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Leadership vacuum left behind by Bernardin


The question occurred to me while watching television coverage of Pope John Paul II last month wandering the stage at the converted airport hangar in St. Louis amid the secular and sacred dignitaries.

As the members of the hierarchy milled about, purple and red piping in abundance, I couldn’t help wondering who the leader of the American church is these days.

I know the immediate reaction from some: There is no “American church.” But there is, in the same way that the German church or the Chinese church or the French church all have their distinctive characteristics.

There is no formal title either, of course, but in most eras someone has held the unofficial designation of first among equals. In recent decades such figures as Cardinals John Dearden of Detroit, John Krol of Philadelphia and, most recently, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago easily wore the mantel, not by election (although all of them at some point served as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops) so much as by force of personality, vision and the authority they wielded rather naturally.

Bernardin is an apt measure of what is lacking in today’s church leadership. He was a high-profile bridge not only to the culture at large but also to Rome. It is why he was called upon by his colleagues, time and again, to help unlock conflicts and mediate seemingly intractable disputes.

Eugene Kennedy, in his book My Brother Joseph (St. Martin’s Press, 1997, $17.95) recounts one of the formative episodes in Bernardin’s career. He was quietly deputed by Rome to mediate the public showdown between Washington priests who dissented from Humanae Vitae, the encyclical upholding the ban on the use of artificial birth control, and Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington.

His effort failed, largely because Rome refused to make it publicly known that it had given the young then-Bishop Bernardin credentials to mediate the dispute.

Kennedy portrays a sad and rather lonely O’Boyle whose ultimate victory turned out to be rather hollow: “By the time Rome’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy accepted one of the resolutions that Bernardin had long before proposed, most of the dissenters had already left the priesthood, bequeathing to O’Boyle a Shakespearean king’s victory, a triumph that cost the lives of some of his finest sons.”

The episode deeply affected Bernardin. “He felt inside himself the hurts of the banished priests and of the isolated cardinal.”

But the experience served him well later in his career. “It was,” Kennedy writes, “a full initiation into the sometime ways of great institutions, the dark secrets of their self-protective procedures, which do not take into account, in their long calendar of history, the pain suffered on any particular day. Joseph would serve the church but he would, if at all possible, use what Pope John XXIII termed ‘the medicine of mercy rather than of severity’ in settling future disputes.”

Kennedy’s little book seemed to get lost in the rush of Bernardin books published in the wake of the cardinal’s death in 1996. It is both a tender story of friendship and a fascinating peek behind the scenes at a high-level church leader who achieved an unusual degree of credibility in secular and sacred spheres.

What becomes clear in Kennedy’s account is Bernardin’s ability to maintain a fierce loyalty to Rome while also not abandoning the best of what it means to be a U.S. Catholic.

He did not see the two in opposition, though certainly there were tensions. While the prevailing instinct today seems to require avoiding such tensions, or burying them, Bernardin used them creatively to fashion solutions.

So one has to wonder how different would be the debates over inclusive language, the place of national conferences, Ex Corde Ecclesiae and other issues if someone of Bernardin’s talents were able to marshal consensus and bridge the gaps of understanding with Rome.

We are going through what Kennedy, in a different context, has called an intermission period in the church, a time of transition, and no one knows for certain what the future holds.

In the meantime, doses of the “medicine of severity” seem to be on the rise, with excommunications and investigations and condemnations increasingly the language of authority.

In such a time of uncertainty, the American church awaits its next Bernardin. Or perhaps, rather, the new Bernardin is out there quietly awaiting the next papacy.

Tom Roberts is NCR’s managing editor. His E-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999