A Letter from Chicago: Is America’s Greatest Archdiocese Really in Decline?

You be the judge. An official Chicago archdiocesan report notes that, of 5.6 million people in Cook and Lake counties which constitute the archdiocese (not the entire Chicagoland area, let it be noted), about 2.3 million, or 41 percent, are Catholics. However, of the 1.3 million, only one-quarter attend Mass on Sunday.

There are 73 fewer parishes than in 1975.

Of the 42.9 elementary schools in 1965, 309 remain. Despite explosive growth in the Hispanic population — with basic Catholic heritage — throughout the archdiocese, enrollment of students of Hispanic background in Catholic schools has remained relatively flat since 1987.

Since 1965, enrollment in Catholic elementary schools has declined 62 percent; enrollment in high schools during the same period declined 52 percent. Only a handful of seminarians were ordained priests for Chicago last year.

Parishes finished the year with a $11.8 million deficit. A pastoral center operated at more than a $5.7 million deficit in 1992, including $1.9 million in costs associated with alleged clerical sexual misconduct with minors. But, not counting the misconduct costs, it ran a $3.8 million deficit due to smaller than anticipated collections of The Cardinal’s Appeal.

While the report and the video tape accompanying it cite poverty, concentration of African-American poor without Catholic heritage or funds to pay to church support, they do not discuss the lack of Catholic growth in the suburbs of Lake and Cook counties, where many former city dwellers now reside.

The man responsible for the archdiocese’s spiritual and financial well-being describes the condition of both with typical calm and understatement.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin cautioned last September, when the report was released, that “our resources are limited…. We must dream but from those dreams let’s come up with ideas and recommendations that are practical. And if we can’t do everything at one time, let’s decide what steps we can take.”

Despite this modest (some would say, pedestrian) statement appended to the gloomy report, Dr. James Hitchcock of Saint Louis University, church scholar and historian, says that Chicago’s cardinal is as effective in his way, as was James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore (1834-192.1). Gibbons served when many Americans feared Catholic immigrants as tools of a foreign prince in Rome. Denying claims of anti-Catholics that his church was an un-American invader, the cardinal successfully explained Rome to many Americans, and, conversely, explained America to a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century curia that didn’t fully understand democracy.

Like Gibbons, says Hitchcock, Bernardin is achieving success with exquisite subtlety but far differently. “He has presented himself as an authentic and at the same time ‘moderate’ spokesman when, in fact, he basically supports the liberal agenda. That doesn’t mean I agree with Bernardin — far from it,” says Hitchcock.

Does it mean Bernardin employs a bait-and-switch in favor of liberal positions? “You could say it like that,” answers Hitchcock.

In the past, priests avoided controversy, leaving it to the laity — but not so in Chicago today. At least one angry pastor, Father Anthony Brankin of Saint Thomas More parish, has publicly denounced liturgical laxity that has gone uncorrected despite repeated pleas to the archdiocese.

“The problem,” wrote the youthful pastor in a communication faxed widely in Chicago, “is spiritual; it is deep and profound…. What I mean to say is that for 25 years we have been set spiritually adrift by forces beyond anyone’s control — certainly beyond the control of any of us. For 25 years we have been victimized by modernists and reformers who do not believe the same things you and I believe — and have always believed.

“They changed the way we worship and that effected a change in the way we think, the way we feel, the way we believe, the way we live, and the way in which we regard the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church.

“Oh it was slow; but it was sure. They told our high school students they don’t have to go to Mass anymore — so they don’t. They told our college students there were no absolute moral standards anymore — and that’s the way many now live…. They hire agnostics to teach philosophy and non-believers to teach religion in Catholic universities and seminaries. They sledge-hammered altars and removed statues. They tore up rosaries and called Benediction ‘cookie worship.’…

“I believe until we bite the bullet and finally face up to the spiritual chaos that has reigned for 25 years, all the financial finagling in the world will not soon be able to put us back together again.

“… Tuesday’s newspaper had a lovely photograph of a pro-abortion rally held at Loyola University under the auspices of Loyola’s newly approved pro-abortion club, the Women’s Center. Loyola? Remember Saint Ignatius? The Catholic church? Society of Jesus? Catholic families who helped build the two-campus traitor? My alma mater?

“And I’ll bet they have to gall to still send out fundraising letters hoping to cage the last dime from some poor widow who thinks she’s contributing to the cause of Christ.”

In contrast, there is Monsignor John J. (Jack) Egan. An elderly priest celebrated for his early work in civil rights, whose years have not dimmed his outlook on liturgical matters, Egan worked in the 1940s with the late Saul Alinsky (author of Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals) in building urban protest organizations. He employed the same technique to empower supposedly egalitarian church causes in a local version of a “Call to Action” program. Egan’s objective was to incorporate grassroots democracy within the church to push for far-reaching social and liturgical programs. Later he helped found the Association of Chicago Priests, which censured the late John Cardinal Cody.

When the MacArthur Foundation’s president, Adele Smith Simmons, was criticized by The New World (Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper) and me (in my Chicago Sun-Times column) for contributing over $1 million to “Catholics for Free Choice” — a pro-abortion group admittedly without a membership roster, run by a former abortion clinic owner who had assailed the Pope — Egan, now head of DePaul University’s office for Community Affairs, went public with his defense of Ms. Simmons.

“Adele Simmons is a woman of the highest integrity,” he wrote to the Sun-Times. Unconcerned about MacArthur’s use of a bogus Catholic organization to fund abortion counseling, Monsignor Egan instead called for a “public apology” to the foundation president.

Father George Helfrich, an erstwhile canon lawyer formerly assigned to the chancery, is now retired. Close to but not a direct participant in liberal or radical priestly activism, Helfrich is a friend of his ex-classmate Father Andrew Greeley. (Of all these sources, I know Father Helfrich the best; he is not only my cousin but the family member to whom I am closest. Our views of the Church are at as great a variance as our tennis games: he’s almost a pro, I’m a duffer.)

Father Helfrich believes that the Church has hardened into two groups, The official church is too clergy-dominated. When the pastor ripped out kneelers at one parish where Father Helfrich served — an arbitrary step unsanctioned by Church policy — Helfrich was supportive. Kneelers mean too deferential a supplication, he says, citing Greeley’s belief that our role instead should be that of loving children. Father Helfrich suspects Bernardin’s chancery is not as supportive of dissenting priests as he thinks it should be.

While Bernardin has been widely criticized, it is commonly agreed in Chicago that the cardinal is popular — not because of accomplishments but for being exonerated of a baseless charge of sexual abuse. On November 12, 1993, a former seminarian, Steven Cook, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Cincinnati, alleging that Bernardin, while archbishop there some 17 years before, had sexually abused him. Cook’s suit, which drew national attention, was based on alleged memories of abuse he had “recovered” only a month before the suit was filed. On February 28, 1994, to the immense relief of Catholics in Chicago and elsewhere, Cook dropped Bernardin from the lawsuit, saying he no longer trusted his own hypnotically recovered memories. The exoneration won widespread national praise for the cardinal, who had handled the mortifying charges with decorum and grace.

Bernardin’s most articulate defender is Dr. Eugene Kennedy, in his book Cardinal Bernardin: Easing Conflicts and Battling for the Soul of American Catholicism (Bonus Books, 1989). Kennedy is professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago and an ex-priest married to an ex-nun. He writes that, just as New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the first Italian-American to achieve national prominence, threads his way to public solutions, so Bernardin, the first Italian-American to become a cardinal, seeks “human compromises that avoid clashes while honoring the integrity of the disputing parties.” Kennedy cites Bernardin’s skill at weaving a “seamless garment” of pro-life, anti-capital punishment, and anti-nuclear weaponry positions a decade ago. On the basis of that contribution, former Vice President Walter Mondale argued that he was more “pro-life” than President Ronald Reagan, who was firmly committed to anti-abortion policies.

Kennedy is not the only observer to compliment Bernardin on his talent in forging difficult coalitions. Commenting on Bernardin’s role as chairman of the bishops’ drafting committee for the pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” Michael Novak credits the cardinal for his skill in resolving the conflicts that arose as the letter’s final passage was being debated: “Bernardin drove his five-bishop drafting committee to prior consensus on every line, and he managed an emotional two-day meeting in Chicago, which could easily have been stampeded, toward the best achievable outcome under the circumstances.”

Bernardin’s trouble in pacifying restless angry Catholics recalls the difficulties of many of his predecessors throughout the archdiocese’s history since its founding in 1844. That year William Quarter (assisted by three other priests) unhappily accepted episcopal consecration. Schools, not churches, were the first requirement — although Saint Mary’s, the first church built in the city, became a national symbol of architecture, not for its beauty but its utility. The product of a carpenter named Augustus Deodat Taylor, it was constructed the way barns are built, on a framework of two-by-fours set close together to which roof and siding were nailed, rather than on a frame of massive heavy beams. It was called “balloon-frame” by critics who wrongly feared it would be blown away by prairie winds. Instead, it spawned buildings that could be knocked together quickly by a team of amateurs and was adopted everywhere across the West when settlements went up at a gallop.

Also ballooning was Chicago’s Catholic ethnic diversity. This produced friction so great that Bishop Quarter died in his mid-40s, only two years after consecration. In 1855, hundreds of angry Irish gathered to protest Bishop Anthony O’Regan’s transfer of two priest-instructors from an early school. Later, Bishop James Duggan was perceived as slowly going mad. His closure of a seminary sent at least one priest to Rome to protest and to secure Bishop Duggan’s admittance to an insane asylum where he died.

By 1870, a year before the Great Fire, it was reckoned that the Irish controlled 15 of 23 parishes. The remainder were German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, Estonian, or Russian. Even the Irish fought among themselves. In 1900, when the pastor of a prosperous West Side parish went public to try to thwart appointment of Reverend Peter Muldoon as auxiliary bishop, Muldoon explained that “it is the old story of the Irish-born priests against the American-born Irish priests.”

At least one saint emerged from Chicago (Saint Frances Cabrini). Children were educated largely by “Mercy nuns” — Religious Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, who also ran hospitals and homes for the destitute. (They contrast sharply with one of Chicago’s best known Mercy nuns today — Sister Sheila Lyne. A superb hospital administrator, she was named the city’s commissioner of public health by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Sister Lyne maintains that she is personally pro-life but favors continuation of public abortion services for the poor. Recently she declared in a news conference that the Clinton health care program is too important to be jeopardized by the abortion controversy, for which she was picketed by a militant pro-life group. In June, 1991, after a session at the City Club of Chicago, I asked if she had received any admonition from Cardinal Bernardin. She said no. “He wished me good luck and knows how difficult this job is.” Recently the chancery has expressed reservations about, but no censure of, Sister Sheila.)

Contentious though it was, the Church grew enormously in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, guided by Archbishop James Quigley’s urging that there be one Catholic parish per square mile “so a parish should be such a size that the pastor can personally know every man, woman, and child in it.” For the most part, parishes were governed with benign tolerance of the ordinary until the appointment in 1915 of Archbishop George William Mundelein, who imposed order for the first time. Mundelein, a fast-riser in New York, believed in tight-fisted control. But his first task was to survive his city-wide inaugural banquet.

As a huge crowd waited at the prestigious University Club to sup in honor of the new prelate, an anarchist cook seasoned Mundelein’s favorite soup with a lethal mixture of arsenic and mercury, in the hope of wiping out all of Chicago’s leadership, spiritual and temporal. A last-minute decision to water down the soup saved all lives, but midway in the ceremony dignitaries raced for the lavatories. Mundelein dined undisturbed since — unaccountably — he had declined his favorite soup. In the next days, while the Chicago establishment recovered from illness, he gained an aura of stability by striding into a judge’s chamber and taking the oath of the corporation sole, thus becoming the first prelate to take full advantage of an 1861 Illinois statute allowing him to take personal charge of all Church property. Thereafter he dealt with the parishes as a tough-minded CEO, approving budgets, ordering expansions, transferring priests without difficulty. As Archbishop of Chicago and first cardinal of the West, he reigned over the second largest closely-held estate in the city, outranked only by holdings of the Marshall Field family.

By the time Mundelein died in his sleep in 1939, he had built a preparatory seminary and a major seminary which he envisioned as the Catholic University of the West and for which he wrested pontifical status from Rome. The grateful Protestant community 4o miles northwest of Chicago, where the seminary stands on 95o acres, changed its name to Mundelein, Illinois. Moreover, Mundelein made Chicago a seed-bed of social conscience, encouraging a popular pro-labor auxiliary bishop, Bernard Sheil, playing host to Dorothy Day’s first House of Hospitality, Baroness Catherine de Hueck’s Friendship House, an international Eucharistic Congress, and welcoming labor advocates Bishop John Lucey and Father John Ryan. Mundelein was a close associate of President Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed an FDR confidant, Thomas Corcoran, was a house guest the night Mundelein died. The two were planning a strategy for FDR to send a permanent emissary to the Vatican.

From the standpoint of administration, financial strength, and cohesion — though not democracy — it has been downhill for the Chicago archdiocese since Mundelein. His successor, Samuel Cardinal Stritch was more personable but flawed by massive inattention to financial detail. Theft of some $1 million by a staff aide resulted in the cardinal’s “promotion” to Rome, where he died shortly thereafter. Liberals cheered Albert Cardinal Meyer for his fight for the schema on religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council, but he died shortly thereafter of brain cancer.

Then came the most controversial prelate of all, John Patrick Cardinal Cody, who sought to restore Mundelein’s pre-conciliar power. Autocratic and insensitive to personal relationships, Cody confronted a dynamic and rebellious church. The only corporation solely undiminished by democracy didn’t work. When Cody died in 1983, he was under federal investigation for allegedly diverting Church funds to aid an elderly woman said to be his “step cousin.” (He ordered that all Church insurance be purchased from her son.) Father Andrew Greeley became the best known priest of the day for his writings about Cody and, some say, his triggering of this probe.

Enter Joseph L. Bernardin. He was as welcome to Chicagoans as warm sunshine after winter. Born in South Carolina in 192.8, he swiftly moved up the ladder to become auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, where he served as understudy to the South’s great liberal, Paul Hallinan. When Hallinan died, Bernardin was bypassed as successor, diverted instead to what friends and critics alike believed would be a dead-end: general secretary of the weak National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in Washington, D. C.

Bernardin took what was meant to be a do-little bishops’ trade association and converted it into a liberal-progressive think tank, gathering around him an enthusiastic staff including Father J. Bryan Hehir. Bernardin utilized the NCCB with unrivaled mastery, continuing when, as Archbishop of Cincinnati, he was elected its president.

Bernardin’s style was to serve as innovator, while with delicate murmurs soothing relationships with Rome—creating no waves while pursuing his liberal agenda. Kennedy describes these years well, when the Cincinnati archbishop worked with the apostolic delegate to the U.S., Archbishop Jean Jadot, to name “younger, conciliar-minded bishops in top dioceses throughout the country” — men who “might have been personally sympathetic to even more radical transformations” but who, with Bernardin’s guidance, refrained from challenging “positions which the aging Pope, Paul VI, had defended many times.”

But Bernardin’s elevation to Chicago almost failed because of the exuberance of a close colleague, Chicago’s sociologist, columnist, and tireless novelist, Father Greeley. As Kennedy describes it, Greeley, who was engaged in a duel with Cody, while preparing his memoirs unaccountably fantasized in audio-taped reflections about a putsch in which Cody would be removed and replaced by Bernardin. The typed transcript of 20,000 words was somehow transported either by error or, as Greeley later charged, by theft, to the Notre Dame Magazine, where the reflections were partially published. Bernardin was keenly embarrassed, but kept his cool until the storm blew over. Rome was convinced that Bernardin was not the sort to become involved in a silly dump-the-cardinal enterprise when his own likely appointment was so near. On Cody’s death in 1983, Bernardin was installed as Chicago’s archbishop, and later made cardinal.

Understandably, ex-confidant Greeley was kept at arm’s length. The cold shoulder earned enmity from Greeley, who wrote in his autobiography (Confessions of a Parish Priest, Pocket Books, 1987), “it is not unlikely in my judgment that sexuality, indeed perverse sexuality, will be to the Bernardin archdiocese of Chicago what financial corruption was to the Cody archdiocese of Chicago. I hasten to add that I do not question the Cardinal’s own sexual orientation.” When charges of priestly pedophilia arose, Greeley was unsparing of his criticism of Bernardin’s handling of the problem. Bernardin later adopted many of Greeley’s sound recommendations, and the two dined collegially last year in celebration of Greeley’s sixty-fifth birthday.

“He can dine with Andy all right,” growled a pastor sympathetic to Father Anthony Brankin, “but not with us. If he’d only discover what’s really going on in this archdiocese.”

Hitchcock’s thesis is that the cardinal does   know fully what’s going on and views the difficulties as an opportunity for further change. Bernardin, always the diplomat, delivers carefully sanitized homilies, eyes rooted to the text, presiding over evident chaos with model decorum. But in some instances, his leadership is vacillating.

Earlier this year, the cardinal asked his chancellor, Father Thomas Paprocki, to dispel confusion over general absolution by writing a letter for the cardinal’s signature to clarify this growing practice in which a priest gives absolution to all at one time, with no opportunity for private confession.

The archdiocesan publication, The New World, explained it this way on March 6, 1994: “This year Cardinal Bernardin, in an effort to clarify the church’s teaching and pastoral considerations involved, took the bull by the horns and, so to speak, wrote a letter to all the priests of the archdiocese. ‘Authorization for imparting general absolution … is not given in the archdiocese.”

Predictable resentment flared from priests who wished to continue general absolution. After some dispute about what Paprocki had said, a rump meeting of priests was called. Father Helfrich, who was close to some of the participants, says that the cardinal called one of the leaders and asked to attend  in order to listen and counsel. Permission was curtly denied. The cardinal renewed his appeal. Having again denied the cardinal permission to attend, the rump group whooped through a resolution, 5z to o, signifying its determination to utilize general absolution.

Citing a shortage of priests, Bernardin is pushing to install laity (mostly women) as day-to-day heads of parishes. A requirement that applicants must have a master of divinity degree eliminates most, if not all, of Chicago’s 613 male deacons. The chancery acknowledges that up to 90 percent of qualified applicants will be women, mostly ex-nuns. At the same time, Bernardin is rigorously enforcing mandatory age-70 retirement of priests. The strategy radically changes not only gender balance but the philosophical formation of the Church.

Memories of the old, confident Church, exerting legitimate authority, not the authoritarianism of Mundelein, are as hazy as the Chicago Fire. But from the grey ashes of a ruined, burned-out city in 1871 there arose a great city with huge stretches of land which ultimately supported a matchless architecture. Some of those who witnessed untended flames lapping at the hallowed church structure would like the experience repeated in Chicago Catholicism.


  • Thomas F. Roeser

    Thomas F. Roeser (1928 – 2011) was a Chicago-based conservative writer and broadcaster, who broadcast for many years on WLS 890 AM talk radio. He also was the founder and former chairman of the editorial board of a Chicago Internet newspaper, The Chicago Daily Observer, as well as a lecturer, teacher and former vice president of the Quaker Oats Company (Chicago).

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