As the director of The Bernardin Center, you might think that I should do the most to keep the ministry and the legacy of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin alive in the Church and the world. Probably, that would be right. But I cannot say that I do the best job. There are others who do far more than I do.
In 2011 George Weigel wrote for First Things about “The End of the Bernardin Era,” perhaps the first time when it began to dawn on me that Bernardin’s critics are more preoccupied with him years after his death than his admirers are. Last summer John Hirschauer re-confirmed me in that sense when National Review published his thoughts about Bernardin and the consistent ethic. I made my reply in Where Peter Is. But even now occasional messages reach me by the many means of the internet, and they all together affirm that no one is more preoccupied with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—as we mark twenty-five years since his death—than Church Militant.
For those who may be unfamiliar, Church Militant is an online media outlet that describes its mission as, “to provide everyone with means to increase their personal holiness through catechesis and evangelization about the truth of the Christian faith.” On their website, they name their allegiance to “the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church led by the successor to St. Peter, Pope Francis.” But the truth is nearer that Church Militant along with its founder and president, Michael Voris, is part of the organized Catholic opposition to Pope Francis that also has supported some of the more extreme voices on the far right. Church Militant recently sued the city of Baltimore after Baltimore rejected Church Militant’s request for a permit to protest the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting, citing fears of violence. Urging supporters to donate with a request that says, “Help us prepare for war,” Church Militant frequently offers a more apocalyptic message than its anodyne mission statement suggests.
They also are quite preoccupied with Cardinal Bernardin. In the last two years alone, a quick Google search tells me that Church Militant has mentioned Cardinal Bernardin (in order to attack him) a staggering forty-four times. We might count more if we looked before 2020. As Bernardin’s biographer, I should say that I could not hope to spend that much time putting his name in front of readers. With a family to care for, courses to teach, and houseplants to water, I never could spend the sort of time on Cardinal Bernardin that Church Militant does. But the story is more than quantity. We should focus instead on how preoccupied Church Militant is with presenting Bernardin as a “predator” and a “homosexualist.”
Here I need to pause briefly before I go on. I have written the only biography of Cardinal Bernardin that engaged his whole life. I spent more than a year conducting personal interviews and visiting seven archival collections where I was given very generous access that exceeded mere courtesy to a researcher. I was alert while conducting my research between 2014-2016: the sexual abuse scandal had been with us for more than a decade and even though the McCarrick revelations had not yet come, I wanted to be sure I was reporting the case of a good bishop honestly. See my book, where I attempted to present the warts-and-all as frankly as possible when I wrote about Bernardin’s re-assigning abusing priests prior to 1991. As a scholar, it matters to me that I present things in a way that accurately reflects my best judgments in the light of research. I looked carefully for trouble and found none. Nothing in anything I found suggested anything like what Church Militant claims so often about Cardinal Bernardin. Yet they go on doing it.
It generally is quite well known that Bernardin suffered a false allegation of sexual abuse in 1993 when Steven Cook, a onetime Cincinnati college seminarian, claimed Bernardin had abused him almost twenty years earlier. Cook eventually recanted, and the story ended in reconciliation. Less well understood are the details of Steven Cook’s very sad story and why they matter in the way some Catholics choose to remember Cardinal Bernardin.
Chuck Goudie, a reporter with WLS-TV in Chicago, reported a week after the allegation broke that, “A court file of an 8-year-old criminal drug case against Cook included a statement in Cook’s own handwriting indicating that he recalled then that a couple of priests had sexually abused him when he was 16 years old.” But Cook never had named Bernardin until October 1993, and Goudie grew suspicious. Most Chicago reporters came to share Goudie’s doubts. Bill Kurtis at Chicago’s WBBM-TV wondered whether the real story was that “certain people might be out to ‘get’ Cardinal Bernardin.” Mary Ann Ahern with Chicago’s WMAQ-TV had reported the story and attended a press conference where Bernardin had taken questions until reporters became exhausted. She went on to do tough reporting about the sex abuse crisis in Chicago for years after, but she always has remained firm from her own reporting that the case against Bernardin was false. Ahern later said Bernardin’s critics “really tried to destroy him” with the false allegation. The reporters didn’t work for Bernardin or the Church, and the story of a disgraced cardinal would be big news if it were true. The trouble is that it wasn’t true. Reporters wouldn’t stake their credibility on it. And, they were right.
Cook had suffered abuse in the Cincinnati college seminary, just as he had reported in that handwritten statement. To all appearances, Cook’s painful experience was appropriated by people who did not want to help him. Cook’s memory of Bernardin only was ‘recovered’ by hypnosis much later after an attorney, Stephen Rubino, hoped to draw Bernardin into a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Rubino eventually grew skeptical of his client’s hypnotic recall and discounted it. Rubino’s skepticism helped lead to dropping the suit against Bernardin. But others had become involved. Chief among them was a Wisconsin priest, Father Charles Fiore.
Bernardin declined to name Fiore when he wrote about these events in The Gift of Peace, and Fiore has denied any involvement. But multiple witnesses to Steven Cook’s and Cardinal Bernardin’s reconciling conversation recall that Cook named Fiore as “urg[ing] him to remember if Bernardin had abused him and to include him in the suit, and of how he had tried by words and gifts to get Steven’s mother to cooperate in the venture.” In a 1993 interview with the Religion News Service when the Cook story broke, Fiore acknowledged he had supplied Rubino “with some research and factual material that went into the complaint and some other points. In the course of events, he put me in touch with Steve Cook.” Fiore had been a Bernardin critic for years, angry about the consistent ethic and what he saw as its undermining opposition to abortion. Fiore insisted that Bernardin was wrong on “many issues having to do with the life and doctrine of the Church, he has said and done things that are doctrinally suspect,” including the liturgical renewal that followed Vatican II. Fiore himself belonged to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. A frequent contributor to the conservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, Fiore called Bernardin an “evil man” in an interview with Religious News Service in November 1993, and in an interview with the Milwaukee Sentinel, Fiore complained about the “growing number of homosexual priests.”
And, perhaps this pattern of Fiore’s accusations and assumptions sounds familiar. Decades later, Church Militant’s preoccupations and methods are identical, all the way down to their fixation with Bernardin, exploiting the suffering of those who have been abused, and presenting Bernardin as a sexual predator despite evidence that the accusations are false.
I have believed for a long time that the real trouble here began with the gestures of outreach and accompaniment that Bernardin offered to the LGBT community as early as the 1980s. In 1986, Bernardin issued a pastoral statement on the AIDS crisis, “A Challenge and a Responsibility,” that offered a compassionate and person-centered call to Catholic AIDS ministry. In 1988, he partnered with Chicago’s community of LGBT Catholics to create a ministry program for them at a Chicago parish, one that still thrives today. And, something about these gestures triggers the ferocious response we still find today in the attacks on Bernardin. Andrew Greeley was a keen observer who understood how this happens. Years ago, he said, “The real issue between Fiore and the cardinal was abortion.” The sexual abuse crisis and the Steven Cook allegation were “simply a thing to skewer him on.” The issue focus has expanded, joining ministry to LGBT persons with abortion. The skewering goes on at Church Militant.
The pattern has become too familiar in American life, where clothing disagreements in accusations of sexual violence more and more take place outside the Church too. As we saw recently at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, misinformation drives people to wild faith in extreme propositions. The facts we might review and the evidence of our senses make little difference against the desperate certainty people seem to need that those with whom they disagree are not just mistaken or wrong, but also guilty of the most monstrous crimes we can imagine while those with whom they agree are endowed with supernatural capabilities. The fevered place where this has brought us frames conflicts in apocalyptic terms that leave no off-ramps on the way to schism, insurrection, and violence. The world has seen that too many times before, and we should be able to recognize it now. We have the power to back away from extremes, to stop all of this.
Tertullian, an early father of the Church and the founder of Latin Christianity, wrote his Apologeticus adversus Gentes to claim space for Christians in the Roman Empire. Drawing a sharp contrast between Christians and others in Roman times he made a claim that has become familiar about what distinguishes Christians: “the putting into practice of so great a love as this brands us with a mark of censure in the opinion of some. ‘See,’ say they, ‘how they love each other!’—for they themselves hate each other; and, ‘how ready they are to die for each other!’—for they are more ready to kill each other.” Tertullian went on, “We are the same when gathered together as when separated; the same unitedly as individually, causing neither injury nor sorrow to anyone.” Love defines a Christian, not conflict or militancy.
What can explain the intensity of this continuing effort to destroy Cardinal Bernardin twenty-five years since he died? When did Joseph Bernardin engage in name-calling? When did he ever make scandalous accusations against anyone who disagreed with him? When did his call to dialogue and peace cause injury or sorrow? The most extreme thing about Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was his moderation and his commitment to peaceableness. And—we might say—that he insisted (like Pope Francis) that Vatican II be implemented fully, transformatively, and authentically.
As for those who reach for the extremes to divide us today, who make the wildest and most terrible accusations only because the internet will not stop them? Who are those who drive unwitting people toward schism, insurrection, and perhaps ultimately to violence? Tertullian knew what they were. So do we.
Main Image: By Jbyard, Adobe Stock.
Image of Cardinal Bernardin: By http://neatnik2009.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/feast-of-joseph-bernardin-november-14-transferred-to-november-13/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27155601 (fair use)
Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical Press, 2018).