The following sidebar is part of the longer article Fabricating Bernardin, by Peter Steinfels.


Weigel’s strangest omission of all is any reference to Cardinal Bernard Law. Much like those of disgraced leaders in Stalinist party histories, Law’s name is missing at every point where it might be expected. Weigel celebrates O’Connor’s appointment as a step in the decline of the “Bernardin Machine.” He does not mention the simultaneous appointment of Law to Boston. Weigel celebrates the Catechism of the Catholic Church as another blow against the “Bernardin Machine.” He does not mention Law’s role in proposing it at the 1985 synod or his difficulties in overseeing its translation into English. Weigel traces the sexual-abuse crisis back to the style of the “Bernardin Machine,” the “Truce of 1968,” and a consequent “turn to psychology.” Leaving aside the knotty question of what is or is not the appropriate (or unavoidable) role of psychology in dealing with sexual abuse, Weigel does not mention that Law as readily turned to psychology as anyone associated with Bernardin. Of Law’s failure to deal with the sex-abuse crisis as urgently and forthrightly as Bernardin did at the time, Weigel says not a word, preferring his fantasy about the “Truce of 1968” to all those inconvenient details. Having attributed the growth of the “Bernardin Machine” to Bernardin’s success in getting like-minded people appointed to bishoprics, Weigel hails O’Connor’s ability eventually to get his own balancing appointments. He does not mention the extraordinary success (far beyond O’Connor’s) of Law, who even now sits on the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Nor is there mention of Law’s part in the promotion of Weigel’s current hero, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Finally, Weigel scores Cardinal Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative as deserving of the very public criticism of Washington’s Cardinal James Hickey and his predecessor Cardinal William Baum. He does not mention that Law spearheaded that criticism, issuing the first and harshest comment. Hickey, Baum, and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, who also issued a critique, had all been vacationing with Law on Cape Cod when Bernardin sent out advance notice of the Initiative.

This is positively bizarre. Weigel is not merely touching up history but performing plastic surgery on it. Not long before Cardinal Law was disgraced and swept away to Rome by the sexual-abuse scandal, Weigel was writing about him as “one of the most influential churchmen of his generation” with “important things to say about the Catholic Church, America, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and world politics.”

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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Sexual Abuse & the Church

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