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Bernardin named 'religion newsmaker'

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

By an overwhelming margin, members of the Religion Newswriters Association have picked Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as the religion newsmaker of 1996.

In a poll, the association also rated Bernardin's leadership as Catholic archbishop of Chicago and the public witness he gave to his faith while dying from cancer Nov. 14 as the year's number two story in religion.

Voted the number one story were the arson attacks on churches, mostly in the South, and the nation's response to them. Although white racism was widely blamed for some of the fires, federal sources said only about half the cases involving predominantly black churches could be traced to racist motivations. The National Council of Churches spearheaded a campaign that raised more than $5 million to rebuild burned churches and to support programs combating racism.

Other top stories in order of the number of votes received were:

  • The religious right, especially the Christian Coalition's impact on national and primary elections, and growing opposition from other evangelicals and mainline Protestants, who are forming their own grassroots movements such as the Interfaith Alliance. (A parental rights initiative in Colorado, strongly backed by conservative Christians, was defeated.)
  • The growing success of religious-based renewal movements for men, led by Promise Keepers' success, including its inroads among blacks and Hispanics.
  • Aging icons -- the health problems of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham.
  • Escalating tensions between the ultra-orthodox and more secular Jews in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu's election as the prime minister of Israel.
  • Assisted suicide and euthanasia, as courts move to approve such measures while religious groups and leaders, including Bernardin, protest against them. Developments include passage of a pro-euthanasia referendum in Oregon, two federal court rulings that overturned laws banning assisted suicide in the states of New York and Washington, and the much publicized involvement of Michigan's Dr. Jack Kevorkian in some 30 suicides. The Supreme Court will decide if states may ban such suicides.
  • Episcopal church court drops heresy charges against retired Bishop Walter Righter. It ruled that since "there is no discipline of the church prohibiting the ordination of a noncelibate homosexual," the bishop did not violate his ordination vow in 1990 when he ordained one. Another controversial issue involving homosexuality had to do with the legality of same-sex marriages.
  • Evangelicals wage entertainment wars, with Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God voting to boycott Disney.
  • Pope John Paul II says it is now possible to recognize that evolution theory is more than a hypothesis. Science, he said, reveals the truth about creation, but God is still the creator.
  • Increasing millennial fervor three years before the dawn of Christianity's third millennium.

In returning their ballots, several members made comments explaining their choice of Bernardin as religion newsmaker of the year.

Bernardin, one wrote, "made news by living out his faith. His witness crystallized and personalized many pressing social issues."

Others cited the cardinal's "grace with which he faced death," "his heroic witness and example in the face of death," "the fearless way in which he modeled the Christian belief that death is not the end, but a beginning," "his finding a way of speaking redemptively of death in a culture that tries to deny death's place" and "his teaching the world how to die with faith and dignity."

Bernardin's role as a peacemaker in the Catholic church was noted by several members. They cited his "efforts to foster dialogue between right and left in the Catholic church" and his attempts to build bridges in the cultural wars.

In late August, the cardinal unveiled his Catholic Common Ground Initiative, aimed at overcoming polarization in the American Catholic church.

Sixty-three of the 250-some members in the Religion Newswriters Association participated in this year's survey. The list of religion stories rated by the members was compiled by association officers. The association is comprised of print and broadcast reporters whose primary responsibility is the coverage of religion in the secular media.

The association was founded in 1949 and has administrative offices in Columbus, Ohio. Its president is Cecile S. Holmes, religion editor of the Houston Chronicle.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997