Why Kids Are Killing One Another in Chicago

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has done it again.

In Chicago there has been a good deal of violence in the streets of late, with teen-age gangs engaging in what can only be called warfare. Even if he had not chaired the U. S. bishops’ committee which issued the pastoral letter on war and peace, we should expect the archbishop of Chicago to be appalled by the slaughter in the streets of his episcopal city.

29 deaths were attributed to gang violence in 1984 alone. People on the near Northside of Chicago fear for their lives. The cardinal expressed his concern and called a meeting at ‘St. Aloysius Church. Seven hundred people showed up, among them a goodly assortment of Chicago politicians who were, according to WBBM, given pride of place in the front pews. The meeting opened on a somber note, since that very morning a seventeen year old boy who had attended the parish school had been shot down.

The cardinal showed up with his arm in a sling and, according to The Chicago Catholic, received a standing ovation when he rose to speak. He mentioned the 70 percent high school dropout rate in the area, the lack of parental direction and protection of youth. Not terribly illuminating, as an explanation, but the cardinal was not done. “… In a pointed attack, which brought the longest applause of the evening, he criticized proposed cuts in social spending by the Reagan administration.” Let us savor his very words. “In the admittedly necessary effort to reduce the national deficit, it is highly questionable whether this should be achieved by reducing the budget for social programs by 15 percent, while increasing the military budget by 13 percent.”

Needless to say, that is the remark that made news. According to the radio report, the pols in the front pews went wild. There they all were, Mayor Washington and various wardheelers and spear carriers of the decaying Democratic machine, cheering on their fellow politician.

Damien, the saintly Flemish missionary who spent his life on Molokai with the outcasts of the islands, began a famous sermon, “We lepers . . .” Thus did he reveal that he had himself contracted the disease of those he served. In St. Aloysius Church, Cardinal Bernardin, his arm in a sling, beamed out at those front pews and finally made it perfectly clear: “We Democrats…”

In some other possible world, one might care to ask the cardinal archbishop of Chicago what proposed cuts in the federal budget explain the 29 deaths on the streets of Chicago in 1984 which prompted the meeting he addressed.

In some possible world, one might want to know what Cardinal Bernardin makes of the view, held by members of both parties, that the shambles of our cities is due in large part to the benighted federal programs that were designed to help them.

In some possible world, Cardinal Bernardin might be expected to balance the quoted remark with a tribute to what President Reagan has done during his first administration to make life better and more hopeful for young Americans.

In the real world, we do not really care to discuss such matters with an archbishop qua archbishop. Unfortunately, however, in the real world we have become used to prelates parroting partisan policies of this kind. And, let it be said, the chief offender is Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

We should not lose our sense of outrage that an archbishop of Chicago should sound like the grubbiest of Chicago politicians. His remark is what is called a cheap shot. A sneaky punch. A diversion. The one thing it was not, alas, was a surprise.

Consider Cardinal Bernardin’s strange record in recent years. The pastoral letter produced by the committee of which he was chairman was generally recognized to be an attack on the Reagan administration. The glee with which it was received by Democratic politicians was lost on no one. Behind it was the eminence chauve, Brian Hehir, whose partisanship is clear. The toughest language of “The Challenge of Peace” was aimed at MAD, President Jimmy Carter’s contribution to national defense. The letter urged the substitution of non-nuclear for nuclear defenses, no matter the cost. A defense that consists in a threat to obliterate civilian populations raises profound moral questions, we were told.

If one were to take such recommendations of the letter seriously, it would seem to imply that a different approach to defense is desirable. A defense that relied on destroying weaponry rather than people would have an overwhelming moral appeal. And if such a defense could be non-nuclear as well, the hopes expressed in the letter would be close to complete realization.

So what happened when President Reagan produced his Strategic Defense Initiative? He proposed to shift the trend in national defense back in the abandoned direction of ABMs. He proposed to fund research along the lines of High Frontier. The whole thing looked like an answer to the bishops’ dreams. The press, for unfathomable reasons, began immediately to make fun of this proposal. It was dubbed “Star Wars” and luddite chuckles were heard in the land.

Did the bishops rise to the defense of the President? Did they draw attention to the close relationship between  the pious hopes of their letter and the realistic possibility of the Reagan proposal? If they did, their voices were lost in the jeering laughter of Democratic politicians. This silence about the most promising proposal in national defense since the invention of the atomic bomb invites doubts on the motivation of the pastoral letter on war and peace. It conveys the unfortunate suggestion that Cardinal Bernardin’s committee was exploiting an issue of grave importance in a way indistinguishable from the partisan opponents of the president. Why hasn’t Cardinal Bernardin issued a ringing endorsement of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative?

And then there is the tattered but seamless garment argument of the cardinal archbishop. In a special issue of Catholic Eye, entitled “The Bishops and Abortion,” Joseph Sobran has given us a devastating analysis of the net effect of the seamless garment. As he points out, the linking, however illogically, of abortion, capital punishment and nuclear weapons, is not aimed at taunting anti-nukes or opponents of capital punishment for their inconsistency in not picketing abortion mills. Far from it. The effect of this link-up is to ease the pressure on the abortionists by confusing Catholics with a muddled charge of inconsistency.

Why should Cardinal Bernardin thus give apparent aid and comfort to the political party which had adopted abortion on demand as its official policy? It is a sad record. It is a partisan record. It is a record unworthy of a Prince of the Church.

And here we arrive at the essential point. If Cardinal Bernardin wishes to book personal passage on the Mondale Line’s Titanic, let us wish him “bon voyage.” If he wishes to be a partisan Democrat, what Jeane Kirkpatrick called a San Francisco Democrat, and nod at the usual nonsense about the Reagan budget, so be it. But what on earth has that to do with being archbishop of Chicago?

I want to think that Cardinal Bernardin had a few appropriate pastoral things to say to those Chicagoans harrassed by street gangs. The Chicago Catholic quotes a few sentences that might have been made by a social worker. What the archdiocesan paper features is what the secular press featured, and that was the attack on President Reagan.

And Cardinal Bernardin, once more the spokesman for the Democratic Party, is more than pol enough to know that this would be the result.

Imagine what St. Paul would have said to those distressed seven hundred. Or John Paul II. Or Mother Teresa. Or Archbishop O’Connor.

O tempora, o mores.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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