The End of an Era

Fourteen years after the death of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the American bishops have put the Bernardin era in their national conference behind them. Among the multiple messages of their choice of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that may be the most important.

The symbolism by which the break with the Bernardin years was communicated couldn’t have been more clear and precise. In a head-to-head runoff election on November 16, pitting Archbishop Dolan against USCCB vice president Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson — a Bernardin protégé in his Chicago years — the bishops voted 118-111 for Archbishop Dolan.

Before the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore, Bishop Kicanas was widely considered a shoo-in for president; for more than 40 years, USCCB vice presidents have routinely moved up. (As a consolation prize, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, the outgoing president, appointed him to succeed Archbishop Dolan as chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.)

There are several reasons why Archbishop Dolan won and Bishop Kicanas lost. Last year, for instance, Bishop Kicanas publicly sided with the administration of Notre Dame University in its determination to award an honorary degree to President Barack Obama despite his pro-abortion policies. More than 80 other bishops took the unusual step of publicly protesting the university’s action.

Bishop Kicanas also was dogged by the fact that, as rector of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary in the early 1990s, he approved ordaining a man who turned out to be a serial sex abuser as a priest; convicted and laicized, the individual is now serving time in prison. The bishop said that, in okaying the ordination, he had no indication of what lay ahead. But the 118 bishops who voted for Archbishop Dolan may have seen this as more baggage than they wanted their next leader to carry.

Clearly, too, they knew of Bishop Kicanas’s ties to Cardinal Bernardin and were aware that he shared the well-known Bernardin favoring accommodation over confrontation. In choosing Archbishop Dolan, who’s made a name for himself by charging the New York Times with anti-Catholic bias, the bishops opted for something different — a willingness to stand up and fight back against adversaries that a majority in the hierarchy may now feel better suits their interests and the needs of the Church.


Looking out from the press section on a ballroom full of bishops after their historic vote, I remarked on the end of the Bernardin era to the man next to me, himself a veteran observer of bishops and the bishops’ conference. Nodding, he said, “A lot of these men never even knew Bernardin, and they have no reason to look to him for guidance.”

At this stage, it’s hard to say exactly what that means for the bishops and the rest of the Church. In general terms, though, it almost certainly means increased determination to fight the culture war outside the Church and face up to dissent within. That is very much the case on abortion and also on same-sex marriage, where the bishops, late in the game, have finally begun gearing up for a serious fight. Cardinal Bernardin’s famous “common ground” for dissenters and loyalists alike won’t have many bishops occupying it in the years just ahead.

Old-time Catholic liberals who look back fondly to the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s undoubtedly will regret the passing of the Bernardin era. From his years as the episcopal conference’s first post-Vatican II general secretary and then as president, all the way up to his death in 1996 and continuing even beyond, Joseph Bernardin was truly a towering presence in the conference’s affairs and, beyond that, in the Church in America.

I knew him, liked him, and admired his immense leadership skills, especially his uncanny instinct for building consensus. Many things that conservatives blame him for now — his “consistent ethic of life” is an example — were honest efforts to find solutions to tough problems, like restoring respect for unborn human life, that would win support from as broad a range of opinion as possible. The abuse of the consistent ethic as a rationale for moral equivalency wasn’t his doing; on one occasion, thinking I’d written slightingly of it, he was at pains to tell me he’d been assured of its orthodoxy by a curial cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger.

Unfortunately, the cardinal’s liking for consensus sometimes moved him to back away from confrontation in hopes of keeping everybody happy. That gentle approach could mean tolerating things that shouldn’t be tolerated. For better or worse, and probably both, his weaknesses as well as his strengths were reflected in his influence on the bishops’ conference.

Now the USCCB has chosen a new path. By no means is it clear where it will lead the bishops and the Church in the years ahead. Almost certainly, though, it won’t be where staying stuck in the Bernardin era would have taken them. Survivors of the 1970s and 1980s, far gone in nostalgia for the good old days, will be sorry about that, but others who weren’t party to the madness back then will say, “High time.”


Image: Nancy Wiechec/Catholic News Service

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Tony de New York

    Happy days r here againsmilies/grin.gif

  • Jerry Schmutte

    Mr. Shaw fails to mention the fact that Bishop Kicanis knew about Father McCormack’s “weaknesses” and allowed him to be ordained anyway. He also fails to mention the mountain of sex abuse scandals in Archbishop Bernardin’s Chicago and his strong support of Alinskyite community organizing. This article might give uninformed people the impression of being fair and balanced, but it fails on many levels to convey the absolute mess that AB Bernardin sired in Chicago and nationally.

  • David Ambuul

    I grew up in the Chicago archdiocese and attended catholic schools there from 1975-1987. A parish priest assigned to our gradeschool when i was in 5th grade had long hair and once told us, when we asked him if he prayed the rosary, that he liked to finger the beads and meditate. I was only about 10 years old and his explanation of meditation that followed set off a period of cognitive dissonance (in my little 5th grade head) that took many future rosaries to dislodge. One of the guys in our class dubbed him “Fr. Smoke a Dubi” and the name stuck. We were young and cognitive dissonance has its effects.
    I heard many homilies (from sundry priests) that directly stated or strongly implied that contraception was just fine. There was even a homily once where a priest said masturbation was morally justifiable! If a parishoner didn’t like such nonsense from the pulpit, by the late 1980’s most knew there was little point in complaining up the heirarchical chain: the likelihood of any action being taken was slim to none.
    But my most painful memory was that of a priest who wanted to start adoration at a parish in the 1990’s. For some reason he had to ask permission to make this move and by the time his request to begin this adoration was upon the near-highest ears of the diocese, he (the parish priest) began insisting that he had the right in canon law and thought he was just going to do it whether or not he got approval from those who were above him in authority in the Chicago Archdiocese. The day he began that adoration, a new priest who was neither conservative nor moderate was assigned to help him at the parish. I never heard news that the newly assigned priest was helpful with the adoration.
    The day I heard Cardinal Bernadine had passed, i prayed for him intensely, as i had many times in the past. It was one of those moments one never forgets: i was driving home from work (i was a gradeschool teacher at the time) and stuck in heavy traffic. And before long i began to wonder who God would send to fill his shoes.

  • Raphael

    I am 22 years old. In just the past couple years, but especially this year of 2010, I have not merely become jaded with the USCCB, but I have been convinced that it is Modernist and worthy of univocal condemnation. The USCCB has no authority over me or my diocese. It has ever been a collaborator with the Left, forging compromises and alliances with those blood-stained wolves who should never be tolerated or compromised with. For me, the final nail in the coffin was their support of Obamacare, excepting the aborting funding. I have seen no good come from the USCCB, and only the same criminal cowardice and self-interested conniving that has-for many many years-been tearing what’s left of the Western Inheritance to shreds. I know Archbishop Dolan from his years in St. Louis, and although he is far far better than a Kicanis or Bernardin, he sadly is no Fulton Sheen or Cardinal Burke. Nevertheless, I hope and pray that his election is the first step towards a rehabilitation of the U.S. episcopate.

    God Bless all our Shepherds!

  • Chuck

    Cardinal Bernadine has been a huge part of the problem of the USCCB’s CCHD along with Neo-Marxist Saul Alinksy’s teachings. Bernadine taught that all Church teachings were EQUAL – thus his Flawed Seamless Garment Theory. – “Right to Life” is the same as “Quality of Life” is the same as ” helping immigrants” etc.

    Until the CCHD has been eliminated from the USCCB, Bernadine will still have an unfortunate influence.
    This year the CCHD gave out a “Cardinal Bernadine award” at the USCCB conference. The CCHD also paid for a cocktail party for the Bishops – just like lobbiests do for politicians.

    Bernadine’s incorrect theory is still taught at Catholic Universities, even though it is not part of the Church’s teaching – but Professors don’t tell the students that.

    I wish the author was correct that Bernadine is out, but I don’t see it.

  • Andrea

    Cardinal Bernadine –

  • Bill

    Bishops who compromise with evil, just to keep “peace” – need to retire sooner rather than later.

    This is what is wrong in today’s society. Stand up and say “NO” when appropriate. Everything is not equal.

    Get rid of the CCHD. The Church does not need it.
    Get out of politics unless it relates to the saving of souls, or very grave matters
    We don’t need a union organizing group within the Church – even if it is for illegal aliens. Nor a group that gives financial aid to groups supporting gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. Nor a group that supports fake global warming (climate change).

    The bloated USCCB staff of 300+ should be cut down to less than 150 to help the Bishops save souls and only help with grave matters.

  • Deacon Ed

    of what was happening during the so-called ‘Bernadin Years.’ I’d recommend you first go the the website: and click on the area ‘Database of Accused Priests.’ Go to your home State and just peruse the activities of priests, religious men and women during the years of the 60’s through the 80’s and you will be treated to the legacy of this gneration of the AMChurch. Go ahead and actually read through the particulars for the Church personnel listed there. Then you make up your own mind about how the Church was doing during the glory years of the Seamless Garment. And if you have stomach enough left, read through the legacy from other States/dioceses as well.
    As far as Bernadin is concerned, I read through a bit of his biography and saw that he was made a Monsignor at age 30! Hmmmmm!!!!

  • Admin

    We’re fine with people commenting using pseudonyms, but don’t take kindly to those who post several times, under different names, to give the impression of agreement. I’m referring to you, Chuck/Andrea/Bill.

    The Management

  • Tony Esolen

    The real seamless garment was not the one which Cardinal Bernardin thought he saw. The issue of abortion is not closely related to that of the death penalty for murderers, and far less closely to those vexed prudential matters regarding poverty. That is, we can all agree on the maxim that we must help the poor; it’s just that we often disagree as to what actually does help the poor rather than hurt, and what that help consists of. But no such prudential matters come into play when we say, unequivocally, that we must never intend the direct death of an innocent human being.

    No, the issue of abortion was related, closely, to all the others regarding sex and the family: to the broad and manifold challenges of feminism, to the sexual revolution, to the decoupling of sex from childbearing, to the disintegrated family, and to the loss of the sense of the holiness not only of sex but of the human body. Cardinal Bernardin might have been able to forge a powerful but very different consensus along those lines. Whether he derailed the abortion debate intentionally or not, I don’t know; I’m guessing that that was not his intent. It was, however, the result.

  • Joe

    Those who pine longlingly for the Bernadin days should explain how they rationalize their admiration for Bernadin with certain aspects of his association with homosexuals and driving the gay sub-culture in the Catholic church.

    From Paul Likoudis

  • Darin

    Intellectual elites are all the same; they enjoy appearing to be above the fray when in fact it is a cover for their cowardice to stand against evil and speak truth clearly. I don’t understand what liking someone has to do with their bad behavior. Are you trying to appear nonjudgemental, fair, sophisticated? Are you saying he is like President Obama, just too smart for the rest of us to understand? I am sure conversation in the hallowed faculty parlors of Oxford and Princeton reek of the same clever sophistication and turn of phrase while impressing each other and saying absolutely nothing of consequence to the rest of us inferiors. When someone like a Cardinal Burke speaks clearly and plainly about an issue; some cover their ears and hide in the corner, some squeal in horror, and the elites smirk and say “how crude”. This reminds me of Cardinal George’s apology letter for having to tell the truth about the health care bill; but he really likes the President. We know how that worked out for the President and our Catholic backstabbers. Babies die, gays marry, freedom of conscience wanes and the beat goes on. Thankfully I can say with a smirk on my face that the liberal relativist will lose in the end, and that is especially true for those inside the Church.

  • Mary

    @Joe, Yes the persistence of a gay subculture in the Church has caused the USCCB to lose a lot of credibility over the years. Why is this topic never discussed? It’s painfully obvious to most of us in the pews. (I attend a church where the choir director wears leather pants … Enough said.)

    I was catechized (just barely) during the 70s-80s. Even as a child, I felt that the preaching lacked substance and real direction. While the appointment of a new USCCB leader is an encouraging step, I tend to think these issues need to be addressed early on–in the seminaries. That’s where priests are made.

    @Darin, I think the author was trying to be charitable toward his subject. Not a bad idea, if you ask me.

  • vmznning

    Given the statements in the comments, it seems incumbent on the author to respomd or yield.

  • Micha Elyi

    How many religious vocations did the Church lose during the Bernardin era?

    I was catechized (just barely) during the 70s-80s. Even as a child, I felt that the preaching lacked substance and real direction.


    Lucky you. smilies/wink.gif I received less than “just barely” catechism in the 1960s and ’70s.

    Let us close the era of accomodative Catholicism and may the New Evangelization era begin.