Francis Cardinal George

Houses of Worship

The Pope’s Chicago Cardinal

His choice to lead the archdiocese will set a tone for U.S. Catholics.


Nicholas G. Hahn III
Feb. 6, 2014 6:59 p.m. ET
The biting winter in Chicago has been especially cold for the Catholic Church, with the revelation on Jan. 21 of embarrassing church documents describing how the archdiocese handled claims of sexual abuse. Yet a fresh chapter in the archdiocese’s history is waiting to begin as Pope Francis considers who will replace Cardinal Francis George —the current archbishop has been due to retire for more than two years.The pope’s choice will likely signal how he intends to steer the Catholic Church in America. “I think this is going to be the most important decision by Pope Francis for the U.S. church,” Massimo Faggioli, an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, told the Associated Press last week.

Mr. Faggioli might be right. Chicago is regarded by many Catholics as America’s premier archdiocese. Its bishops become leaders of the church in the U.S., either in name or through influence. Cardinal Francis George, who has held that position since 1998 and is the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2007-10), has become an intellectual hero for conservatives. One of his most prominent messages has been to decry the mounting dangers to religious freedom in the West. Liberals have often found him wanting, and fondly recall his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, as an example of the sort of new leader in Chicago that Pope Francis should select. As so often happens with those trying to interpret Pope Francis, on the left and the right, they see in him a reflection of their own hopes.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe told David Gibson of the Religion News Service in October: “The point that [Bernardin’s] consistent ethic makes is exactly the same point that Pope Francis is making—let’s look at the whole picture and not just focus almost exclusively on three or so issues.” The reporter added that Pope Francis raises the possibility of the “re-emergence of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model for the American Catholic future.”

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996. Associated Press

That might not be such a good idea. There is an irony in the Catholic Church’s current legal clashes with Washington over the Affordable Care Act’s restrictions on religious freedom: The Obama administration is very much a creature of the Chicago church under Bernardin. When Notre Dame University bestowed an honorary degree on President Barack Obama in May 2009, the veteran community organizer told graduates that the “saintly” Cardinal Bernardin inspired him to become an activist.

As Phyllis Schlafly and George Neumayr noted in “No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom” (2012), much of Mr. Obama’s education in public policy came in the rectories of Chicago’s South Side churches and, in part, on Cardinal Bernardin’s dime. The archdiocese in 1986 paid for Mr. Obama to attend a community-organizing training session with a Saul Alinsky-founded group in Los Angeles.

Cardinal Bernardin, who led the archdiocese from 1982 until his death in 1996, espoused a liberal line that has helped give pro-abortion Catholic supporters of the Obama administration theological cover. Mr. Obama told reporters in July 2009 that “his encounters with the cardinal continue to influence him, particularly his ‘seamless garment’ approach to a multitude of social justice issues.”

The president was alluding to a widely noted 1983 speech wherein Bernardin applied the Biblical story of Jesus’ tunic “woven in one piece from the top down” to public-policy issues. He maintained that matters as varied as the death penalty, the minimum wage and how to wage war should be considered on the same moral plane as abortion. This pernicious idea has been rebuffed by many Catholic intellectuals, not the least of whom was the future Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, who in a 2004 memo wrote that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.”

Bernardin’s thoughts on war are similarly unsettling, whether as the inspiration for a president or the choice of a new archbishop. At the height of the Cold War, when the bishops opposed nearly everything that came out of the Reagan White House, Bernardin led a committee tasked with writing a pastoral letter on war and peace. The resulting document in 1983 inverted the church’s classical theory of the “just war,” suggesting instead that the church “begins in every case with a presumption against war.” The saints Augustine and Aquinas would beg to differ. The tradition begins, rather, with the notion that governments have a duty of charity to protect the people whose security is their responsibility. As for the Cold War, when Bernardin was asked who he thought was the most pivotal figure in winning it, he cited Mikhail Gorbachev.

Since the election of Pope Francis, some in the media and on the Catholic left have been trying to resurrect the ghost of Bernardin. If the pope ignores this movement, it would be a blessing.

Mr. Hahn is the editor of

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Tim H says:

    From – as to the last-named potential candidate, what does just “Dallas” say in respect to Hahn’s article?!

  2. Ellen Penar says:

    Pope Francis has clearly told all of us to read/study the “CATECHISM of the CATHOLIC CHURCH, Second Edition”. (Encyclical Letter LUMEN FIDEI, 2013)
    The CCC contains the Doctrine of the Catholic Faith without error, and without speculation, and without need for others to interpret for the literate.
    Cardinal Bernardin did NOT adhere to the true Doctrine of the Faith in entirety. Mortal Sin is not the same a venial sin.
    Bernardin was also involved in aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of children by moving guilty Priests so they could sin against God and children again – info per the Court Ordered disclosure of official Chicago Diocese documents.
    CCC: ” 1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
    – by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
    – by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
    – by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
    – by protecting evil-doers.”

    Bernardin paved the way for Catholis heretics and schimatics like Pelosi, Biden, Sebelius, and J. Kerry to support abortion, and now sodomy marriage.

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