John Goerke is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in the field of Catholic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, MN. @JohnGoerke
A few weeks ago, I wrote a little essay criticizing Rose Berger’s characterization of Pope Francis as a proponent of “liberation theology.” Of concern there was Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican priest and the founder of liberation theology. Mrs. Berger argued that the Pope was embracing Fr. Gutierrez’s project and adding fuel to the fire of his legacy. Recently, another comparison has arisen between the Pope and a controversial twentieth Catholic figurehead: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
If Gutierrez represents the heretical blend of South American Marxism with Catholicism, then Cardianl Bernardin represents the heretical blend of North American liberalism with Catholicism. Heresy here is the reversal of the proper relationship between culture and Catholicism. Where Guitieriez and Bernardin fall into error is that their theology, expressed both in written and acted form, places the Church at the service of a political and social agenda, rather than a political and social agenda at the service of the Church.
David Gibson, of the Religion News Service, published on October 24th, “Pope Francis breathes new life into Cardinal Bernardin’s contested legacy.” He writes:
The election of Pope Francis in March heralded a season of surprises for the Catholic Church, but perhaps none so unexpected – and unsettling for conservatives – as the re-emergence of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model for the American Catholic future.
While there is no indication that Francis knows the writings of Bernardin, who died in 1996, many say the pope’s remarks repeatedly evoke Bernardin’s signature teachings on the “consistent ethic of life” – the view that church doctrine champions the poor and vulnerable from womb to tomb – and on finding “common ground” to heal divisions in the church.
This “common ground,” for those unfamiliar with Bernardin, is an allusion to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, a project begun by the Cardinal shortly before his death. We’ll cover that in more detail later. What is relevant is that Mr. Gibson has taken note of the Pope’s unique tone and approach to the papacy and concluded that it means a shift to the left in the Papacy. He argues that like Bernardin, Pope Francis will be more concerned with a “whole picture” rather than the issues of abortion, contraception and marriage. Just as Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative weakened his theological resources for criticizing dissent, Mr. Gibson thinks that Pope Francis will not have the chutzpah of his predecessors, who were willing to draw a hard line should the need arise. Where we go from here is an assessment of Gibson’s argument that Pope Francis embodies a discontinuity with his predecessors. Following that, an account of Bernardin’s actions and legacy are in order. Then finally, an apologia of Pope Francis will be undertaken.
Gibson writes the following concern the relationship of Pope Francis to his predecessors:
The new pope has also sought to steer the hierarchy away from conservative politics and toward a broad-based view of Catholicism “that is not just top-down but also horizontal” — focused on dialogue in the church and with the wider world.
During his famous visit to Poland, John Paul II did not utter the word “communism” once. He did not speak about the evils of the regime or stir up the crowd with slogans of a new future, free of political corruption. Instead, he spoke of God’s immense love and mercy for the world. The communist regime fell because the Poles were resolved in what they wanted. The did not want to throw off communism or kill their oppressors, but instead sounded off for seventeen minutes: “We Want God.” This along with Pope Benedict’s statement that the pope is “first and foremost the bishop of Rome, and as such- as successor to the Apostle Perer-he has an episcopal responsibility for the whole of the Catholic Church,” gives clear evidence that the papacy has always been pastoral rather than political. Gibson insists on understanding the papacy in merely political terms. “Conservatives,” he writes, “believe Bernardin epitomized everything that was wrong with the U.S. church before Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI pushed the hierarchy to the right.” While Catholicism and the past two papacies are certainly friendly to conservatism, it is wrong to consider them as equivalents. To construe Pope Francis as seeking “to steer the hierarchy away from conservative politics” is not to misunderstand him, but his predecessors.
Yet, the core of Gibson’s worry is that the Pope seems to be trumpeting Cardianal Bernardin’s “consistent life ethic.”
Cardinal Bernardin always talked about the consistent ethic as both a principle and an attitude,” Nairn said. What is new, he said, is that Francis “has returned not only to the principle of the consistent ethic of life but he has also returned to Cardinal Bernardin’s tone.”
Gibson assumes his reading audience is familiar with Bernardin and his problems. I won’t make such an assumption here. Gibson references an account of Bernardin’s legacy written by Mr. George Wiegel. A summary of that account is in order.
Since Gibson divides his bad guys (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) and good guys (Bernardin and Francis) into the categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’, it is easy to assume that Bernardin embodies the worst of that group known as the ‘Catholic Left’, with their fetish for abortion and dislike of orthodoxy. But Weigel doesn’t argue that.
Cardinal Bernardin was a committed pro-lifer; charges that he developed the “consistent ethic” approach in order to give cover to liberal (and pro-choice) Catholic legislators who were “good on capital punishment and nuclear weapons” were false. Intentions aside, however, the “consistent ethic” did help buttress the Bernardin Machine’s “in play” approach to the Catholic Church and public policy, which inevitably blunted criticism of such determinedly pro-abortion Catholic politicians as Edward M. Kennedy and Robert F. Drinan.
In the age of Mr. Biden, Mrs. Pelosi and Mrs. Sebelius, it is easy to assume any disagreement with orthodoxy will be to taken to an extreme and defended in an annoyingly shrill tone. That is not the case with Bernardin who, as far as I can tell from Mr. Weigel’s account, had his heart in the right place, but misapplied his principles. In other words, while he himself wasn’t a member of todays dissident Catholic Left, he accidentally left the door open for them. God has two arms: one of justice and one of mercy. Bernardin, in his musings on theological dissent, leaned too heavily on the arm of mercy. Yet, in his leadership style, he leaned too heavily on the arm of justice. Mr. Weigel:
The Bernardin Era was one of institutional maintenance and bureaucratic expansion in which a liberal consensus dominated both the internal life of the Church and the Church’s address to public policy.
Bernardin’s ethic may have been left of orthodox during his time of influence, but this was problematic because of the sledgehammer he used to exert his influence. Mr. Weigel gives several accounts of how Bernardin stacked various committees to arrive at an outcome he would approve of. He was careful to appoint allies to positions of power and, due to the enormity of his influence, considered it a blow when he lost to the Pope concerning the location of World Youth Day. (Mr. Weigel notes that in his final years John Paul II was still chuckling over this sparing match. “Denver! World Youth Day 1993. The American bishops said it couldn’t be done. I proved them wrong!”)
Bernardin’s Catholic Common Ground Initiative smacks of that belief among progressives that any problem may be solved, provided a committee is put on the case.
Shortly before his death in 1996, Bernardin initiated the “Catholic Common Ground Initiative,” an ongoing forum for fostering conversation across the spectrum of what had become, in the Clinton years, an increasingly polarized U.S. Church… Because the Initiative intended to include as full participants known dissenters from settled Catholic teaching, it was publicly criticized…for promoting a false irenicism that tacitly accepted the notion of “faithful dissent.”
This bureaucracy focused leadership stands in sharp contrast to the Vatican under Pope Francis. In searching my mind for the times when Pope Francis has exerted strong papal power over the Church, only two examples come to mind. The Pope demanded that a statue of him in Buenos Aires be removed immediately and he excommunicated a pro-gay marriage, pro-women’s ordination priest. Neither of these would have been carried out if Francis was the lefty, relativist some consider him to be. I suspect Bernardin would not have condoned laying the smack down on the Australian priest. The actions of Francis here reflect the stark contrast that exists between him and Bernardin, when it comes to the Church, there is no room for “common ground” with heresy. If it is sought, grave consequences will follow:
Keeping peace within dioceses in the wake of the post–Humanae Vitae chaos thus became one of the prime imperatives of bishops adhering to the Bernardin model, even if that meant tolerating a measure of what Father Charles Curran liked to call “faithful dissent.” Bishops who condoned “faithful dissent” were unlikely to be vigorous in enforcing catechetical standards or liturgical discipline. Their approach to problems of clerical indiscipline and malfeasance also helped shape the ecclesiastical culture in which bishops turned to psychology rather than moral and sacramental theology in dealing with cases of the sexual abuse of the young.
Pope Francis probably hasn’t read this paragraph, but there is evidence that he understands the dangers of “faithful dissent” in principle. The Pope has been adamant that Satan is real and he must be overcome by allowing God’s grace into our lives.“When one does not profess Jesus Christ—I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’” said the Pope within a day of his election. “Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil tempts us with every day.” he continued on the next. Mr. William Doino Jr. has written a wonderful summary of the Pope’s views on Satan. Our pontiff, he argues, is making sure the world knows the cost of comprise with the prince of evil.
To make the distinction between Francis and Bernardin even more obvious. Consider the words of Cardinal Bergoglio concerning the redefinition of marriage in Argentina:
At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naïve: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a “move” of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.
There is no seeking of “common ground” here. In principle, gay marriage is the work of Satan. What then is to be made of the Pope’s sometimes casual tone when discoursing with the press or his oft-repeated statement that; “ I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”?
The Pope is not calling into question the teachings of the Church. The much quoted sentence begins; “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear.” Rather, he is embodying a distinction made by Venerable Fulton Sheen: “There is no subject on which the average mind is so much confused as the subject of tolerance…. Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to principles. Intolerance applies only to principles, but never to persons.” The questions of principle have been established. When Pope Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was speaking about persons, those embodied souls whom Christ came to save.
The error of Pope Francis may be that he has wrongly assumed that the world has read his predecessors. Modernity and post-modernity were serious questions faced by the Church in the 20th century. We take for granted the Church’s critiques of utilitarianism, communism, skepticism, deontology, scientism, sexual liberation and the host of proclamations she has made about the nature of community, social justice and Truth in this newly globalized world. Could it be that we have forgotten that these positions were put forward by the Saints of the last century? In the face of modernity, John Paul II asserted with firm conviction and characteristic charm, “This is what we believe.” The life of Joseph Ratzinger, and the papacy of Pope Benedict may be summarized as: “This is why we believe it.” But as a Fellowship of Catholic University Studies poster made clear, the papacy of Pope Francis has been operating under the mark of: “Now go do it.”
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the faithful lacked the resources to know exactly what the Church thought about a great number of topics. Now, the answers are available to those minds willing to inquire. What does the Church think about abortion? Read Humane Vitea and Evangelium Vitea. What does the Church think about other religions? Read Nostra Aetea and Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance. What does the Church think about education? Read the works of Newman and the Vatican II Document on Christian Education. What about philosophy? Read Fides et Ratio. What does the Church seek above all? Read Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.
There is not enough evidence to assert that Francis is reviving the legacy of Bernardin. Where Bernardin was a heavyweight in the bureaucratic structure of the American Church, Francis only pulls rank to clean out heretics and avoid the cult of personality. Where Bernardin was willing to be tolerant of bad principle on account of a misplaced mercy, Francis has been crystal clear about the works of Satan in the modern world. Further he has reaffirmed the Church’s position about the immeasurable value of human life: “Every unborn child, although unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s face.” What Mr. Gibson drew attention to was that Bernardin used a “consistent life ethic” and Francis seems to be doing the same. But where he is wrong is in the effect of widening the view. Bernardin used his “big picture” view to turn moral distinctions grey. The whole picture was really no picture at all. Francis is pointing out something perfectly reasonable. Without Christ, the sacraments and a recognition of Satan’s works, the Church’s teachings on life, sex and marriage become meaningless. His consistency of life doesn’t blur the moral distinctions, it makes them clearer.
All I have said may be dismissed by virtue of the fact that I am Catholic. Another faithful Catholic was asked: “What do you make of the new Pope?” His response sums up my thoughts perfectly: “He’s the Vicar of Christ. He’s the chief. I don’t run down the pope.” I am willing to grant that some things the Pope says may cause alarm among reasonable people, if they aren’t considered in context. But I none-the-less assert that the Pope is in fact Catholic, is very orthodox in his Catholicism and won’t be carrying the Church off on the tangent of liberalism. Even if he wanted to, it wouldn’t matter. Jesus is the Head of the Church, and he’s as orthodox as they come.