Ethics & Public Policy Center

The End of the Bernardin Era

Published in First Things on February 1, 2011



Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin died on November 14, 1996, after a moving and profoundly Christian battle with pancreatic cancer that edified Americans across the political and religious spectrums. Fourteen years after his holy death, the cardinal is remembered primarily for his end-of-life ministry to fellow cancer sufferers, for his chairmanship of the committee that produced the American bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” and for his advocacy of a “consistent ethic of life.” Those achievements were not the whole of the Bernardin story, however.

In his prime, Joseph Bernardin was arguably the most powerful Catholic prelate in American history; he was certainly the most consequential since the heyday of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When he was in his early forties, Bernardin was the central figure in defining the culture and modus operandi of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Later, when he became archbishop of Cincinnati and cardinal archbishop of Chicago, Bernardin’s concept and style of episcopal ministry set the pattern for hundreds of U.S. bishops. Bernardin was also the undisputed leader of a potent network of prelates that dominated the affairs of the American hierarchy for more than two decades; observers at the time dubbed it the “Bernardin Machine.” The machine’s horsepower inevitably diminished after the cardinal’s death. But it was still thought by many to have enough gas left in the tank to elect Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson (who had begun his episcopal career as one of Bernardin’s auxiliaries) as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this past November.

It didn’t. Bishop Kicanas was defeated for the conference presidency by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in a vote that left those bishops who still adhered to the Bernardin model speechless in disbelief. And if their stunned silence following the announcement of the vote did not conclusively demonstrate the point, the reaction to Archbishop Dolan’s election in self-identified Catholic progressive circles-which ranged from bitterly disappointed to just plain bitter-confirmed that an era had ended and a corner had been turned in the history of Catholicism in the United States.

The Bernardin Era is over and the Bernardin Machine is no more. Understanding what that era was about, and what that machine embodied, is important for understanding the options that have now been opened for a different pattern of episcopal leadership in the Catholic Church in the United States and a different mode of engagement between the Church and American public life.

The era and the machine reflected the background, the perspective on the U.S. Catholic experience, and the ecclesiastical and political convictions of the man for whom both epoch and network were named.

Joseph Louis Bernardin was born in 1928 in Columbia, South Carolina, a son of Italian immigrants. Columbia was, and is, in the American Bible Belt, so Bernardin grew up in the least Catholic part of the United States-unlike, say, the prelates of his generation who were products of a vibrant Catholic urban culture in the Northeast and Midwest. Some of them may have lacked Bernardin’s gracious manners and polish, but they never doubted that Catholics belonged in the United States. By contrast, an alert young man growing up in South Carolina in the years after the Al Smith presidential debacle could not have been unaware of Catholics being profoundly other, indeed suspect.

After briefly exploring a career in medicine, Bernardin discerned a call to the priesthood, studied philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and theology at the Catholic University of America, and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Charleston in 1952. His ascent up the ecclesiastical ladder was swift, with Father Bernardin becoming Monsignor Bernardin only seven years after his ordination. In fourteen years in Charleston, Bernardin served four different bishops in a variety of administrative posts prior to being chosen auxiliary bishop of Atlanta. In April 1966, Bernardin received his episcopal ordination from the hands of Atlanta’s first metropolitan archbishop, Paul Hallinan, the beau ideal of the post-conciliar bishop within the progressive wing of the American Church and . . .

Read the full article at First Things, here.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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