Amid the ongoing synod on synodality and renewed conversations about church governance, it is worth revisiting the life of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928–1996), the most influential United States bishop of his era. A good place to begin is with Steven Millies’s concise though thoroughly researched, positive though fair-minded, clear-written biography for the Liturgical Press “People of God” series, Joseph Bernardin: Seeking Common Ground.
Bernardin was born about seven months after his immigrant parents arrived in South Carolina. The family came from the Trentino region in what today is northern Italy and was ethnically Italian in language, food, and all aspects of their culture. Bernardin’s father died when he was six years old, and he was raised by his mother and by extended family. South Carolina was less than 1 percent Catholic at the time. Bernardin attended public high school and began premed studies at a public university.
Millies traces Bernardin’s developing confidence, his ease with Protestants and non-Christians, and his gentle compassion. He links these traits to the key events of his childhood and adolescent years, including processing the loss of his father, his dependence on relatives, and his regular interactions with non-Catholics.
Bernardin was ordained in 1952. Prior to becoming the youngest bishop in the United States in Atlanta at age 38, he, like most bishops, had scant parish experience. Instead he spent most of his early priesthood in the Charleston, South Carolina, chancery, both as chancellor and vicar general. Millies provides some intriguing, little-known facts about this time. For example, in 1972, Bernardin quietly became a first-order Franciscan. He maintained a Franciscan spirituality thereafter and requested to be buried in his Franciscan habit.
As in Chicago’s Democratic machine, to move ahead within the Catholic clergy it is necessary to have a patron. Bernardin’s first was Archbishop Paul Hallinan (1911–1968), who served as bishop of Charleston and then as archbishop of Atlanta. Millies takes us inside the mutually beneficial Bernardin/Hallinan relationship. When Hallinan contracted a hepatitis infection, he summoned Bernardin from Charleston to, for all practical purposes, run his Atlanta chancery. The two navigated race relations in Atlanta. They were so respected that at Hallinan’s funeral the segregationist governor Lester Maddox (1915–2003) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) shared the same pew.
Three weeks after the Hallinan funeral, King was murdered. Bernardin soon left Atlanta for his new post as general secretary of what today is called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C. It was Bernardin’s second mentor, Cardinal John Dearden (1904–1988) of Detroit, who put him in charge of the conference.
Millies describes how both Hallinan and Dearden had been changed by Vatican II. Schooled in a clerical, self-assured church, the two bishops embraced the Vatican II vision of a church in dialogue with the modern world. Bernardin caught the same spirit.
In Washington and in his subsequent positions, Bernardin had to balance two sides of his public personality: a hard-working “cautious bureaucrat” and a compassionate pastor. Millies recounts how, in casual conversation with two young Cincinnati priests, Bernardin admitted that his practice of prayer and reflection had faded away, while his administrative duties had taken over all his waking hours. The priests challenged him, and Bernardin resolved to spend the first hour each day in prayer.
The biography moves to Chicago, where Bernardin served as archbishop from 1982 until his death in 1996. Millies delves into some areas of controversy surrounding this time. Through the USCCB, Archbishop John Roach (1921–2003) selected Bernardin to chair an ad hoc committee on war and peace. Millies mentions that, characteristically, Bernardin insisted on diversity among the members of the committee, including a bishop in the Military Ordinariate and a Pax Christi bishop involved with antiwar protests.
With strong encouragement from other members of the committee, fellow bishops, and USCCB staff members Fr. Bryan Hehir and Edward Doherty, Bernardin introduced a new process for ecclesial statements in which experts and interested citizens were invited to testify before the committee. In May 1983, the bishops approved the document The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response by a vote of 238 to 9. The document was widely covered in newspapers and magazines, making Bernardin a national figure. Millies mentions the “national political storm” caused by The Challenge of Peace, including objections from the administration of President Ronald Reagan and from neoconservative Catholics. He explains that the document’s process and the reaction to it reinforced for Bernardin a concept that would later bring more controversy: a consistent ethic of life.
Millies is straightforward on the clerical abuse crisis. Bernardin “followed the familiar pattern and transferred [deviant] priests from one parish to another,” he writes. On the other hand, Bernardin eventually realized that the abuse was a national problem that required a national policy of reporting. His Chicago plan became a model for the so-called Dallas Charter on abuse, enacted (though not consistently followed) six years after his death.
Millies also recounts an incident in which Bernardin was accused of abuse, the retraction of the accusation, and the reconciliation between Bernardin and his accuser. Like others who recount this incident, Millies, paints Bernardin as an innocent victim. That is accurate to an extent. But Millies leaves out a key fact: the accuser, a former seminarian in Cincinnati, was indeed abused by a priest whom Bernardin failed to monitor.
From the earliest days of his priesthood, Bernardin was clear in his opposition to abortion. Beginning in 1974, however, he strove to explain that the sacredness of life was not just a Catholic concern. Further, he believed that focusing exclusively on abortion was too narrow an approach to promoting the dignity of life. He began to use the phrase “seamless garment” to describe an inclusive social ethic. In his final months, he launched the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, an attempt to advance his thinking through civil dialogue.
Unfortunately, Bernardin—usually a savvy insider—didn’t have the support of enough fellow bishops for the program to gain traction. An East Coast cardinal attacked the initiative even as Bernardin was in his final days. Others piled on to undermine the “seamless garment” metaphor; their campaign said opposition to abortion has to be “the preeminent issue.” These historical details shed some light on the causes of the current dysfunction within the USCCB.
It would be nice to say that now, 26 years after his death, Bernardin’s legacy as a conciliatory bishop of peace is solidly in place. He directly influenced a handful of bishops, though they are retired or soon to retire. There are a few other bishops in a similar mold. But to judge by their recent votes, the majority of US bishops now prefer to self-righteously call out politicians and others who do not meet their standards rather than engage in a Vatican II–inspired dialogue with the world.
And what about Bernardin’s legacy in Chicago? There is a school and a cancer clinic named for him. And the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union nobly keeps his spirit alive. Millies was a professor in South Carolina when he wrote his biography; fittingly, he now directs this very center that bears his subject’s name.
Catholicism can still be an instrument for peace. It will take a new generation of young adults who, inspired by Bernardin and others, apply their own thoughts and experiences to Christian engagement with the world. ♦
William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here), and the author of Monday Eucharist, available from the National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $7).