The End of an Era

Fourteen years after the death of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the American bishops have put the Bernardin era in their national conference behind them. Among the multiple messages of their choice of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that may be the most important.

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The symbolism by which the break with the Bernardin years was communicated couldn’t have been more clear and precise. In a head-to-head runoff election on November 16, pitting Archbishop Dolan against USCCB vice president Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson — a Bernardin protégé in his Chicago years — the bishops voted 118-111 for Archbishop Dolan.

Before the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore, Bishop Kicanas was widely considered a shoo-in for president; for more than 40 years, USCCB vice presidents have routinely moved up. (As a consolation prize, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, the outgoing president, appointed him to succeed Archbishop Dolan as chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.)

There are several reasons why Archbishop Dolan won and Bishop Kicanas lost. Last year, for instance, Bishop Kicanas publicly sided with the administration of Notre Dame University in its determination to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama despite his pro-abortion policies. More than 80 other bishops took the unusual step of publicly protesting the university’s action.

Bishop Kicanas also was dogged by the fact that, as rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary in the early 1990s, he approved ordaining a man who turned out to be a serial sex abuser as a priest; convicted and laicized, the individual is now serving time in prison. The bishop said that, in okaying the ordination, he had no indication of what lay ahead. But the 118 bishops who voted for Archbishop Dolan may have seen this as more baggage than they wanted their next leader to carry.

Clearly, too, they knew of Bishop Kicanas’s ties to Cardinal Bernardin and were aware that he shared the well-known Bernardin favoring accommodation over confrontation. In choosing Archbishop Dolan, who’s made a name for himself by charging the New York Times with anti-Catholic bias, the bishops opted for something different — a willingness to stand up and fight back against adversaries that a majority in the hierarchy may now feel better suits their interests and the needs of the Church.


Looking out from the press section on a ballroom full of bishops after their historic vote, I remarked on the end of the Bernardin era to the man next to me, himself a veteran observer of bishops and the bishops’ conference. Nodding, he said, “A lot of these men never even knew Bernardin, and they have no reason to look to him for guidance.”

At this stage, it’s hard to say exactly what that means for the bishops and the rest of the Church. In general terms, though, it almost certainly means increased determination to fight the culture war outside the Church and face up to dissent within. That is very much the case on abortion and also on same-sex marriage, where the bishops, late in the game, have finally begun gearing up for a serious fight. Cardinal Bernardin’s famous “common ground” for dissenters and loyalists alike won’t have many bishops occupying it in the years just ahead.

Old-time Catholic liberals who look back fondly to the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s undoubtedly will regret the passing of the Bernardin era. From his years as the episcopal conference’s first post-Vatican II general secretary and then as president, all the way up to his death in 1996 and continuing even beyond, Joseph Bernardin was truly a towering presence in the conference’s affairs and, beyond that, in the Church in America.

I knew him, liked him, and admired his immense leadership skills, especially his uncanny instinct for building consensus. Many things that conservatives blame him for now — his “consistent ethic of life” is an example — were honest efforts to find solutions to tough problems, like restoring respect for unborn human life, that would win support from as broad a range of opinion as possible. The abuse of the consistent ethic as a rationale for moral equivalency wasn’t his doing; on one occasion, thinking I’d written slightingly of it, he was at pains to tell me he’d been assured of its orthodoxy by a curial cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger.

Unfortunately, the cardinal’s liking for consensus sometimes moved him to back away from confrontation in hopes of keeping everybody happy. That gentle approach could mean tolerating things that shouldn’t be tolerated. For better or worse, and probably both, his weaknesses as well as his strengths were reflected in his influence on the bishops’ conference.

Now the USCCB has chosen a new path. By no means is it clear where it will lead the bishops and the Church in the years ahead. Almost certainly, though, it won’t be where staying stuck in the Bernardin era would have taken them. Survivors of the 1970s and 1980s, far gone in nostalgia for the good old days, will be sorry about that, but others who weren’t party to the madness back then will say, “High time.”


Image: Nancy Wiechec/Catholic News Service


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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