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Bernardin redivivus?

Speaking of "Throwback Thursday," Pope Francis seems to be giving new life to a number of neglected aspects of recent church history -- off the top of my head I'd say that list includes Gaudium et Spes, Cardinal Martini, Evangelii Nuntiandi, and by extension Paul VI, as well as Oscar Romero, John XXIII (as if he needed it), the Holy Spirit (as if she needed it) and the list may go on.

The legacy of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin would also seem to be getting a boost as Francis' remarks align so closely with Bernardin's ideas on the consistent ethic of life, on "common ground" for dialogue in the church, and for reaching out to the wider world. I explore this in a story published today:

“The point that (Bernardin’s) consistent ethic makes is exactly the same point that Pope Francis is making – let’s look at the whole picture and not just focus almost exclusively on three or so issues,” said Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., who had been close friends with Bernardin since the 1970s.

“I certainly think that if Cardinal Bernardin were alive he would be very pleased with what Pope Francis is saying and doing,” echoed Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, retired archbishop of Galveston-Houston, whose 1998-2001 term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was seen as one of the last in the mold of Bernardin.

“The consistent ethic of life theory that Bernardin proposed is getting a second look,” Fiorenza said.

Several other bishops, church officials and observers agreed. But if those assessments are manna to Catholics hungry for a new direction in the church, they are anathema to conservatives who believe Bernardin epitomized everything that was wrong with the U.S. church before Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI pushed the hierarchy to the right.

The story is long for a news service piece -- 1200 words! And yet much good stuff had to be cut. I made a glancing reference to Peter Steinfels' 2011 rebuttal to George Weigel's critique of Bernardin, and John Carr had a good line that didn't make it -- that while both Bernardin and Francis were children of Italian immigrants, "Bernardin wouldn't say grace without a prepared text!"

I think the evidence for the synchronicity between Francis and the late archbishop of Chicago is strong, and many agree, even though I could find no evidence that Bergoglio knew of Bernardin. The real question may be whether Bernardin's approach can return to currency in the U.S. church as much as it has in Rome.


About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Hey, David G - great article.  Cardinal Bernardin's accomplishments definitely are worthy of reflection, and you may well be right that Francis is, at the very least, a kindrid spirit.

Btw, clicking through one of your links, I see that the NY Times article on the spat among cardinals over the Common Ground Project was written by Gustav Niebuhr, who appears to be the grandson of H Richard Niebuhr and great-nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr.  I'm sure you're all over that already, but it was kind of a striking byline for that story.

And yet much good stuff had to be cut.

I've never seen such humility (in all my years of journalism).

Try reading it this way, Mark.  "Much interesting stuff had to be cut".

Nice try, Ann, but do you really see a difference?

This time around we might do better than Bernardine. No question the scoundrels who pilloried Bernardine have fell into disgrace with their horrible cover-ups. 


Mark, What is your point?

David Gibson,

I think you have very clearly shown that the affirmation of Cdl. Bernadin's "seamless garment" ethic is being embraced and re-affirmed by Pope Francis.  This is a very hopeful sign.  I am puzzled by Mark Proska's ad hominem repsonse to you, especially in light of his post on various threads where he touted his pwn "jounalistic" credentials.  Pot calling the kettle black?  He should not be allowed to derail this very important discussion of the Bernadin legacy, which was undermined and scuttled by lesser minds among the hierarchy.  They  were threathened and challengd by Bernadin's approach because they misunderstoond what he was talking about and interpreted his meaning to be soft on abotion which of course he was not doing.  The sticking point was always capital punishment because that did not fit with the bishops' Republican agenda.  Here they even disagreed with JP II in Evangelium Vitae where he ruled it out for the most part by declaring it an extreme and rare option for the sake of the common good.   He renedered it a virtual option rather than and actual one.  

I sincerely hope that Bernadin's "seamless garment" approach will win the day now because it really does address the broader social justice concerns of the Church. There is no one better to front for this approach than Pope Francis.

I think you are misunderstanding Francis. As I understand it, the core of his message is a return to the core of the experience of faith, as knowledge of the risen Christ in the sacramental life of the Church. As such, one of his main targets is the reduction of faith to ethics. On the contrary, I do not recall Bernardin ever "getting" this crucial problem.

I will be happy to be proven wrong, but in my recollection Bernadin's concern was very much ethical, to establish some sort of comprehensive ethical approach to various issues. As such, it was also a very "political" approach, and moved within the context of the US division between "liberals" and "conservative." Such division is perfectly irrelevant to Francis, adn so is the question of a "ethical synthesis." In fact, I would go as far as saying that his approach moves in the exact opposite direction, but you are reading it through a North-American lens.

Bishop McElroy's article in the Oct. 7 issue of "America" on the "Church of the Poor" and the emphasis that Pope Francis is giving to that theme makes favorable reference to Cardinal Bernardin's "seamless garment" metaphor. In my view that refeerence is well grounded. I suggest that Mr. Lancellotti re-think his comments in the light of the McElroy piece.

Carlo Lancellotti,

I think you have misunderstood what Cdl. Bernadin's work as all about.  

Here is a short quotation that summarizes what he had hoped for in the Common Ground Project that would overcome the polarization in the Church brought about by the culture wars over hot button issues.  He locates faith at the center of his project:

"American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively—a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation."  Called to Be Catholic: Church in A Time of Peril, August 12, 1996

I believe it was his opponents who played the politics in order to win support from their Republican allies.

Mr. Dauenhauer:

thank you for the reference. I quickly read the article online but I could not find the "seamless garment" reference.

But, in any case, I think Bishop McElroy is providing exactly a "Bernardinian" interpretation of the Pope's teaching: as primarily ethical and as a call to political action. While I am not opposed to any of the specific suggestions he makes, I stand by my previous comments about the fact that Francis's primarily concern is actually to move away from an ethics-centered discussion. The Church in the US has been stuck for half a century in a conversation about what Augusto Del Noce called the "reconciliation of virtues," as if all the different virtues did not stem from a common source, namely the encounter with the living Christ.

Incidentally, the predominantly ethical emphasis of much American Catholicism (on both sides of the ideological barricades) has not done much good for the poor either.


thank you for the quote. To me the invitation to "reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively" is a perfect example of what I was talking about. It essentially is a (intra-ecclesial) political project driven by a high ethical purpose, which naturally for Catholics is "centered on faith in Jesus." That does not make it wrong, nor does it make Cardinal Bernardin a bad person. Simply, it is not what Pope Francis has been talking about.

What Francis said, or seems to have said, will probably be the topic of debate for a while. Most will interpret according to their bias.

Carlo --

Please tell us what you think the relationship is between faith and ethics.  

As I read what you've said, you seem to be suggesting that faith does not include ethics, that one can be faithful without ethics, and you seem to see faith as the preserve of conservatives while ethics is the preserve of liberals.

Mr. Lancellotti, instead of referring to Bishop McElroy's "America" articel, I should have referred to the interview he gave to"La Stampa" published Oct. 24. In the last paragraph, he refers to "Cardinal  Bernardin's seamless garment approach that saw all the life issues as part of a continuum linked by the Catholic notions of compassion and justice."

I don't know whether this will change your view, but I think Ann is right to note that, for Catholics, faith and ethics are by no means separable.

To suggest that Cardinal Bernardin reduced the content of faith to political ethics is preposterous.  Proof? Nothing if not a profound and robust faith in Jesus Christ and the Catholic tradition motivated the late Cardinal in his articulation of the consistent ethic of life. 


As the pope’s namesake is alleged to have said (fact checking seems to disprove this attribution --- ---, but the dictum is valid nonetheless):  “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” 

In other words, be sure that your deeds match your words, i.e., be ethical.

David Philippart:

you are using the word "political" in an excessively narrow, secular sense. I was referring to the fact that Bernarding was clearly concerned about healing intra-ecclesial divisions, and coming up with a consistent ethical frameworks that everybody could share (the famous "seamless garment"). As worthy as that idea may be, I call that a "political" project (where of course the "polis" was American Catholicism) , and certainly it is not what Francis has been speaking about.


Ann and Mr. Dauehauer:

yes, of course faith and ethics are linked, although it would be very presumptuous to try and analyze their relationship in a blog comment. That does not affect my point: that Francis has not been talking about reconciling, say, opposition to abortion and opposition to social injustice in one consistent ethical proposal. He has been primarily talking about knowing Jesus better and making him better known. Of course, that has also ethical consequences.


David P rightly points out that you offer no proof whatsover. Nothing new. What else can Francis be talking about when he stresses that we should not lay the emphasis in one area (read cultural wars with the issues you know)? The seamless garment means that you cannot lay aside one item of the Gospel and only stress what you prefer.  It is really simple.  Give us a break.


proof of what? Just go read what he writes. He never says that the question is to balance various areas. He says that we should not fixate on certain moral teachings because it is an obstacle to evangelization inasmuch as distracts us from encountering Christ and witnessing to him. I challenge you to find a quote where he says that we should not fixate on certain moral teaching in order to make space for other moral teachings. There is none. Do you find that hard to understand?

Carlo: The pope gave an interview published in Jesuit journals last month. In it he says the very things you say he did not say. We can debate issues here but your accusatory tone is not helpful, and in my experience is likely as not to rebound to your disadvantage -- see below:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

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