ethic of life.

      Posted by Kevin Ahern | February 12, 2014, 5:39 pm
  3. Thanks for the thoughtful piece!

    Posted by Matthew Davis | February 14, 2014, 11:04 am


  1. Pingback: The Pro-Life Progressive: An Endangered Species? | Political Jesus - February 14, 2014

  2. Pingback: A (Truly) Consistent Commitment to Life | Daily Theology - February 27, 2014

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