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Bevilacqua, an active prelate, is no stranger to controversy


Controversy has dogged Philadelphia’s Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua from almost the earliest days of his episcopal career. Soon after he was appointed bishop of Pittsburgh in 1983, he made national news as the Vatican’s emissary. His charge at the time was to order Sr. Agnes Mansour to resign as director of the Michigan Social Services Department because the department handled Medicaid abortion funds.

Mansour chose to resign from her religious order instead.

Bevilacqua had been a bishop only three years. He had served as auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, his home town, since 1980 when he was made a bishop at age 58.

In 1986, Bevilacqua was in the national spotlight a second time. He provoked a Holy Week furor in Pittsburgh by ruling that women could not be included in the Holy Week foot-washing service. He relented after the liturgy committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops ruled that his decision had no basis, but he sidestepped the issue personally by officiating on Holy Thursday at a parish that didn’t use the foot-washing ritual.

Much of the conflict around the issue centered on Bevilacqua’s decision to discontinue meetings with an ad hoc dialogue committee of 12 clergy, religious and laity, both men and women, who said they were seeking “greater participation for all people in the church.” The group had met twice when Bevilacqua, to the dismay of some members, declared the discussions complete.

He also provoked controversy in Pittsburgh in 1987 when he closed a natural family planning program sponsored by the diocese, presumably because some of the centers involved in the program had links to Planned Parenthood, an organization that supports legal abortion. The program, considered a national model, had been operating in the diocese for 13 years.

Bevilacqua also expressed strong opposition to public school-based “wellness clinics” in Pittsburgh that would provide information about sex, drugs and AIDS to students who had parental consent. Although school district officials insisted that contraceptives would not be dispensed, Bevilacqua said he was nevertheless opposed, based on what he knew of similar clinics in other states.

Bevilacqua is the ninth of 11 children born to Italian immigrants. A civil and canon lawyer, he had served as chancellor of the Brooklyn diocese since 1976 and on the marriage tribunal of the Brooklyn diocese from 1956 to 1965.

He was described on his appointment to Pittsburgh as a strong supporter of the magisterium, the type of conservative leader Pope John Paul II was selecting for top leadership posts. After five years in Pittsburgh -- he was appointed to Philadelphia in 1988 -- he had earned a reputation as a stern administrator. In a televised interview, he described himself as a man who “only teaches the truth ... and the Catholic truth.”

In national meetings of U.S. bishops, Bevilacqua has not been a major player in any of the high-profile activities of the bishops and is noted for his uncompromising support of Vatican-proposed regulations that would give local bishops unprecedented control over theology faculties at Catholic universities. He has balked at compromises that have received the approval of a vast majority of bishops and university and college officials.

For example, in a recent debate over how to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document on Catholic identity in higher education in the United States, Bevilacqua stood out among all other bishops for his repeated insistence that practice in the United States must conform to canon law. The law demands that theologians obtain a mandate from a local bishop to teach, a requirement that many bishops and academics hope to finesse because they regard it as contrary to the American tradition of academic freedom.

The Vatican appointed Bevilacqua head of a subcommittee to resolve the issue, short-circuiting years of work by a national committee of bishops and academics.

He has also been among those bishops who have carried on detailed objections for a number of years over translation of biblical texts used for liturgical purposes.

Bevilacqua’s concern for the letter of the law is part and parcel of who he is. He received a doctorate in canon law in 1956 from Gregorian University in Rome and a degree in civil law in 1975 from St. John’s University Law School in New York. He taught immigration law at St. John’s from 1976 to 1980. In interviews after he was named bishop of Pittsburgh, he said his decision to get a degree in civil law derived from his own background -- his parents had arrived in the United States with nothing, he said -- and from his own experiences working with immigrants.

Bevilacqua directed the Catholic Migration and Refugee Office in Brooklyn from 1971 to 1983 and in the early 1980s served as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration and Tourism. He said his law degree had afforded him greater influence with the federal government’s immigration service.

He currently serves on the administrative committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is a member of the NCCB committee on evangelization; a consultant for the Committee on Pro-life Activity; vice chairman of the Committee for Implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. He is a member of the administrative board of the United States Catholic Conference and of the board of directors of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

During his career he has often been an international emissary for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. For example, he led a delegation of bishops on a tour of African refugee camps in 1984 and visited Haiti after the overthrow of the Duvalier regime in 1986. He has testified before national legislators to oppose deportation of Salvadorans living illegally in the United States and to support a pilot program to feed homeless children at shelters in Philadelphia.

In 1991, he was awarded the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Award of the Northeast Catholic Center in New York for his service to Hispanic and other immigrants. In giving the award to Bevilacqua, the center departed from its tradition of giving the award to Hispanics.

Bevilacqua has had two articles published in NCR since he was made archbishop of Philadelphia. In 1991, the year Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal, he wrote an opinion piece criticizing the metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state. A personal reflection in 1995 described his reactions to his first visit to the Holy Land.

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998