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 1977; then as chairman of the committee drafting The Challenge of Peace [PDF], the bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear defense; and finally as cardinal archbishop of Chicago and articulator of the “consistent ethic of life.”

When Cardinal Bernardin died of pancreatic cancer in 1996, he was a beloved figure in his Chicago archdiocese and among much of the hierarchy, an extraordinary witness in his final days against euthanasia and assisted suicide. His influence in the American church, however, was already much diminished. The Common Ground Initiative that he had sponsored for countering polarization in the church was publicly repudiated by a bloc of his fellow American cardinals led by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. For a full dozen years, Law and Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, both appointed to their sees in 1984, had enjoyed the favor of Rome and the following of a growing number of conservative bishops named by John Paul II.

So it may seem more than a little odd that more than a quarter-century since Law and O’Connor’s appointments and fifteen years after Bernardin’s death, Weigel should announce, in the February issue of First Things, the existence of a Bernardin Era and now its demise. Evidently the specter of Bernardin’s stature still haunts American Catholicism, and a stake must be driven through its heart.

No one is better qualified for this task than Weigel. The more or less official biographer of John Paul II, Weigel enjoys both prestige and contacts in the inner circles of the hierarchy. He is smart, prolific, and articulate in person and in print. His biography of John Paul, however lacking in critical distance, remains indispensable. Not only is it comprehensive, but unlike the other major biographies, it is theologically and ecclesiastically informed. As an essayist, columnist in the Catholic press, and commentator on television, Weigel has a gift for explicating Catholic teaching or analyzing contemporary events in terms of large concepts, vivid images, and clear principles—and for illustrating them with quotations, anecdotes, personages, and incidents.

Yet the relationship between Weigel the dispenser of Catholic truths and Weigel the reporter of concrete facts is slippery. Clarity is his strength. Accuracy is something else. To say nothing of complexity or doubt or even elemental fairness. Too often he manhandles history or runs roughshod over evidence, sometimes personifying the case for a debatable principle as a battle between his favorite saints and sinners, or alternatively using the cover of an unexceptional principle, like the need for a distinct Catholic identity, to conduct a polemical campaign on behalf of his political agenda. And make no mistake: Weigel is a highly political creature. His association with organizations and think tanks favoring a foreign policy emphasizing military strength and fiercely critical of liberal international and domestic initiatives goes back to his formative years.

All these tendencies were on display in his first major work, Tranquillitas Ordinis, published in 1987. It was a provocative critique of Catholic thinking on war and peace in the years culminating in The Challenge of Peace, and I had some sympathies with aspects of the argument. The book also came with an impressive scholarly apparatus, over fifteen hundred endnotes, but once I began systematically checking articles cited from Commonweal I was appalled by the consistent level of misrepresentation, exaggeration, neglect of context, and convenient omission (see “The Heritage Abandoned,” Commonweal, September 11 and 25, 1987). More recently, Daniel Callahan noted the gap between the actual birthrates in European nations and the claims of Weigel in his 2005 book The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God (“Depopulation Bomb,” Commonweal, November 18, 2005).

In 1987, I expressed my puzzlement at how so much evident intelligence and industry could be reconciled with so much factual distortion. A quarter-century later I remain puzzled. All the same tendencies are on display in “The End of the Bernardin Era.”

This time Weigel’s objective is to turn the page on what the subhead of his article calls “a culturally accommodating Catholicism.” The danger of a culturally accommodating Catholicism is perennial, to be sure, one that has existed from Constantinian Rome to Vichy France and Franco’s Spain. No one should imagine American Catholicism immune to this temptation, not in its past, not in the wake of Vatican II, and not in 2011. But what exactly, in particular circumstances, constitutes accommodation and what constitutes resistance? One imagines pious Jewish Christians accusing St. Paul of cultural accommodation. More than a few European churchmen hailed fascism as admirable resistance to modernity. Weigel totally evades this larger question. Meanwhile, his effort to pin the A of accommodation on Joseph Bernardin involves spurious and selective history, unworthy innuendo, and transparently partisan politics. Worse, by personifying Catholicism’s problems in engaging American culture with a leader gone to his reward fifteen years ago, Weigel magically whisks away realities in Catholic life that are, if anything, more daunting today than in Bernardin’s heyday.

 

The ‘Bernardin Machine’

Weigel begins with a deep bow to the cardinal’s achievements while warning, more than a speck ominously, that they “were not the whole of the Bernardin story.” Indeed, Weigel even inflates Bernardin’s importance. Almost single-handedly, it seems, he shaped the bishops conference and “set the pattern for hundreds of U.S. bishops.” His network of like-minded prelates was nothing less than a “Bernardin Machine.”

Weigel’s fixation on this political image, with its connotations of backroom deals, quid pro quos, patronage, kickbacks, or even worse is central to his article’s rhetorical strategy. He repeats the word Machine twenty-two times, almost always with that capital “m.” Bernardin himself may have been “thoroughly charming,” possessing “gracious manners and polish,” but in fact he was “silken on the outside” while “quite tough on the inside.” He “knew how to get anyone who might be an obstacle out of the way.” We get the picture.

Weigel hints at something devious about Bernardin’s leadership. He was a master of bishops-conference “bureaucracy,” of its “bureaucratic ethos” and “bureaucratic steps,” and of “bureaucratic maneuvering.” He may have been sympathetic to progressives but was “careful not to appear radical.” The bishops under his leadership may have taken “some tentative steps into the murky worlds of radical activism by creating the Campaign for Human Development” and thus “playing with Alinskyite fire”; but the preferred Bernardin tactic was to “position” the church in the “liberal vital center” rather than on “the American hard left.” Even moderation is given a sinister cast.

Needless to say, this political language is applied only to Bernardin. No one else has a “machine.” Not O’Connor, not Law, not the unnamed prelates who dominated the hierarchy before the Bernardin era, nor those who have arisen to leadership since. I don’t recall Weigel ever writing about the “machine” that elected John Paul II or the “Vatican Machine” that sustained him or the “Ratzinger Machine” that succeeded him.

As Weigel knows perfectly well, bishops, like any group involved in collective decision making, necessarily engage in internal politics understood broadly as promoting one’s views, supporting colleagues who see things similarly, trying to conciliate those who don’t, but outvoting them when necessary. By most accounts, Bernardin was a skillful practitioner of episcopal politics in this sense, which is why Rome under both Paul VI and John Paul II repeatedly turned to him to defuse potentially destructive conflicts within the U.S. church.

 

Collegiality & Consensus

The watchwords of Bernardin’s approach were collegiality and consensus. Weigel tellingly puts the words “collegial” and “consensus” in scare quotes, dismissing the first as a mask for “the sting of authoritarian Catholic liberalism” and the second as “bureaucratic maneuvering.” Neither charge is substantiated with the kind of neutral evidence that any historian would take seriously. (Weigel relies heavily on insider gossip from unnamed, though likely conservative, sources that cannot be checked.) There are plenty of witnesses to the reality of Bernardin’s concern for collegiality and consensus. Here is testimony from someone Weigel can hardly tag as a cultural accommodationist.

Cardinal Bernardin is “the kind of chairman who opens up a question and gets everybody else talking about what they want to do first,” explains Richard Doerflinger, who staffs the Pro-Life Office.

“He talks last and says, ‘Well what I hear everyone saying here is....’ He draws it all into a consensus statement. We have very few votes in that committee. Most things are done by consensus, and done by a consensus crystallized through his restatement of what people are saying. He really is an incredible chairman, an incredible man for building agreement in a group.” (From A Flock of Shepherds by Thomas J. Reese, SJ.)

This consensus-building style worked not just in small committees but among the bishops at large: during the prime years of Bernardin’s leadership, scores of episcopal statements, many on controversial topics, passed unanimously or with fewer than ten dissenting votes. This was not the product of a machine browbeating or arm-twisting.

Bernardin’s concept of collegiality extended beyond his fellow bishops to embrace the experience and expertise of laypeople, priests, and religious in the formulation of church policy. During two years of preparation for the 1976 American bicentennial, panels of bishops held hearings around the country where both local activists and policy experts explored aspects of the grand theme “Liberty and Justice for All.” The same consultative process, welcoming input from multiple perspectives, was used in the preparation of pastoral letters in the 1980s on the morality of nuclear defense and on the American economy.

Read Weigel closely and you soon realize that his real objection is not that Bernardin’s devotion to collegiality and consensus was not genuine but that it was. To a church of collegiality and consensus, Weigel prefers one of command and control. This becomes apparent by both what he includes in his story and what he leaves out.

The first thing Weigel includes is a perfectly gratuitous notion that because Bernardin hailed from South Carolina, where Catholics were still suspect, he suffered from a psychological drive to render Catholicism acceptable to American culture. By contrast, bishops from the Northeast and Midwest, perfectly comfortable in both their Catholic and American identities, were not afraid to confront American culture and politics with their faith. This theory is not only purely hypothetical but also totally malleable. If Bernardin had been from Massachusetts, Weigel could spy the seeds of his supposed cultural accommodation in that Catholic rootedness. Indeed he doesn’t notice that his theory cannot explain the role he attributes to Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, Bernardin’s close adviser and routinely the object of right-wing denunciation. Hehir is a Boston-bred-and-ordained Irish American.

As he did in The Courage to Be Catholic (2002), Weigel elevates what he terms the “Truce of 1968” to a pivotal place in American Catholic history. In 1968, Cardinal Patrick  O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., suspended thirty-nine priests who dissented from Humanae vitae’s condemnation of contraception. Eventually nineteen of them appealed to Rome for reinstatement, and in 1971, Cardinal John Wright, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (and an ardent supporter of Humanae vitae), urged O’Boyle to reinstate them without requiring a formal endorsement of the encyclical. In The Courage to Be Catholic Weigel claimed, without providing his source, that this decision stemmed from Paul VI’s fear of an American schism; in “The End of the Bernardin Era,” he subtly shifts ground, suggesting that such doctrinal concessions could be wrung from Rome “if it could be persuaded of the danger of schism.” Persuaded by whom? He doesn’t say, but his finger is clearly pointing to that suspect Machine on this side of the Atlantic.

In Weigel’s view, the “Truce of 1968” sent a warning to American bishops not to defend Catholic teaching publicly nor disturb the peace of their dioceses by confronting dissent or upholding standards in catechetics and liturgy. Weigel even draws a preposterous causal line from the Truce to the sexual-abuse crisis: “bishops turned to psychology rather than moral and sacramental theology” in dealing with abusers.

But like Cardinal Bernardin’s supposed South Carolina insecurity, the resounding impact of the “Truce of 1968” is another product of Weigel’s overactive imagination. In researching her history Catholics and Contraception, Leslie Woodcock Tentler found that rather than sending some powerful message to the American hierarchy, “Wright’s decision caused little stir.”

No question, the postconciliar years and in particular the post–Humanae vitae years were tumultuous for the church. Bishops were indeed trying to keep peace in their dioceses, a task long considered one of their essential responsibilities. Often unprepared for the swirl of ideas that the council had loosed, or less certain than Cardinal O’Boyle about separating sheep from goats, many practiced the rule of Gamaliel: “If this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God...you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” Does it matter, then, if Weigel both generalizes and personifies this pastoral caution as “the style of governance characteristic of Bernardin Machine bishops” and links it symbolically to one episode in Washington, D.C.? It does. Both moves distract attention from the reality that dissent from Humanae vitae was widespread among laypeople, priests, and even some bishops, and not limited to a small group of outspoken theologians or clergy in Washington or elsewhere. So were honest divisions and understandable confusions about the significance and implementation of Vatican II’s reconfiguring of much in Catholic teaching and practice. Mistakes were made, and some church leaders charted their way through troubled waters better than others. But to suggest that such dissent, division, and confusion could have been easily managed by a different “Machine” at the top or by a whiff of ecclesiastical grapeshot in Washington is sheer fantasy about the past. It is also dangerous guidance for the future.

 

Convenient Omissions

What Weigel includes in his story may be less telling than what he omits. It is perhaps understandable that he omits the broader social and political context of these years: assassinations; urban violence; campus disruptions; the prolonged and ignominious exit from Vietnam; presidential dramas including the 1968 Democratic convention, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation; stagflation; American hostages in Iran; supply-side economics; revolution and war in Central America; everything but Reagan’s popularity and the fall of Soviet Communism. But even on the fine-grained level of the bishops’ doings in these years, Weigel omits things like Bernardin’s response to the “runaway” 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit; Archbishop John R. Quinn’s role, not Bernardin’s, at the 1980 synod on the family; factors besides John Paul II’s role in O’Connor’s 1984 appointment to New York; the role of the bishops conference not in resisting the 1990 Denver World Youth Day but in making it a success. Though many of these omissions are minor, they add up to a story line invariably pitting the Bernardin Machine against Rome.

Less odd but equally important is another omission: Rome itself. Actually Rome, the Vatican, the Holy See do appear in Weigel’s story—as the passive objects of manipulation. Bernardin gets Rome to appoint like-minded bishops. Some unnamed force persuades Rome to back off lest Americans go into schism. John Paul II “acceded to the wishes of the Bernardin-dominated U.S. hierarchy” in naming him archbishop of Chicago and then cardinal.

But Weigel omits that the Vatican repeatedly turned to Bernardin (and to Quinn as well) to carry out important assignments demanding pastoral judgment. Weigel makes much of Bernardin’s reported instructions to the committee of bishops drafting the pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear defense to rule out unilateral nuclear disarmament. There is something comic in the hawkish Weigel criticizing Bernardin for refusing to entertain a position that Weigel would have been the first to denounce if the drafting committee had urged it. But that is merely another stroke in his portrait of Bernardin as a calculating politician rather than a theologically principled church leader. Bernardin may well have acted with an awareness of what was viable in the American political context, but what Weigel fails to acknowledge is that Bernardin even more certainly had a greater awareness of what was acceptable to the Vatican. As a matter of fact, the drafters were ultimately summoned to Rome out of concern that the letter’s moral objections to most foreseeable uses of nuclear weapons could threaten, as French and German bishops feared, the place of the nuclear deterrent in Europe’s defense. Weigel skirts Rome’s role during the Bernardin era in other ways—for example, not mentioning how collegiality and the work of the bishops conference were frequently countered by bishops who, having lost votes among their colleagues in the United States, then sought to win their point by getting it advocated by one or another Vatican office. If collegiality and consensus fell short on the attempted pastoral letter on women’s issues, the ordinances for implementing Ex corde ecclesiae, the new translation of the liturgy, and other matters, one reason was Rome’s receptivity to this kind of end run.

 


Sidebar: LawlessWeigel's strangest omission is any reference to Cardinal Bernard Law.


 

Accommodation: Asserted but Undefined

Weigel’s pejorative political imagery, unfounded claims, and convenient omissions give a thoroughly distorted picture of what he labels the Bernardin Era. But does this affect the nub of his argument—namely, that Bernardin wanted to keep the church “in play” in American public life and that this constituted “cultural accommodation”? The resort to sports language here, like the resort to political language elsewhere, insinuates a lack of seriousness about the religious stakes. But apart from that familiar Weigel shading, it is true that in matters small and large (like proposing the “consistent ethic of life”) Bernardin strove to make the bishops conference a presence to be grappled with in American life and not one easily pigeonholed on the right or left. What Weigel seems unable to imagine is that Bernardin did this because he thought that Catholic teaching really did escape the alignments of American politics. Protecting its integrity was of a piece with maintaining its effectiveness. Seen in this light, Bernardin’s desire to keep the bishops conference “in play” rather than nicely aligned (in either reality or perception) with American political and cultural categories was not cultural accommodation but precisely its opposite, a refusal of cultural accommodation.

Weigel never does explain precisely what he means by “in play” or why it should be equated with accommodation. He prefers to impugn it with his arbitrary football metaphor of keeping the action at “an agreeable fifty-yard line”—which hardly describes what the bishops conference did (to Weigel’s great displeasure) in its 1980s pastoral letters. Nor is he precise about cultural accommodation itself, although his own politically partisan understanding of it becomes obvious. Others might find it strange to think that challenging the highly popular Reagan administration with differing views on armaments and the economy amounted to cultural accommodation. Instead, Weigel simply contrasts Bernardin’s leadership with (of course) the “heroic” style of John Paul II. Now, one could easily point to many cases where John Paul II, as bishop and pope, made tactical compromises to keep his message “in play.” But there is something quite right about calling his form of Catholic Christianity heroic (and also romantic), at least as long as one is willing to explore the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach in different circumstances. (Pius IX was surely heroic, too.) Bishops in the model of John Paul II rather than Bernardin, Weigel explains, have learned from John Paul and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe that “seemingly invincible forces could be defeated, and they were determined to defeat, not find an accommodation with, the cultural forces that, in their judgment, were at war with the gospel even as they were eroding the fabric of American life.” Rather than “put great stress on remaining ‘in play,’” these bishops would be “forthrightly countercultural.”

Logically, Weigel has still not demonstrated except by pure assertion why remaining “in play” is not compatible with, sometimes even the better part of, being forthrightly countercultural. Nonetheless, the appeal to John Paul’s role in the collapse of communism is a powerful one. What bishop wouldn’t like to think of himself in that dramatic role? Defying the seemingly invincible, fighting for victory rather than settling for accommodation! Yet again, one must ask what precisely Weigel means. Is the situation of the church in the United States comparable to that of the church under communism in Poland? Merely to hint at parallels between the United States and Communist regimes normally brings down the wrath of Weigel, ever vigilant against sweeping criticism of America. Here he can only mean forces at war with the gospel and American values in a more limited sense. In other words to be “forthrightly” countercultural in the United States means to be “selectively” countercultural or, if you wish, “forthrightly but selectively” countercultural.

 

The Villain Is Liberalism

So what selective part of the culture does Weigel see the post-Bernardin bishops as forthrightly countering? Inequality? Greed? Acquisitive, boom-and-bust capitalism? Prolonged, dignity-sapping, family-wrecking unemployment? Ecological negligence? Nationalist narrowness? No. What Weigel sees as parallel to Poland’s Communist regime is, in a word, liberalism. Citing Cardinal Francis George’s remarks at a Commonweal symposium (for the full context, see Commonweal, November 19, 1999), Weigel accuses “a certain liberal Catholic surrender to the ambient culture” of undermining Catholic identity and hails the “intense focus” of the bishops conference under George on the Catholic identity of Catholic higher education, health care, professional associations, and publications. In fact, many liberal Catholics have been no less alarmed at the prospect of “a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism,” to quote one book (mine) that goes into considerable detail about exactly those institutions, even if the remedies are not necessarily Weigel’s or the cardinal’s.

Weigel has little to say, however, about those Catholic institutions or catechetics or liturgy. His emphasis, not surprisingly, is explicitly political. He welcomes prolife activism as “the cultural marker of serious Catholicism in America” (his emphasis). He urges the bishops “to press hard on the prolife agenda” but otherwise address fewer public-policy issues and leave prudential applications in other areas to the laity. He calls for a new approach to “Obamacare” stressing “subsidiarity and the use of private-sector mechanisms”; although vague, this seems very much like Republican designs for dismantling any national plan. He hopes that the bishops will revisit the “confused Catholic thinking” about just-war doctrine that underlay their letter on nuclear defense and, one surmises, their other recent criticisms of American military actions. He even wants the bishops to reexamine their 1919 Program of Social Construction. Often hailed as a pioneering antecedent to the New Deal’s social safety net, it is for Weigel the seedbed of the bishops “default positions” on domestic policy. Weigel does not mention immigration, joblessness, the economic pressures on middle-class and working-class families, the need for financial regulation, environmental perils, or ongoing wars; presumably these are all issues that do “not touch a fundamental moral truth that the church is obliged to articulate vigorously in the public-policy debate” and, therefore, they are issues on which the bishops should take a lower profile. It is also true that Weigel does not mention the deficit or cutting taxes. Otherwise his policy recommendations amount to aligning the bishops with the Republican Party. So much for his closing peroration about how the post–Bernardin Era bishops “will help define a Catholicism in America in which the liberal/conservative taxonomy of the past two generations of Catholic life will crumble into irrelevance.”

Weigel repeatedly refers to “the liberal-consensus politics of the Bernardin Era.” One might dispute exactly how liberal that consensus was, but it was, at least among the bishops, a consensus. Which is, by comparison, what Weigel’s conservative political alternative is not. This is particularly true when one considers the fallout of making prolife activism, now unfortunately a franchise nearly wholly owned and operated by the GOP, the marker of serious Catholicism. His political agenda for the American episcopacy promises to be sadly divisive. Certainly divisive among the laity, but in reality among the clergy and hierarchy as well. His essay is filled with hints that there are still far too many regrettable remnants of the Bernardin outlook. In some respects, the thrust of his essay is to tell Bernardin sympathizers, your day is done; better get on board.

 

Command & Control

Weigel’s vision, marrying Catholic identity to a divisive politics, will never be achieved in a church of collegiality and consensus. That is why it requires a church of command and control. Command from Rome, command from the cardinals, command from the president of the bishops conference, command from bishops and priests in the heroic mode of John Paul II. In a subsequent issue of First Things, when an erstwhile backer of the McCain-Palin ticket in New Hampshire expresses disappointment that the church had not been more supportive, Weigel flaunts his insider’s track on episcopal appointments. “The appropriate authorities in Rome know of the parlous state of Catholic witness” in Manchester, Weigel assures the letter-writer, and “help will be on the way in due course.”

So much for command. As for control, Weigel’s favored word is “enforcement.” In The Courage to Be Catholic, Weigel maintained that “the problem in Boston was not that Cardinal Bernard Law was ‘authoritarian’”; what in fact he lacked was “a healthy dose of assertive, tough-minded episcopal leadership.” But will this really work any better? It may succeed in shifting a few crucial percentage points of Catholic voters into the Republican column in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, while shifting more than a few percentage points of primarily young Catholics into the category of “nones” (or “no religious affiliation”). It will not succeed in strengthening, deepening, and renewing Catholic identity. Just the contrary.

As an attempt at periodization, “The End of the Bernardin Era” deals with the post–Vatican II and post–Humanae vitae period of American Catholicism in the most superficial and selective way. It subtly and not-so-subtly denigrates Cardinal Bernardin with its choice of images and its convenient omissions. Most importantly it attributes to him and to his “Machine” and to his genuine dedication to collegiality and consensus the many troubles (and none of the successes) that the American church experienced from the late 1960s to the early 1990s without regard to all the other forces that were at work in those years.

Finally, by outlandishly stretching the supposed Bernardin Era to 2010, Weigel’s essay eclipses the responsibility of other church leaders, from Boston to Rome, for the continuation, even worsening, of those troubles. Why not name the two decades from 1984 to 2003, encompassing the failure of the hierarchy to confront the sexual-abuse scandal, the Law Era? Why not divide the extraordinarily long reign of John Paul II into the Era of John Paul the Great, from his election in 1978 through the fall of communism in Central Europe—and the Era of John Paul the Triumphant, from 1990 to 2005, when, despite enormous personal acclaim, leverage resulting from years of episcopal appointments, and several powerful encyclicals, he was increasingly unable to change the currents he decried in the West, in the international arena, or even among Catholics? Command and control has now reigned as the prevailing style of episcopal leadership for as long as did collegiality and consensus. A lot of the results are in. By extending the Bernardin Era to just yesterday and pretending that the new era of “heroic” leadership is only now beginning, Weigel disguises the fact that for the church in the United States, though perhaps not for the Republican Party, many of those results are dismaying, in some respects disastrous.

Renewal of Catholic identity and resistance to cultural accommodation are real challenges. They do not become less so because Weigel has used them as cover for a political and ecclesiastical vendetta. Meeting those challenges will test Catholic leadership at every level, from the papacy and the episcopacy to pastors, theologians, liturgists, catechists, intellectuals, donors, parish workers, and parents. They will be greatly aided by an understanding of the church’s recent (as well as ancient) past, one not clouded by nostalgia, defensiveness, apologias, or polemics. In the quest for such understanding, George Weigel has offered a valuable lesson: how not to do it.

 

This article has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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