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George Weigel: The End of the Bernardin Era

May 3, 2011

Here is an excellent, but very long, article by George Weigel where he “charts the rise, dominance, and decline of a culturally accommodating Catholicism.”

The focus is on the Bernardin Machine, which was created by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This “Machine” allowed, encouraged, dissent within the American Catholic Church. Published in First Things on February 1, 2011, shortly after the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan to the USCCB presidency, this article states that this election was a sign that the Bernardin Machine was finally breaking.

You will get a good history lesson on the politics of the American Catholic Church since Vatican II.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin died on November 14, 1996, after a moving and profoundly Christian battle with pancreatic cancer that edified Americans across the political and religious spectrums. Fourteen years after his holy death, the cardinal is remembered primarily for his end-of-life ministry to fellow cancer sufferers, for his chairmanship of the committee that produced the American bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” and for his advocacy of a “consistent ethic of life.” Those achievements were not the whole of the Bernardin story, however.

In his prime, Joseph Bernardin was arguably the most powerful Catholic prelate in American history; he was certainly the most consequential since the heyday of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When he was in his early forties, Bernardin was the central figure in defining the culture and modus operandi of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Later, when he became archbishop of Cincinnati and cardinal archbishop of Chicago, Bernardin’s concept and style of episcopal ministry set the pattern for hundreds of U.S. bishops. Bernardin was also the undisputed leader of a potent network of prelates that dominated the affairs of the American hierarchy for more than two decades; observers at the time dubbed it the “Bernardin Machine.” The machine’s horsepower inevitably diminished after the cardinal’s death. But it was still thought by many to have enough gas left in the tank to elect Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson (who had begun his episcopal career as one of Bernardin’s auxiliaries) as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this past November.
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