In defense of Cardinal Bernardin

A Bernardin Scholar defends the cardinal that restored his faith in the church.

Guest blogy post by Kevin P. Considine

A debate has arisen around the legacy of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. In a recent piece, “The End of the Bernardin Era,” George Weigel gave a hard-nosed account of Bernardin and his liberal Catholic authoritarian “machine” that supposedly watered-down Catholic identity and led the Church in the wrong direction. Peter Steinfels offers a thoughtful response in the recent issue of Commonweal, “Fabricating Bernardin: How Not to Write about the Cardinal and His Time” (requires subscription). Steinfels critiques the ideology and politics behind Weigel’s account.

Both Weigel and Steinfels have a greater knowledge of church politics than I do. I would be over my head entering into that conversation. Instead, I want to offer my own relationship to the late cardinal as a response.

I am a doctoral student in theology, and my studies would not have been possible without the late cardinal. Granted, he passed away when I was 16 years old and living in Ohio, on the border of the Diocese of Cleveland and Youngstown. Like many Catholic teens, and despite my parents’ best efforts, I had little use for the church. But my life changed because of the late cardinal.

My master’s degree in theology was made possible by the cardinal’s legacy. The Bernardin scholarship fully funded my education. As a Bernardin Scholar, through exposure to his concerns such as the consistent ethic of life, I came to a greater appreciation of the ways that God can work through the hierarchy of the church. This came at a time when I was convinced of the faith but doubted whether God could be found in the institutional church. In fact, God could.

This became most clear to me when learning about the cardinal’s response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. He was one of the first bishops to set up a process for examining these accusations in an objective and public way. And when he himself was accused of sexual misconduct, he submitted himself to this same process. The allegations against the cardinal turned out to be false. And Bernardin later met with the man who had falsely accused him and offered forgiveness. To me, that was a powerful gesture.

Bernardin was not a perfect man. He had flaws and made mistakes. He also was a fine-tuned church politician who knew how to build consensus in order to lead the U.S. church in a specific direction. That, too, was part of his job. But, if one were to read only Weigel’s account, one would see little else but the cardinal as a dictator of the U.S. church whose primary motivation was not the gospel but the promotion of a “liberal” agenda.

The 21st century context is much different from that of Bernardin’s era. But if Weigel had spoken with those of us who were transformed by the cardinal and his legacy, he might have shown a drop of sorrow that the era had passed away, despite his disagreements with Bernardin’s policies. Or, at least have provided a fair account of Bernardin and his legacy.


Guest blogger Kevin Patrick Considine is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at Loyola University Chicago. 

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.