Remembering Cardinal Bernardin

Twelve years ago today, the Catholic Church lost one of her great and humble leaders, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Bernardin grew up in the South. Born in South Carolina, he served for many years in Atlanta until he was asked to lead the U.S. Catholic bishops as their General Secretary. He held that position in the critical and turbulent years between 1968-1972, when Catholicism world-wide was trying to get it’s footing in the Post-Vatican II era.

Bernardin captured the vision of the second Vatican council: Carry forward tradition, not traditionalism; cling to the faithful first, and the dogma of faith second. He was a rigorous intellectual and philosopher, but, above all else, he was a pastor.

Cardinal Bernardin is probably best remembered for introducing the concept of “the seamless garment of life.” In his 1983 speech at Fordham University, Bernardin put forth an inquiry to the audience: How can Catholics address the need for a consistent ethic of life and probe the problems within the church and the wider society for developing such and ethic? He made this address in the context of the bishops’ letter on war and peace issues (The Challenge of Peace), which had been recently released. He said:

Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social policy. They are also complementary in foreign policy. The Challenge of Peace joined the question of how we prevent nuclear war to the question of how we build peace in an interdependent world. Today those who are admirably concerned with reversing the nuclear arms race must also be those who stand for a positive U.S. policy of building the peace. It is this linkage which has led the U.S. bishops not only to oppose the drive of the nuclear arms race, but to stand against the dynamic of a Central American policy which relies predominantly on the threat and the use of force, which is increasingly distancing itself from a concern for human rights in El Salvador and which fails to grasp the opportunity of a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict.

The relationship of the spectrum of life issues is far more intricate than I can even sketch here. I have made the case in the broad strokes of a lecturer; the detailed balancing, distinguishing and connecting of different aspects of a consistent ethic of life is precisely what this address calls the university community to investigate. Even as I leave this challenge before you, let me add to it some reflections on the task of communicating a consistent ethic of life in a pluralistic society.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Bernardin’s full address, especially in these days when the current cohort of American Catholic bishops seems to have lost sight of the “seamless garment” and of the delicacy of pluralism..

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