A Tale of Two Cardinals

Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

edited by Alphonse P. Spilly, C.PP.S.
Volume One: Homilies and Teaching Documents, 625 pp., $34.95 Volume Two: Church and Society 692 pp., $34.95 Liturgical Press, two-volume set, $62.90

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith

John L. Allen Jr.
Continuum, 340 pp., $24.95
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger; drawing by David Levine


Joseph Bernardin was the most important figure in the Catholic Church hierarchy of America during the period after Vatican Council II. The calm center of harsh controversy, he was much beloved. After his death as the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago in 1996, crowds lined up for weeks to pay honor at his burial site. He was admired by Americans generally, not just by his fellow Catholics. Many sympathized with him when he was falsely accused of sexual molestation, and the dignity with which he faced the cancer that killed him moved even people who had never met him. His stature, and his important role in Church developments, make it seem entirely appropriate that his Selected Works should be issued in a handsome set of two thick volumes—over 1,300 pages of sermons, official statements, and public lectures. But all these words, coming from a man who caused so much excitement, are disappointingly dull. It is a quality he deliberately cultivated.

Take, for instance, one of his most famous statements—that Catholic opposition to abortion should be part of a “seamless garment” in support of life, a support including opposition to capital punishment, to euthanasia, and to callous disregard for the poor. The arguments for this position are rehearsed in both volumes of this set, but one searches in vain for the phrase itself (“seamless garment”) that so caught the public attention. He never used it in a written statement, but voiced it when answering questions after a talk he gave at Fordham in 1983. The talk is included in Volume Two of the Selected Works, but not the question and answer session.

Since the phrase called up opposition from conservative Catholics—who said it was “demoting abortion,” which is murder, to put it on a level with failure to do social work among the poor—he dropped it from all later spoken or written comments on the matter. He stuck to a cautious literalism—“a consistent ethic of life.” His position henceforth would be that the “right to life and quality of life complement each other” rather than make up a single “garment.” He covers his flank:

Surely we can all agree that the taking of human life in abortion is not the same as failing to protect human dignity against hunger. But having made that distinction, let us not fail to make the point that both are moral issues….

His long-range aim was to gain the protective cover of making his con-sistent ethic the official position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops—and in this he succeeded. Catholic opposition to abortion was clothed in liberal rhetoric. This did not make many “pro-lifers” less fond of the death penalty or more compassionate toward welfare recipients; nor did it make the “pro-choice” faction less opposed to abortion. But it muted the rhetoric, making the Church sound less fanatical on the subject.

That kind…

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