Fabricating Bernardin

How Not to Write About the Cardinal & His Time

Few tools in the historian’s kit are as fundamental as periodization. By naming distinct stretches of time, historians give shape to history’s flow: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Exploration (or, alternatively, of Colonization), the Age of Democratic Revolutions, the Age of Anxiety.

As those names suggest, periodization always carries interpretive, even ideological, baggage. One person’s Enlightenment is someone else’s Age of Absolutism. John W. O’Malley, SJ, has written a brilliant little book, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era, on the significance of such alternative designations as Counter-Reformation, Catholic Reformation, Baroque Catholicism, or Early Modern Catholicism. Naming a period for a dominant figure—the Age of Louis XIV, the Jacksonian Age, the Victorian Era—is similarly fraught, as are the dates that begin and end a period.

“The End of the Bernardin Era,” a recent essay by George Weigel, is such an exercise in periodization. For roughly a quarter-century, Joseph Bernardin exerted a formative influence on the Catholic Church in the United States—first as general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1968 to 1972; then as Archbishop of Cincinnati and the NCCB president from 1974 to...

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.