“The End of the Bernardin Era”

By choosing Archbishop Dolan over Bishop Kicanas as their leader, the American bishops signaled a new direction for the USCCB.

That compact phrase, uttered across a spectrum of opinion from the National Catholic Reporter to George Weigel, sums up the consensus view of informed bishop-watchers regarding the American bishops’ choice of Archbishop Timothy Dolan as president of the episcopal conference in preference to Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson.

Gazing from the press section at a hotel ballroom full of black-suited bishops shortly after their historic 128-111 vote last November 16, I spoke those words to the veteran bishop-watcher sitting beside me. He nodded and said, “A lot of these men never knew Joe Bernardin, and they don’t see any reason to follow his lead now.” Cardinal Bernardin died in 1996.

“Progressive” Catholic commentary before and after the vote provided a sense of the setback the progressives suffered in this election.

Writing before the event on the Washington Post’s religion blog, Father Thomas Reese, SJ, former editor of America magazine, said Bishop Kicanas’ style as president would resemble that of “his mentor,” Cardinal Bernardin. Not electing him, Father Reese declared, would be “an ecclesial earthquake of monumental proportions.” The Reporter’s after-the-fact editorial was more blunt. The newspaper called “the end of the Bernardin era” a fulfillment of Pope John Paul II’s desire for a bishops’ conference reduced in influence and scope that also, paradoxically, signaled the bishops’ determination “to focus on the culture wars.”

Clearly this election was more than just a matter of one bishop prevailing over another. Consider the vote for vice president. In the decisive third round, it came down to Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville versus Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. of Denver. Archbishop Kurtz, a personable conservative who heads the bishops’ efforts against same-sex marriage, won, 147-91.

For careful observers, though, it was remarkable that Archbishop Chaput was in the running at all. Just five or six years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. The Denver prelate, perhaps the most outspoken episcopal voice for traditional Catholic views in America today, has been a bishops’ conference maverick for years, as evidenced by his failure to be elected so much as a committee chairman. For him to be contesting now for the number-two leadership position in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, traditionally a stepping-stone to the presidency, was a sea change of first magnitude.

To grasp fully what the end of the Bernardin era means, however, you have to grasp what the Bernardin era was like. That requires understanding some things about Joseph Louis Bernardin.

Born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1928 as the only son of Italian immigrants, he planned to be a doctor, but during his college years at the University of South Carolina chose the priesthood instead. Ordained in 1952, he held responsible posts (chancellor, vicar general, diocesan administrator) in the Diocese of Charleston. There he att racted the attention of Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, a liberal star of the American hierarchy in the Vatican II years. In 1966 he became auxiliary bishop of Atlanta—at 38, America’s youngest bishop.

Two years later, Bishop Benardin was named the first general secretary of the new National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference (now, the USCCB), the first president of which was Archbishop—soon, Cardinal—John Dearden of Detroit. Formerly a tough conservative—his nickname was “Iron John”—Cardinal Dearden was transformed by Vatican II and returned an ardent advocate of its renewal program. As general secretary of the NCCB/USCC, Bishop Bernardin was responsible for seeing that the renewal happened.

He was no radical. Basically a cautious man, famous for consulting widely before making a decision, he had a sincere love for the Church and wanted to help other people. Combined with a natural talent for mediating and consensus- building, these qualities helped him steer the fledgling bishops’ conference through stormy waters in the immediate postconciliar years.

He wasn’t without faults. Someone who knew him in his early years once said his worst failing was wanting everyone to like him, an understandable trait in such an eminently likable man. Sometimes that led him to tolerate what shouldn’t be tolerated and compromise what shouldn’t be compromised. Thirty years later, in the months before his death, the same tendency was visible in the “Catholic Common Ground,” a Bernardin initiative aimed at healing polarization in the Church—something he abhorred—by bringing loyalists and dissidents together on a minimum platform acceptable to all.

In 1972, he left Washington to become archbishop of Cincinnati. Just two years later, the bishops elected him president of the NCCB/USCC. He would serve an eventful, and not altogether happy, three terms. Two episodes in 1976 were especially disruptive.

One was that year’s US presidential election, which pitt ed incumbent Gerald Ford—Richard Nixon’s successor— against Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter. In late summer, Archbishop Bernardin led a delegation of bishops in meetings with the candidates at which the bishops pressed the candidates to back a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn (this was just three years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade). Speaking for himself and the others, Bernardin declared them “disappointed” by Carter’s opposition and “encouraged” by Ford’s tepid support. After a fi restorm of criticism for the bishops’ alleged interference in politics, accompanied by strong internal dissent by some bishops and NCCB/USCC staff , Archbishop Bernardin beat a humiliating retreat.

The other episode was the Call to Action Conference held in October in Detroit as the culmination of the NCCB/ USCC program for the US bicentennial. This was a brainchild of Cardinal Dearden (he apparently saw it as a prototype national pastoral conference practicing “shared responsibility” in the Church) and Bishop James Rausch, Bernardin’s successor as NCCB/USCC general secretary, who was a fan of liberation theology.

The 1,340 delegates—half of them Church employees and nearly a third priests—adopted recommendations that called for things like returning laicized priests to ministry, ordaining married men and women, approving contraception, and taking an open attitude on homosexuality. Archbishop Bernardin complained that the conference was taken over by “special interests.” He named a committ ee of bishops to look into implementing its proposals, but little came of it.

Bernardin’s term as conference president ended in 1977. A few years later, he consulted friends privately on whether to run again (my tactful advice was that it would be premature). In the end, he never did run. If he had, there’s litt le doubt he would have been elected, given his enormous popularity and prestige.

His influence wasn’t confined to the bishops’ conference. It could be seen in the emergence of Bernardin bishops— friends and former associates who entered the ranks of the hierarchy. These included such men as Archbishops Daniel Pilarczyk (Cincinnati, now retired) and Wilton Gregory (Atlanta), both later presidents of the bishops’ organization, Archbishops Thomas Kelly (Louisville, now retired), Michael Sheehan (Santa Fe), and John Vlazny (Portland, Oregon), Bishop Robert Lynch (St. Petersburg), Bishop Kicanas, and others.

Pope John Paul II named Bernardin archbishop of Chicago in 1982, and the next year elevated him to cardinal. Cardinal Francis George recalls that, long before having any inkling he might wind up there himself, he asked Cardinal Bernardin how he governed such a large and unruly See. The cardinal smiled and said, “Chicago is ungovernable.” His approach to the famously contentious archdiocese was his usual one: conciliation, toleration, everybody’s- friend. It might have been good pastoral strategy in a calm, harmonious diocese. In turbulent, conflict-ridden Chicago, it was a debatable tactic.

His national reputation and influence within the NCCB/USCC peaked when he headed the committee charged with writing the famous pastoral letter on nuclear weapons, The Challenge of Peace. Published in 1983, that document now seems a fairly timid specimen of the peace movement of the early 1980s, but the well-publicized fact that it annoyed the Reagan White House got the cardinal on the cover of Time.

In these years, too, he unveiled his “consistent ethic of life,” intended to bring together people of diverse views on a common platform of concern for
the sanctity and quality of life. Abortion was a large part of it, but only a part. In time, of course, the consistent ethic was exploited by politicians and distorted by the NCCB/USCC to formulate its political agenda in a way that appeared to support moral equivalency— the idea that different issues have the same moral weight. Thus a pro-choice Catholic politician could (and some did) point to documents of the bishops’ conference to support the claim that, although he did indeed back legalized abortion, his support for antipoverty efforts, health care, and ending the death penalty put him in good standing with the hierarchy.

In the face of pro-lifers’ protests, Cardinal Bernardin clarified that the consistent ethic shouldn’t be read as backing for moral equivalency, but he is not known to have objected strongly to the abuse. After I wrote something mildly critical of the consistent ethic, he went out of his way to tell me he’d obtained assurances of its orthodoxy from no less than the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger— now, of course, Pope Benedict XVI.

His last year was arguably his best. Diagnosed in 1995 with pancreatic cancer, he launched a ministry to cancer patients, visiting fellow sufferers from the disease and offering them consolation and encouragement. He also wrote a best-selling book, The Gift of Peace, and again made a news-magazine cover, this time Newsweek. After a trip to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton and a visit to Pope John Paul in Rome, he withdrew from public life as his health deteriorated. Near the end, he wrote to the US Supreme Court in opposition to assisted suicide. He died on November 14, 1996 at the age of 68 and was widely mourned.

As the Dolan-Kicanas showdown for the presidency of the USCCB shows, Bernardin’s influence within the bishops’ conference remained strong 14 years later. This bolstered the impression that Bishop Kicanas—a Bernardin protégé who’d been rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary and an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese before going to Tucson— was a shoo-in after serving three years as vice president.

But he wasn’t. The numbers are illuminating. In 2007, in the contest for conference vice president, Bishop Kicanas bested Archbishop Dolan by 22 votes. In 2010, with the presidency at stake, Archbishop Dolan got 128 votes and Bishop Kicanas 111. In the context of the bishops’ conference, this was a huge shift in just three years. What happened?

Attrition—older bishops leaving the ranks and new bishops replacing them—explains part of it. But part of it also unquestionably resides in a major change in the way the bishops read the present situation of the Church in the United States.

Specifically, two events in the last couple of years appear to have sensitized many to a dangerous slippage that needs reversing: Notre Dame’s decision to award President Barack Obama an honorary degree in 2009 despite his pro-abortion policies, and the Catholic Health Association’s 11th-hour split a year ago from the bishops’ position on abortion in health care—a stunning defection that helped push Obamacare across the finish line in Congress.

During the Notre Dame flap, more than 80 bishops took the unusual step of issuing their own statements protesting— sometimes vehemently—the action by the university. But Bishop Kicanas merely said bishops and college presidents should sit down and try to work out such things. This apparently did not endear him to many bishops. He also carried the burden of an episode from his seminary rector days when he approved ordaining a man who later turned out to be a serial sex abuser. The fact that the Rainbow Sash gay rights group supported his candidacy didn’t help either.

By contrast, Archbishop Dolan remarked of the Notre Dame controversy that, although Catholics should indeed engage with abortion supporters and politicians, the university nevertheless sent students the wrong message by giving Obama a degree, specifically: “We hold him up as model to you.” He also has won attention—and, one suspects, the admiration of other bishops— by standing up to the New York Times and accusing it of anti-Catholicism. His outgoing manner and ease with the media combined with a stellar résumé—staff man at the Vatican embassy in Washington, rector of the North American College in Rome, auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, and archbishop of Milwaukee before coming to New York in 2009—to make him a natural for the bishops’ top job and a good fit for their present mood.

Some conservatives would be glad if the conference of bishops would just fade away, but that isn’t going to happen. During the last decade, in fact, the organization already was subjected to major cutbacks in budget, program, and staff, and a senior prelate remarked to me privately that, with Cardinal George as president, the bishops in the last three years were in effect learning to take ownership of their reshaped organization.

The results were dramatically on display last November 16. The question now is where the conference goes from here under Archbishop Dolan. Very likely the “consistent ethic” will still guide thinking about the bishops’ political agenda. But however much the National Catholic Reporter may deplore it, almost certainly that will be within the framework of a strong, clear priority for culture war issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and physician-assisted suicide.

On the whole, the organization is likely to move away from the softspoken accommodation of a multitude of points of view that often seemed to typify the Bernardin Era, to an outspoken counter-culturalism. When that happens, the Bernardin Era will finally take its place as a footnote in the history books.


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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).