The New York Times
Faith Was on the Governor’s Shoulder
March 25, 2011
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Early on the morning of Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent’s season of penitence, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois went through some final, solitary rumination. For much of his political career, he had supported capital punishment, albeit with reservations, even debating it at the dinner table with his mother. Now a legislative bill abolishing it was waiting for his signature, or his veto.
In the preceding weeks, he had heard arguments on the subject from prosecutors who spoke of the death penalty’s deterrent effect and from the grieving relatives of murder victims who saw in it fierce justice. He had reacquainted himself with about 20 capital cases overturned by DNA evidence or tainted by judicial error.
But on that decisive morning of March 9, he laid aside the secular factors and opened his Bible to a passage in II Corinthians about human imperfection. He prayed. And when he signed the bill striking down the death penalty, he cited one influence by name: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
The cardinal has been dead for nearly 15 years. To the last days of his life, he advocated what he termed a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life,” which charged Roman Catholics with the task of ending abortion, poverty, nuclear war, euthanasia and capital punishment. For of all his eloquence, however, he had never built the constituency to transform theological precepts into public policy.
With the stroke of the governor’s pen, the cardinal has been posthumously vindicated on at least one piece of that seamless garment. In doing so, Mr. Quinn, a Democrat, also ratified the cardinal’s belief that religious thought has a place in the formulation of law, a premise the governor’s fellow liberals generally resist.
“I think it’s indispensable,” Mr. Quinn said in a telephone interview this week. “When you’re elected and sworn into office, that oath really involves your whole life experience, your religious experience. You bring that to bear on all the issues.”
During his years in Chicago, Cardinal Bernardin had advocated a similar balance. “There is a legitimate secularity of the political process,” as he put it in a 1991 speech, “just as there is a legitimate role for religious and moral discourse in our nation’s life.”
Well before Cardinal Bernardin was named Chicago’s archbishop in 1982, Mr. Quinn was receiving a complete Catholic education — from the sisters of St. Isaac Jogues Elementary School, the Dominicans of Fenwick High School and the Jesuits of Georgetown University. His brother, John, teaches history at Fenwick.
Mr. Quinn was the state treasurer when he met Cardinal Bernardin. They allied in an effort, ultimately futile, to roll back the high fees that currency exchanges charge to cash checks, mostly those of people too poor to have a bank account. From that battle, the governor recalled, he recognized the cardinal as a “man of conscience.”
Cardinal Bernardin put that conscience onto the national stage in a 1983 speech at Fordham University, in which he first articulated a “consistent ethic of life.” Over the succeeding years, he sometimes devoted entire speeches to specific elements of this “seamless garment” concept, which included the death penalty.
He gave perhaps his boldest and most eloquent speech in 1985 before a committee of lawyers at Cook County Criminal Court, the assembly line that processes the metropolis’s mayhem. A recent Gallup poll, the cardinal noted, had found that nearly three-quarters of Americans supported capital punishment. Chicago’s passions for retribution had been recently inflamed by the murders of a 10-year-old boy and a high school basketball star.
“It is when we stand in this perspective of a ‘higher court’ — that of God’s judgment seat— and a more noble view of the human person that we seriously question the appropriateness of capital punishment,” Cardinal Bernardin said. “We ask ourselves: Is the human family made more complete — is human personhood made more loving — in a society which demands life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?”
Just months before his death at 68 from pancreatic cancer in 1996, Cardinal Bernardin made an unannounced pastoral visit to a convicted murderer awaiting execution at Stateville prison in Joliet, Ill. “In a sense, he and I are in the same boat,” Cardinal Bernardin said after the meeting. “He knows that he is going to die tonight, and I know that I am going to die in the near future.”
Still, the cardinal also hinted at a sense of frustration at his unfinished business. He beheld nuclear arsenals still bristling, poverty unrelieved, abortion legal and the death penalty the law of most of the land. As he was writing his final book in the last weeks of his life, his assistant and publisher recently recalled, he asked plaintively, “Do you think this is worth doing?”
That book, “The Gift of Peace,” went on to become a surprise best seller, translated into 14 languages. One of its most avid readers was Pat Quinn. He has returned to the book almost annually for guidance and inspiration. In struggling with the death penalty issue, John Quinn said, his brother was especially moved by the chapters about the sexual abuse accusations once levied against the cardinal.
“What really struck him was Cardinal Bernardin being falsely accused,” John Quinn said. “Some of those people on death row were also falsely accused.”
Since the governor ended the death penalty, public response has been overwhelmingly favorable, according to his press office. Those clerics who worked most closely with the cardinal have expressed a sense of satisfaction, or perhaps something beyond it, at his belated victory on the issue.
“The bedrock of Catholic social teaching is that each life is a gift, created in the image and likeness of God,” said the Rev. Alphonse P. Spilly, who was the cardinal’s assistant for a dozen years. “It wasn’t just a theological principle for him. It was the way he dealt with every person, even the person who parked his car.”