Editor's note: The death last month of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was a milestone not only in the religious world but also in healthcare. As head of the Chicago Roman Catholic archdiocese and as a trustee of the Catholic Health Association, he was a vocal proponent of not-for-profit healthcare. He vigorously opposed joint ventures or sales between investor-owned companies and the 100 health agencies, including 20 hospitals, that he oversaw as head of the archdiocese. The cardinal conferred with James S. Todd, M.D., then executive vice president of the Chicago-based American Medical Association, on a variety of issues. Todd also invited the cardinal to share his views on healthcare with the association's House of Delegates during a 1995 meeting in Washington. In the following article, Todd reflects on the life of the cardinal, who died at age 68 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
The death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin leaves us all with a particular sadness. A man of gentle but resolute character, he was far more than a prince of the Catholic Church. His never-flagging concerns extended throughout all of society. His advocacy for those less fortunate and his belief that society has a responsibility to care for its victims kept him at the center of America's moral conscience. His power of gentle persuasion made him a formidable force for change and the betterment of the human condition.
Yet beneath this calm exterior lay a courage manifested by his willingness to address many difficult issues. He frequently spoke with deep emotion about trends in society that he feared would lead to moral decay. Fearing a loss of direction and facing a division within the church, he spent his long career as a mediator on many emotional issues, from nuclear war to AIDS education. He launched the Catholic "Common Ground" project, trying to get liberals and conservatives in the church talking and listening to one another. In all his endeavors, the cardinal hoped to leave a legacy of dialogue.
He was a staunch friend of the medical profession and the people it served. We at the AMA met with him often, helping each other better understand the problems created by AIDS, pedophilia and lack of equality in healthcare.
One of his great worries was the direction that healthcare was taking after the failure of the Clinton healthcare reform plan. He firmly believed that healthcare was a unique undertaking and that there was a fundamental difference between the provision of medical care and the production and distribution of commodities. The cardinal also believed the not-for-profit structure was better aligned with the essential mission of healthcare.
Speaking before the Harvard Business School Club of Chicago in January 1995, he contended that "the primary end or essential purpose of medical-care delivery should be a cured patient, a comforted patient and a healthier community, not to earn a profit or a return on capital for shareholders."
As a strong advocate of not-for-profit healthcare and philanthropy, he worried about economic competition eroding the moral center of the healthcare profession. In a December 1995 address to the AMA House of Delegates, he spoke of the moral crisis he saw gripping the medical profession generally and physicians individually. "More and more members of the community of medicine no longer agree on the universal moral principles of medicine or on the appropriate means to realize those principles," he said. "Conscientious practitioners are often perplexed as to how they should act when they are caught up in a web of economics, politics, business practice and social responsibility. . . . As a profession, you must take the lead in advising policymakers. This is a matter too important to be left to the government and the insurance companies."
He added, "You are the closest to these issues, and, in the end, your choices will determine our course as a nation and community. Recommitting yourselves to medicine's inherent moral center will give you the strength and the grace to renew the covenant and provide the leadership your patients, your profession and your nation need and expect from you."
These were words with which he hoped to rally the profession to a new awakening. We shall miss his eloquent and heartfelt challenges to our profession and society.
In death, as in life, the cardinal unfailingly projected serenity and courage. One of his last acts was to write to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the justices to reject physician-assisted suicide, which he firmly believed was wrong and had no place in a caring society. To him, assisted suicide sent a "false signal that a less than `perfect' life is not worth living." He spoke of his own illness with a unique understanding and acceptance that should be of comfort to others so afflicted. When medicine had no more to offer, he chose life "without the burden of disproportional medical intervention" and died with dignity, sad at leaving his friends but secure in his faith.
He died with a tranquility that only faith can sustain. When our own time comes, let us hope that we will gain strength from his words of faith. We shall miss this gentle and wise man of God.