Cardinal Cupich on retrieving the Consistent Ethic of Life
Forty years ago this December, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered a landmark address at Fordham University, one that set the course of his ministry and changed the way the church thought about life issues for years to come.
He had been asked to discuss the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” which six months earlier had made national headlines for its opposition to the moral logic of nuclear deterrence and war. Nuclear war was on the mind of millions in 1983. Long since dormant in the American psyche, this fear came roaring back to life with the current war in Ukraine—reminding us that the Cold War may have ended, but ours is still a nuclear world.
That pastoral letter, the cardinal noted, linked the issues of nuclear war with abortion, but without really making the case. Concerned about how abortion and other social justice issues had divided the church, Cardinal Bernardin designed his Fordham address to make that case, within a framework he famously called the “Consistent Ethic of Life.” He would continue developing the idea until his death in 1996.
This essential insight of Cardinal Bernardin charts a path for the church today.
As a community of believers, we find ourselves beset by division, buffeted by a set of new questions about the church’s relationship with the wider society and even with itself. In many ways, we need this teaching now more than ever. By retrieving and extending the Consistent Ethic of Life toward an “Integral Ethic of Solidarity,” the church might offer a gift to the people of God—indeed, to all people who seek the common good. For if the church takes seriously the call of Pope Francis to incarnate a synodal church, then we must inculcate an Integral Ethic of Solidarity across all sectors of our common life together.
The Consistent Ethic of Life
The Consistent Ethic of Life grew out of Cardinal Bernardin’s keen perception that a series of moral questions, “along the spectrum of life from womb to tomb,” were being raised, in part by the emergence of new technologies. He said in his Fordham address: “For the spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.”
Cardinal Bernardin rooted these diverse issues in a single principle of Catholic faith: that the loss of even one human life is a momentous event. Seen in this context, abortion, nuclear war, poverty, euthanasia and capital punishment all share a common identity in their denial of the right to life. That commonality calls for consistency. The cardinal said in his Fordham address:
If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth. Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.
At the same time, Cardinal Bernardin underscored the distinctiveness of each of these issues. Any effort to blend them without understanding their relative moral importance, the cardinal emphasized, would depart from Catholic teaching. In other words, the cardinal was not claiming that all life issues are equivalent. Instead, he forcefully argued for their distinctiveness, each requiring its own system of analysis, while emphasizing the reality of the interrelatedness of all threats to human life.
As the cardinal put it in a 1986 lecture at Seattle University: “There are distinguishing differences between abortion and war, as well as elements which radically differentiate war from decisions made about care of a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are universally acknowledged; a consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact that differences do not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge.” In this way, the cardinal sought to leverage the analogical character of Catholic thought to engage a whole range of moral issues, each distinctively urgent, but all inextricably linked by the fundamental value of human life.
Cardinal Bernardin knew that the church acknowledges the difference between the language one uses within a faith community and the language one uses in a secular setting. In order to be heard by the wider culture, the church would need to bring her moral arguments into the public square using common human reason. By developing this commitment to the sanctity of human life “from womb to tomb,” he argued, the church could most effectively move society further along the path to justice.
Reaction and Stratification
The effort was not well received in all quarters of the church. Indeed, Cardinal Bernardin found that his lecture, which he intended as a point of unity, had instead united critics against him, including bishops. Some critics worried that the Consistent Ethic of Life would water down Catholic teaching against abortion and provide cover for Catholics who wanted to vote for pro-choice candidates. Others had no interest in folding opposition to abortion into their advocacy on other social justice issues. We must remember that the cardinal delivered his Fordham lecture just 10 years after Roe v. Wade had scrambled the political map of the United States. It was a period when grassroots activists took the lead in opposing abortion, in many ways, spurring the U.S. bishops to form a comprehensive response to Roe.
In 1974, the U.S. bishops called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. It was becoming more clear that Roe was not going away any time soon. By 1976, Cardinal Bernardin was already warning of how Roe was eroding respect for life broadly. He understood that Roe not only posed a unique threat to unborn life, but also was leading the nation down a path of ideological stratification. When the Democratic Party announced its platform during the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, it included opposition to a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Republicans responded with a platform more friendly to the bishops’ goals and articulated ways in which they believed the party could advance Catholic policy preferences. The great sorting had begun.
This stratification was something Cardinal Bernardin had been worrying about for some time. In a 1975 address to a meeting of Serra International, Cardinal Bernardin said, “It is my conviction that if our entire Catholic community understood correctly the real issues that are involved in the promotion of social justice, there would be less polarization and a greater desire to work collaboratively for the good of the human family both at home and abroad.”
As a young priest and bishop, Cardinal Bernardin ministered through some of the most unsettled periods in American and Catholic history, including the Vietnam War, the Second Vatican Council and the civil rights movement. Throughout his ministry, the cardinal remained aware that remarkable changes were taking place—locally, nationally, globally. During the homily at his Mass of reception as an auxiliary bishop in Atlanta in 1966, he spoke of the “new spirit” that had “jolted our complacency.” He reminded the congregation of the true nature of the church: “The church, while ever remaining a society with the structures and laws common to all societies, is fundamentally the presence of God’s merciful action among men. The church, in other words, is people.” He continued: “Everything, therefore, which deserves the name Christian must be geared toward helping—and serving—God’s people.”
“Everything, therefore, which deserves the name Christian must be geared toward helping—and serving—God’s people.”
This deeply scriptural sense of the human and therefore social dimension of the church would only deepen as Cardinal Bernardin’s ministry continued. And in 1983, he found himself at another pivotal moment in history. The U.S. Catholic bishops had just issued “The Challenge of Peace,” which spoke powerfully to the “new moment” created by the existential threat of nuclear weapons. The bishops condemned the targeting of civilians and revealed the immorality of a nuclear regime that had fostered a nuclear arms race and advanced a defense posture based on mutually assured destruction.
The effect of the pastoral letter was profound. It engaged public policy leaders, activists and parishioners. It also encountered significant opposition. But it had helped transform the debate by bringing ethical discourse and the tradition of natural law to the center of the nation’s discernment.
In 1983, the church in the United States also found itself in a new moment with respect to its commitment to protect unborn children. Cardinal Bernardin had been recently elected chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and he wanted to develop a strategy to enhance Catholic advocacy for legal protections for the unborn. Roe had not produced a tidal shift in public opinion. Therefore, hope for the pro-life movement was well-founded, but it needed a rethinking of the strategies that bishops should adopt to broaden respect for life.
At first, Cardinal Bernardin was not quite sure how to treat issues that did not fall under the prohibition of the direct killing of innocent human life. As he said during his Fordham talk:
Consistency means we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.
In this way, addressing poverty, hunger, lack of health care, homelessness, and the plight of refugees and immigrants came to constitute part of the Consistent Ethic of Life.
In response to critics who worried that the logic joining the issues of nuclear war and abortion was undermined by including quality-of-life issues, Cardinal Bernardin sought to ground the ethic in a wider theological framework. The Consistent Ethic would need to be rooted not only in the impermissibility of taking innocent life, but more broadly in defense of the human person. “To defend human life is to protect the human person. The Consistent Ethic cuts across the diverse fields of social ethics, medical ethics and sexual ethics,” he argued in that 1986 lecture at Seattle University. “The unifying theme behind these three areas of moral analysis is the human person, the core reality in Catholic moral thought.”
Cardinal Bernardin had come to realize what Pope Francis has continually emphasized in his approach to the social teachings of the church: that all threats to human dignity are intertwined, not simply by logical consistency, but by reality itself, as diverse threats to life tend to reinforce one another. Or, as the Holy Father has put it time and again: “Realities are more important than ideas.”
Consequently, for Cardinal Bernardin, there was a double imperative of determining both the moral correctness of a position and then the most effective way to put it into practice by persuading the general public. He spoke to this in his address to the 1984 Right-to-Life Convention in Kansas City, Mo.: “It is precisely because I am convinced that demonstrating the linkage between abortion and other issues is both morally correct and tactically necessary for the pro-life position that I have been addressing the theme of a Consistent Ethic of Life for the church and society.”
All threats to human dignity are intertwined.
Cardinal Bernardin was acutely aware that the Consistent Ethic of Life was designed for the neuralgic issues of 1983, that it was an approach for the “new moment” in which he was speaking. He would be very pleased, I am sure, that we are now thinking through a consistent ethic for our time. But before taking up that question, let us consider some of the changes that have taken place over the four decades since Cardinal Bernardin delivered his address. Five of them bear particular importance.
Dobbs v. Jackson
First, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, has removed an enormously destructive legal impediment to protecting unborn life. At the same time, the limitations of the court’s decision have become apparent. Just as Roe failed to resolve public tensions over abortion, Dobbs has not settled the matter for the American people. While many states have moved to constitutionally codify a right to abortion, others have passed restrictions. In still other states, voters have rejected ballot initiatives to restrict abortion. Just as important, the increasing availability of abortion pharmaceuticals, accessible by mail in all 50 states, could dramatically limit the impact of Dobbs.
We must also candidly acknowledge the problem of unintended consequences. In the year since the Dobbs decision came down, public support for abortion rights has only increased. According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released in June, nearly one-quarter of Americans say that state efforts to restrict abortion access has increased their support for abortion rights, versus 6 percent who say their support for abortion rights has decreased. This is one reason that major federal legislation on abortion will not likely be enacted any time soon.
Yet, the church and the pro-life movement now have an opportunity to remind the wider culture again of how important it is to provide material support to expectant and new mothers. This has always been a part of the pro-life movement. But in the face of political gridlock, the church must redouble its efforts to advocate for policies that make it easier for parents to choose to have children, and then to raise them. This includes guaranteed paid family leave, affordable child care and workplace protections for expectant mothers.
Americans live under a regime in which there is no federally guaranteed right to paid family leave. The United States is one of just six countries that lacks this basic protection. This is a scandal for any nation, let alone the wealthiest on earth, and it is well past time for our political parties to come together on policies that support expectant and new mothers.
Second, climate change threatens our planet—and therefore, the future of humanity itself. We are seeing the dramatic alterations in our weather patterns taking place before our very eyes, from the recent hurricanes battering Mexico and California to the horrific wildfires on Maui and the tragic flooding in Libya. We know why this is happening. The continued use of fossil fuels and industrial practices that increase harmful emissions are trapping more and more heat in the lower atmosphere. In a particularly painful way, the Canadian wildfire smoke that choked so much of the American Midwest and the East Coast this past summer reminds us of humanity’s interconnectedness, as an environmental crisis in one part of the world can harm people many thousands of miles away.
Indeed, millions of women, children and men have become climate refugees, forced to flee their homelands because of environmental disasters. The World Health Organization has called climate change the greatest threat to global health and life in the new millennium. Every year, according to the W.H.O., about 13 million people die from environmental factors, a number that will rapidly increase if global warming continues unchecked.
The fact that climate change victims are disproportionately poor is an affront to the will of God.
The fact that climate change victims are disproportionately poor is an affront to the will of God, who offered creation as a gift to the whole human family. The biodiversity of that creation is increasingly destroyed because the high-polluting nations of the world refuse to stem the tide of devastation. If we could build national infrastructure that supports the fossil fuel industry, then we can do the same to support renewable energies. If we could curb consumption for our war efforts, then we can do so to save the very planet that sustains us. In “Laudato Si’” and elsewhere, Pope Francis calls us to release our attachments to the status quo and imagine a new future in which humanity protects the gift of creation.
New Threats to Human Life
Third, new technologies have emerged that yield great benefits for humanity, but also bring deadly new threats to human life. Pope Francis captures this peril in “Laudato Si’” when he teaches that “nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technologies and knowledge of our DNA have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing assures that it will be used wisely.”
Building on St. John Paul II’s first encyclical, “Redemptor Hominis,”Cardinal Bernardin shared this concern in his Fordham address: “The essential question in the technological challenge is this: In an age when we can do almost anything, how do we decide what we ought to do? The even more demanding question is: In a time when we can do anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we never should do?” In the 40 years since the cardinal asked those questions, the risks of unexamined technological advances, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence and defense, have only increased.
The Francis Effect
Fourth, the church has experienced a decade of Pope Francis as bishop of Rome. From the beginning, the Holy Father sounded notes very much in keeping with Cardinal Bernardin’s vision for the people of God. In his first interview after being elected in the conclave of 2013, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of presenting church teaching in the proper context:
The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.... The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
Cardinal Bernardin also came to focus on what he termed “the essentials.” In his book The Gift of Peace, the cardinal reflected on his spiritual practice of letting go. “To close the gap between who I am and what God wants of me, I must empty myself and let Jesus come in and take over,” he wrote. “He wants me to focus on the essentials of his message and way of life rather than on the accidentals that needlessly occupy so much of our time and efforts.... Essentials ask us to give true witness and love others more. Nonessentials close us in on ourselves.”
This too reminds us of Pope Francis, who famously warned his brother cardinals, in advance of the conclave that would elect him pope, that the church cannot stay closed in on itself, but must go out into the world to heal its wounds.
The church cannot stay closed in on itself.
In so many ways, Pope Francis inherits, re-presents and adapts the ideas at the heart of the Consistent Ethic of Life. This should come as no surprise, given both its scriptural foundations and the fact that the pope comes from a part of the world that is no stranger to multiple, constant threats to life. But consider how Pope Francis has advanced Catholic teaching against the death penalty, to the degree that he has included its prohibition in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not only does he present church teachings in their full context, but he also structures many of his teachings according to his abiding belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring God’s children together. This is one of the driving ideas behind his call for the church to become ever more synodal.
This brings us to a fifth contextual consideration: the intensification of polarization in Western society. The division in civil and ecclesial life that Cardinal Bernardin warned about four decades ago arose from the fact that issues themselves were being treated in isolation. Today, our culture continues its blind march into atomization, each sorted by the digital platforms we use according to ideology, purchasing habits, even health status. It is not only the case that issues are treated in isolation, however. Today we are living in isolation from one another, and how we obtain information about others and the world tends to reinforce that great enemy of dialogue: fear.
This toxic dynamic led Cardinal Bernardin in 1996 to launch the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, a project he conceived with the late Msgr. Phil Murnion, who did so much to enrich parish and ecclesial life throughout his ministry. It was just months before the cardinal would succumb to cancer. The idea was profoundly synodal: to bring Catholics together to discuss a variety of issues with the goal of finding common ground. At the press conference announcing the effort, he said: “I have been troubled that an increasing polarization within the church and, at times, a mean-spiritedness have hindered the kind of dialogue that helps us address our mission and concerns.”
Polarization is having disastrous consequences across American culture. Racial injustice is rampant. Gun violence is terrorizing communities already struggling with poverty, as mass shootings multiply fears in settings that had always seemed safe. Poor health and nutrition kill children and the elderly. Rural communities go ignored. Urban centers are maligned as lost to crime and poverty. The demonization of migrants is especially disturbing, as we are a nation built by immigrants. Recent attacks on our democratic norms make protecting the vulnerable even more critical and difficult. Indifference stands at the root of this suffering, but intentional efforts to exacerbate social divisions cause even more harm to a nation so blessed by the diversity God desires.
"Let us not forget that differences stimulate creativity."
Diversity is not something best perceived from within homogenous groupings. It takes seeing, which requires proximity, and this is precisely why the Holy Father’s emphasis on synodality and solidarity could not be more urgent. As Pope Francis said in March at the Minerva Dialogues: “Lack of diversity is a lack of richness, for diversity forces us to learn together from one another and thus humbly to rediscover the authentic meaning and scope of our human dignity. Let us not forget that differences stimulate creativity.”
Without developing and embracing an Integral Ethic of Solidarity, one can scarcely see a future for humanity that does not end in tragedy.
Cardinal Bernardin presented the case for consistency in the language of natural law with precision and logic. But in later years he noted that such a project could not succeed in the absence of a social disposition to protect human life and dignity. Sometimes he called this an attitude. I believe another word for it is “solidarity.”
An Integral Ethic of Solidarity
The Consistent Ethic of Life could serve as a logical scaffolding for our analysis of life issues. Putting them into effect in a committed way—as Cardinal Bernardin had hoped—leads to an Integral Ethic of Solidarity. That ethic grounds our respect for life both interpersonally and within the human family. Solidarity points to the interconnectedness of all human beings, to the unity that they should strive for and the responsibility for the common good that we all share. Solidarity is a moral virtue. It is a disposition of gratitude to God for the gifts he bestows upon us, and of service to those who suffer. It is never motivated by grievance or self-seeking.
As St. John Paul II, the prophet of solidarity, wrote in “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,”solidarity is not a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say for the good of all.” It is precisely this predisposition that can provide the path for our church and our world to build a consistent ethic for our time.
Solidarity is the virtue that calls us to unveil and transform the structures of sin that lie at the root of so much human suffering. It calls us to challenge the social structures that annihilate the moral identity of the unborn. It calls us to see the social sin in the falsehoods and economic interests that prevent a robust response to climate change. It guards us from despair in the face of grotesque income inequalities, early deaths from poor health care, the savageries of war and the racism that tear us apart. Solidarity calls us to morally evaluate and regulate new technologies that threaten the dignity of the human person. Solidarity confirms that we live interconnectedly and therefore helps us see that structures of sin are something we can change.
Indeed, as Cardinal Bernardin observed in a 1990 talk to groups funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development: “The virtue of solidarity can change hearts and transform social structures. It can unleash God’s power in our midst and create a more just and peaceful society!”
So, how might we sketch the elements of an Integral Ethic of Solidarity?
Reason and Revelation
First, an Integral Ethic of Solidarity must be formed through both common human reason and Scripture. Cardinal Bernardin was correct to ground the Consistent Ethic of Life in an essentially natural-law framework, making it accessible to all people in a diverse society. But natural law speaks the language of reason, not passion. And in the current cultural climate, reason is too rarely welcomed.
Instead, an Integral Ethic of Solidarity must be grounded in the foundational source for Catholic social teaching: Scripture. We see in Exodus that God is determined not only for his people to know, love and worship him, but that he wants to free them from earthly suffering as well. “I have witnessed the affliction of my people and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:7-8).
God desires salvation not only for the whole of humanity, but for the whole human person.
God desires salvation not only for the whole of humanity, but for the whole human person. This is why authentic worship necessarily entails working for justice. We see this again and again in the Scriptures. Jesus carries on the work of the Father in his healing ministry. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to develop virtues not only so that we may be in right relationship with God, but also so that we may make things better for our neighbors. Consider how perceptive 1 John is on this point: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Compassion, Not Competition
Second, an effective Ethic of Solidarity must be animated by the virtue of compassion, or empathy. Fourteen years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops undertook a research project funded by the Lilly Endowment. It sought to find a bridge between Catholics who were passionate about ending abortion but opposed to the church’s stance on quality-of-life issues, and Catholics who were passionate about Catholic teaching regarding the poor but opposed or neutral on the protection of the unborn.
The bridge idea that connected the two poles was compassion. This is what led women and men beyond their comfort zones to embrace human suffering in “the other camp.” It helped them to see that human suffering unites the issues of abortion, war and peace, euthanasia, the death penalty and poverty—because core elements of human dignity are under attack. Compassion frustrates the logic of team sports, which seems to govern civic life today, in which cruelty toward one’s ideological opponents has taken on a perverse form of cultural currency. It does so by replacing the logic of competition with the logic of love. When we let go of what we think we know is best, when we give up the need to control outcomes, we make room for God. We begin to see the sufferings of others with the eyes of the Father.
Beyond Our Borders
Third, a comprehensive Ethic of Solidarity must have a deep global perspective. In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis brings this home: “In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia. What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference.”
An Ethic of Solidarity must be suffused with the sense of the global responsibilities we in the United States bear for combating threats to human life and dignity across the globe. On issues of climate change and war and peace, American actions are often determinative for the world. American aid can save lives, the unborn and the elderly alike, those suffering war and famine, those seeking better for their families as they flee persecution or violence—or we can abandon them. If an Integral Ethic of Solidarity is to be truly Catholic, it cannot end at our borders.
Fourth, an Integral Ethic of Solidarity must be synodal. We live in a synodal church. If there is any hope of nurturing support for an Integral Ethic of Solidarity, rooted in compassion, formed by common human reason and Scripture, global in vision, dedicated to defending human life and dignity against their many threats—such a teaching cannot be imposed from above. Even if the diminished credibility of the bishops resulting from their mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis did not make this necessary, the emerging sense of collaboration within the life of the church does.
Many who participated in last year’s synodal dialogues were struck by how freely they could share their joys, sorrows and hopes in and for the church. These sessions were characterized by a mutual sense of non-judgmentalism, which happened to be the second bridging virtue that the Lilly study identified. Wouldn’t it be something if the church in the United States undertook the mission of inculcating an Integral Ethic of Solidarity using this same process of dialogue, encounter and non-judgmentalism?
An Integral Ethic of Solidarity must be synodal.
For the past five decades, the church in our nation has engaged in the “Encuentro” process for forming and implementing a pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry. The process was profoundly synodal, and took place at every level of church life. It would be a great gift to our church and our nation if, after the next presidential election, we launched a similar process of dialogue, encounter and love.
Prayer, the First Dialogue
Fifth, and finally, at least for now, an Integral Ethic of Solidarity must be rooted in prayer. And here we return to the witness of Cardinal Bernardin, who spoke movingly about his own struggles with prayer at various points throughout his ministry. In the days and weeks before he died, the cardinal was working on The Gift of Peace, his spiritual memoir covering the last three years of his life. He begins with a powerful meditation on his spiritual journey, a chapter he called, “Letting Go,” a theme that “[rose] to the surface” as he confronted the end of his earthly life. “By letting go,” he writes, “I mean the ability to release from our grasp those things that inhibit us from developing an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus.”
The cardinal frankly acknowledged that this was rarely easy, even, or perhaps especially, for him, given his habit of wanting to get things just right. But even from his seminary days, he began to realize one of the most important aspects of this kenotic act: prayer. It “is not a one-sided practice. Rather, prayer involves listening and speaking on both sides.” Prayer, he would elsewhere explain, makes it difficult to “separate and break apart elements which are in fact unities.”
"Prayer involves listening and speaking on both sides."
In this way, perhaps we might think of prayer as the first dialogue. A time and space we give to the Lord for speaking, but perhaps more important, for listening. Even if we, like Cardinal Bernardin, find it difficult to sustain the practice, well, he had some advice on that too: “You should keep plugging away. And…if you do give the time, little by little you become united with the Lord throughout your life, which is very important.” The same might be said for the practice of dialogue.
A Vision for Our Common Life
Revisiting the life and teachings of Cardinal Bernardin, I am reminded of how remarkable it is that this son of Vatican II found himself in just the times and places he needed to be. The more you read about the man Joseph Bernardin, the more you get the sense of his trajectory as in some sense inevitable—which is to say, providential. The man whose immigrant parents came from the north of Italy, like Jorge Bergoglio’s, a cultural crossroads where differences have always had to be negotiated, became the minister whose time on Earth was marked by nothing so much as an ethic of reconciliation.
Cardinal Bernardin always kept a copy of the “Prayer of St. Francis” with him, sometimes reciting it to himself or before meetings. He even closed The Gift of Peace by inviting the reader to pray it with him. He did not talk about it much in public, but the cardinal was, in fact, a Franciscan. He was received into the first order of the Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor in May of 1972, and often visited Assisi during trips to Rome. He took this association very seriously, to the point of divesting himself of possessions, even money, beyond the bare minimum. It has been said that at one point the cardinal wanted to be buried in the Franciscan habit. He gave a powerful account of his commitment to the Franciscan way in a homily delivered in Assisi in 1975. Forgive me as I quote it at length:
The thing we need most in our highly secularized and sophisticated world is the spirit of St. Francis. What kind of spirit is this? It is a spirit that puts God in the very center of life…. It is a spirit that derives a great deal of joy from the simple things in life…. It is a spirit that prompts us to love our neighbor…. Finally, it is a spirit that prompts us to be truthful, open persons of integrity at all times; to approach life with a simplicity that frequently we see only in small children…. When this is done, not only do we reconcile ourselves with God, but we also reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters.
What a profound vision for our common life together. What a beautiful description of all that God wants for his family, the human family. What a profound gift to the church and the world was Joseph, our brother.