An inspiring vision, but devil is in the details
By WILLIAM F. McINERNY
Congratulations to Jesuit Fr. John P. Langan for selecting and editing 15 addresses, written and delivered by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a titan of the American Roman Catholic scene.
These selections are masterful. Consequently, this work is destined for historic value. In one source readers are presented with significant components of Bernardins fears, hopes, dreams and the moral values that dominated his thinking from 1983 to 1996. Those familiar with his moral passions will find this book a handy summary of what he loved so much. For those not familiar with the cardinal, this book will function as an insightful introduction to his moral imagination and his personality.
Given Bernardins impact on the American religious and political scene, this volume belongs in the library of every Catholic college or university (and other libraries as well).
Langans introduction lays out the books aims:
A Moral Vision for America achieves each aim brilliantly, especially the last one.
Consistent ethic of life is not a self-evidently meaningful term. Just what is it? A major contribution of this book is the composite answer given to that question.
The foundation of Bernardins consistent ethic of life is the belief that human life is sacred and meaningful because God is its origin and destiny. Consequently, human lifes sacred value as understood within the traditions of Roman Catholicism must be consistently recognized, appreciated and affirmed across a variety of different moral contexts.
To do so requires a fundamental bedrock of broad attitudes and a social atmosphere capable of sustaining such affirmations. A great deal of Bernardins efforts were aimed at engendering and cultivating such attitudes and atmosphere.
Other fundamentals of his life-ethic include its prophetic style and the need for public witnessing to it. After all, to be prophetic is to be public.
He also called for living out this life-ethic with civility and courtesy, not questioning the motives of others and assuming good will on the part of all. Even though these latter points were raised within the context of qualities needed for discourse between religion and politics, I judge extending them in general to the life-ethic a fair and reasonable move.
Furthermore Bernardin envisioned a comprehensive framework (conceptual and spiritual) that would interrelate a vivid spectrum of related life issues: abortion, nuclear deterrence, the homeless, the helpless, the hungry, the poor, health care, social/medical/sexual ethics, the federal budget, the needs of children, assisted suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment.
Bernardin imagined a major goal for this life-ethic; namely, the development of coherent relationships between moral principles and public policy choices.
Intriguingly, Bernardin did not elaborate the specifics of such an ethic. He broadly outlined his vision but summoned and challenged philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists, technicians, strategists, political leaders and citizens to spell out the substance of a consistent ethic of life.
One finds a number of surprises in these addresses:
Doubtlessly, readers will find their own surprises within these pages. Suffice it to say Bernardins thinking is not without problems.
Problems notwithstanding, this book is eminently worth reading, studying and probing. Since the addresses are arranged chronologically, we can trace Bernardins flow of concerns over time. One cannot but be touched by those addresses given as he faced his own impending death.
As a finale, the book concludes with Bernardins last major project, Faithful and Hopeful: The Catholic Common Ground Project. With dignity and calm this dying cardinal summoned and challenged his own diverse, at times quarrelsome, denomination to come together to attempt mutual understanding expressed as common ground, doing so with civility and courtesy, not questioning the motives of each other and assuming good will on the part of all.
William F. McInerny, Ph.D. is professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Mo. His specialty area is theological ethics. He has taught within that and related areas for 15 years.
National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999