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The Bernadin era, or, the death of the dream January 17, 2011

Posted by Tantumblogo in Basics, Dallas Diocese, General Catholic, North Deanery, sadness, scandals, sickness.

In the 60s and 70s, there emerged on the Catholic scene a generation of leaders, bishops and high level priests, who were liberal/progressive in outlook and were willing to work very hard to push the Church in the United States in that direction.  Their leader was Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, a man whose name evokes frequent frustration, even revulsion, among more traditionally minded Catholics (ahem).  George Wiegel, the man who kick started “theology of the body” by hyperventilating over a little noticed series of talks by Venerable Pope John Paul II in a biography, describes the end of the Bernadin era, which we are witnessing.  Many of those players are still around, still writing their harangues in the Distorter and Commonweal, but their numbers are thinning relentlessly.  And a new Church is emerging in their place.  A couple of quotes from a very long piece:

The Bernardin Ma-chine’s approach to governance within the Church was frequently described as “collegial,” but those clergy and laity who, in their dioceses or in their interaction with the NCCB/USCC, felt the sting of authoritarian Catholic liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s would likely demur. For the Machine was quite rigorous in enforcing its ecclesiology and its politics, and it was perfectly capable of withdrawing its favor when bishops once thought loyal club members showed signs of intellectual or ecclesiastical independence. One prominent example was now-retired Cardinal James Francis Stafford. Stafford was thought part of the Bernardin world when he was named a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the family. But he eventually took a different path, in part because of his unhappiness with how Bernardin, also a member of the Synod, quietly tried to maneuver that body’s deliberations into a critique of Paul VI’s teaching on the morally appropriate way to regulate births in Humanae Vitae.

Stafford was surprised at this, but he shouldn’t have been. For the Bernardin Era and the style of governance characteristic of Bernardin Machine bishops were deeply influenced by the Roman-brokered “Truce of 1968,” an ill-fated attempt to settle the disciplinary situation in the Archdiocese of Washington, where dissent from Humanae Vitae was widespread and public. Whatever the Vatican’s intentions vis-à-vis the difficult situation in Washing-ton, what was learned from the truce were two lessons that would shape an entire era of U.S. Catholic history. The first lesson was that the Holy See would retreat from rigorously enforcing doctrinal discipline if it could be persuaded of the danger of schism. The second lesson was that American bishops were ill advised to go out on a public limb in defense of Catholic teaching (as Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington had done by disciplining priests who had publicly rejected Humanae Vitae), for that could result in the Holy See sawing off the limb and leaving the bishop in question in a bad way.

I have heard this “schism” theory before to explain the seemingly baffling unwillingness by Rome to enforce doctrinal discipline.  Perhaps it’s true, but I also know that the default setting for most people is to avoid confrontation and hope the problem goes away.

And they were prepared to challenge the culture—and American politics—to re-discover the public-policy implications of America’s founding commitment to self-evident moral truths; they were not interested, in other words, in finding an agreeable fifty-yard line. They had learned from John Paul II and the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe that seemingly invincible forces could be defeated, and they were determined to defeat, not find an accommodation with, the cultural forces that, in their judgment, were at war with the gospel even as they were eroding the fabric of American life.

There was paradox here. Joseph Bernardin, growing up in that part of America where Catholics were most suspect, defined a style of engagement with American public life that put great stress on remaining “in play.” The bishops who ultimately brought an end to the Bernardin Machine and the Bernardin Era grew up comfortably Catholic and comfortably American—and then came to understand that their Catholicism could require them to be forthrightly countercultural in dealing with American culture and politics. The paradox underscored that a sea change had taken place, the effects of which were likely to be felt for generations.

The ecclesiastical sensibility that characterized the Bernardin Era can still be discerned in several parts of the complex reality that is the Catholic Church in the United States. That sensibility is perhaps most palpably felt in Boston, where Father Hehir has wielded considerable influence over archdiocesan affairs in recent years and has done so according to the Bernardin model. The Bernardin ethos is also felt within the bishops’ conference bureaucracy, as it is within diocesan bureaucracies. But if the Bernardin Era is indeed over, one should expect to see some continuing shifts of default position, not least within the bishops’ conference

Congregation, let us pray.


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2. Voris on lukewarm Catholicism « A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics - January 18, 2011

[…] Dallas Diocese, disaster, General Catholic, North Deanery, sadness, scandals, Society. trackback I wrote yesterday about Cardinal Bernadin and the seeming dimunition of his, to me, unfortunate, influence on the Church in this country.  […]

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