Fifteen years have passed since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin ended his extraordinary life as priest, bishop, cardinal and leader of the Church in the United States. Bernardin was extremely popular, more accurately, venerated in his own segment of the vineyard; namely, the Archdiocese of Chicago. However, he was also a strong voice and a trusted leader for many among the American bishops. It was his guiding hand that led the bishops to adopt the challenge of peace in the 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear defense. Finally, it was Bernardin who articulated the “consistent ethic of life” which has been a sound moral guide as the nation and the Church struggled with pro-life issues.
Now comes the rewrite! In the February issue of the conservative magazine, First Things, George Weigel unveils his less than complimentary evaluation of Cardinal Bernardin and announces the end of the “Bernardin era.” Weigel is himself a well-respected writer and journalist. According to Peter Steinfels, writing in Commonweal magazine, Weigel has consistently adapted facts and figures to fit his own frame of reference and analysis.
For most of us who knew and worked with Cardinal Bernardin, we associate him most of all with collegiality and consensus. Those are qualities that were vitally needed in the Church during the difficult ‘80’s and they are needed even more today. Weigel uses those terms in quotation marks and implies that they are really a cover or masquerade for a lax accommodation with America’s secular society. Steinfels summarizes Weigel’s comments as “pejorative political imagery, unfounded claims and convenient omissions, give a thoroughly distorted picture of what he labels the Bernardin era.”
I had the privilege of working with this extraordinary man, both on his staff in Washington and while serving in the Office of Bishop. I had a loving sense of respect for him then and even more today. I am sorry that George Weigel feels compelled to rewrite history on the basis of what he hoped that it had been.
Steinfels closes by saying that, “Weigel is not merely touching up history but performing plastic surgery.”