Before another day passes, I want to express my appreciation to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post Writers Group and the Brookings Institution, for delivering the 2011 Cardinal Bernardin lecture at USC last night.
Perhaps because he’s from my world, he spoke to me as no previous speaker has in the 12 years of the series — of faith and public life, particularly in the sense of how the Cardinal’s life and work relate to our existence today. So I thank him for that. I also thank all those who contributed to bringing about this event — the Department of Religious Studies, the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, President Harris Pastides’ Civil Discourse Initiative, and Samuel Tenenbaum and the Tenenbaum Lectureship Fund.
For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Bernardin was a son of Italian immigrants who grew up here in Columbia, as a parishioner at my church, St. Peter’s. He would become the leading light of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the force behind such remarkable documents as “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” He fostered the Church’s Common Ground Initiative, and his greatest legacy (to me) is placing the Church’s pro-life ethic within the compelling — and necessary — framework of the Seamless Garment — a legacy that, inexplicably to me, remains controversial, even anathema, among some. After becoming Archbishop of Chicago, he was widely regarded as a likely first American pope before his death of cancer in 1996 at the age of 68.
E.J. is that rare bird in the higher reaches of journalism who writes regularly of matters that bear upon ultimate questions (see, for instance, “The Vatican meets the Wall Street occupiers” from last week), and does so with an intellectual vigor that not only reflects credit upon his and my faith tradition, but shows what journalism is still capable of achieving at this late date. He knew the cardinal, and has long admired him.
Here’s a rough draft of his remarks. There are typos, and it is incomplete (entire anecdotes are missing), but it gives you an idea of what he had to say. An excerpt:
I want to close with something I have been pondering ever since the Spriritan fathers of Duquesne University asked me to give a talk about immigration. I was struck when I was preparing the talk how much both the Old and New Testament had to say about our obligations to strangers. Not to brothers or sisters or neighbors, but the strangers. And it made me think that perhaps our calling is really to create a world without strangers. Yes, that’s utopian and impractical and all sorts of other things. But it is a useful objective to ponder, a useful goal to keep in front of us. It is a world in which there is no “other,” no “them” or “those people,” just fellow citizens or fellow children of God or fellow human beings. It is a world in which we share each other’s joys and sorrows, each other’s benefits and burdens. It is a world in which the fortunate realize that their affluence depends not just on their own hard work and skill, but also on luck and providence. Often, simply, the good fortune of having been born in a particular place, to a particular family. We all owe so much of who we are to our parents and what they did for us. And not a single one of us can claim to have been wise or farsighted in our choice of parents. That truly was God’s choice, or for those who don’t believe, fate’s. And the same applies to the country in which we are born. We cannot praise ourselves for being really smart to have been born in the United States of America. A world without strangers would be a better world because all of us, everywhere, would feel at home all the time. In a world without strangers, we approach the new people we meet, anticipating the joys of friendship, not the anxieties of enmity. And yes, a world without strangers would be a world more likely to heed the injunction of the prophet Isaiah, to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free. It would be a world more likely to resemble the place imagined by the prophet Amos, who, as Dr. King taught us in his “I Have a Dream” speech, imagined that justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I believe that Cardinal Bernardin spent his life trying to create a world without strangers. His mission to honor the dignity of every person was not just political but also personal. He provided us a model. So let us live by his words: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
OK, that’s heavy, I know. Hey, it was the ending. Perhaps I can show you better the spirit of the way E.J. speaks with this ice-breaker from the beginning:
Whenever someone gives me an introduction that is far too generous, I like to note what it’s like to give talks about politics and be introduced with the words: “And now, for the latest dope from Washington, here’s E. J. Dionne.”
That’s E.J. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he approaches the most important issues with all the respect and reverence they deserve and demand.
I hope Kathryn Fenner and “Abba,” who were both there, will weigh in with their thoughts about the lecture. I had the impression that they found it meaningful as well.