Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 5 - Joseph Bernardin, Cardinal, Falsely Accused, Champion of Life,

The 1990s included revelations concerning sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Justifiably, people were outraged that trusted clerics had abused and taken advantage of children and youth. Cardinal Bernardin--though advanced in age--was one of the leaders of the group of priests who developed a system to deal with priests under accusation. In his archdiocese, he labored to develop a way of handling the tragedy and atrocity of what was fomenting and growing within the greater culture--a well earned distrust of clergy. His strong yet loving response to the brokenness of those close to him became a model for many priests and leaders throughout the United State of America. Yet, in 1993 Joseph Bernardin was accused of molesting a seminarian in Cincinnati.

A metaphorical bomb went off in Joseph's life as he was raked over the coals by the media. He strongly denied all the charges but also refused to assault the character of his accuser. The story spun by the media and the culture was one of a powerful and influential leader fallen from grace into the pit that he had hoped to regulate. Joseph was abandoned by many who had been close to him. Yet, he still refused to retaliate against his accuser. Three months after the accusation, his accuser admitted that things were not as had been suggested. It seems that he had "recovered" the memories while working with an unlicensed hypnotist and had since deemed these memories to be fabrications and completely unreliable. Joseph went to his accuser--Stephen--as he lie dying from AIDS in a hospital bed. He was quick to forgive the accusations and became immediately concerned with the progress of the disease through Stephen's body. Ironically, it was Joseph who had spent years campaigning for Church support for those who suffered and died at the hands of Stephen's murderer. Joseph knew Stephen's plight all too well and Stephen died with Joseph's forgiveness and blessing.

Joseph spoke of a "seamless garment" of life that the Church must be quick to endorse. He raised the question of what it could mean to the world if the Church would advocate a "consistent ethic of human life." This meant repudiating abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, violence, and negligence to poverty and other murderous forces. Joseph challenged other Christians--as he had been challenged as a younger man--to step out and be a Christian first and foremost and a member of the Church only by consequence. Joseph's success in his clerical career had led him to power in the Church but a stunted spiritual life that he worked through for the rest of his life. One of the ways he expressed this commitment was his pursuit of the "seamless garment" of life for the Church he was a member of by consequence or his commitment to the Lord of Life. By Joseph's estimation, it made no sense to oppose abortion yet support violence or capital punishment. If life was valuable and sacred, then its value could not be forfeited by some set of actions. We cannot endeavor to protect some lives but not others while pretending to follow after an executed Lord who teaches love for enemies and mercy for all.

Before Joseph died he shared his sincere hope born out of the reflection that accompanies a slow death: "My final hope is that my efforts have been faithful to the truth of the gospel of life and that you...will find in this Gospel the vision and strength needed to promote and nurture the great gift of life God has shared with us."


Matthew Hollister said...

Cardinal Bernadin is fondly remembered for his tireless work on issues of social justice. He is not fondly remembered by faithful Catholics for his teaching on the “seamless garment”.
The “seamless garment” is what he called a “multi-issue approach to public morality”. The basis of his misguided theory of a “consistent ethic of life” is a systemic vision rejecting the preeminence of one issue in favor of an “explicit connection among the several issues”, by joining “the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate”. You get the picture; his theory was an affront to Catholic moral theology. Only God knows the fetal death toll resulting from it. Someday, history will place it right along side another malevolent argument perpetuating legal abortion: Governor Cuomo’s statement that, as a Catholic, he personally was opposed to abortion, but that he would never impose his personal views on his constituents.
Back in the 80’s, every pro-life advocate understood Bernadin’s article for what it was: a nuanced theological justification excusing Catholics from moral culpability when voting for pro-abortion Democratic politicians. To this day, when Catholics vote for pro-abortion politicians, and are asked to justify their actions, they offer a form of Bernadin’s “seamless garment” argument. As you probably are aware, Cardinal Bernadin is revered today by dissident Catholics. It was not a coincidence that President Obama mentioned him in his commencement address at Notre Dame. Bernadin is a pro-abortion politician’s best friend.

JHearne said...

That wasn't how I understood it and I appreciate your thoughts. Care to email me at and maybe we can talk about it further?

To make it clear: I am not in favor of abortion. Also, you are correct that I am aware of Cardinal Bernadin's popularity with a certain group within Roman Catholicism. However, it's not correct for one such as me to label them as "dissident [Roman] Catholics." Perhaps you can teach me what his reputation is among those like yourself? I remain uncertain.

Matthew Hollister said...

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin was a Chicago Democrat and the first General Secretary of the NCCB (what is now the USCCB). (The NCCB was founded in 1966 by the late Detroit Cardinal Dearden, its first chairman, who in 1976 also founded the notorious dissident organization, Call to Action.) Cardinal Bernadin was the patriarch of the far left wing of U.S. bishops – the position now occupied by Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles. His progeny influence the body of US bishops to this very day; they are among the most “progressive” bishops in the country. They are known as the Chicago Democrats.

Is Cardinal Bernadin's proposed "seamless garment" a teaching in conformity with the Catholic Church. Absolutely not.

The Church teaches unequivocally that abortion and war are not moral equivalents. The same is true for abortion and capital punishment (and other issues of social justice). In the 2004 instruction Worthiness to receive Holy Communion – General Principles, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) vitiated the “seamless garment” argument by making it perfectly clear that not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion. “There may be,” he declared, “a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia”. When it comes to abortion, the death penalty, or the war in Iraq, only abortion is intrinsically wrong [always evil] because it always destroys innocent human life. On the death penalty and the war, Ratzinger confirmed that the Church does not have a single view.

Section 2266 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty”.

Likewise, in comparing the issue of war with abortion, the Church has always held that they are not moral equivalents. Recently, Archbishop Burke, the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, stated “One can legitimately question the wisdom of the decisions taken in the war in Iraq, but war in itself is not always and everywhere evil, as are, for example, procured abortion, human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research...".

Archbishop Burke further explained, "Engagement of the nation in a war cannot be placed on the same moral level as the nation making laws which permit the wholesale killing of the unborn or the artificial generation of human life or experimentation on embryonic human life".

So, what do I think of Cardinal Bernadin. Ask "Agnes" or "Joseph Kellenyi" (a simple Google search should open your eyes to his Emminence).

JHearne said...

This is clearly an issue that you have studied at greater length than I have. I very much appreciate your comments and teaching.

I'm aware that Cardinal Bernadin was not universally supported or liked. Yet, his story is still worth telling and it is not possible to tell his story without talking about the "seamless garment."

I'm aware of the theological and philosophical questions with which we both struggle in regards to abortion, war, and/or capital punishment. We might not agree entirely in terms of theology or, perhaps, even doctrine. But I am confident that we agree upon the dogmatic foundation of our common faith.

I plan to leave your comments here so that others can read and decide for themselves--you've given everybody quite a bit to think about (including me).