By TAMARA STARKS
Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO - Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the soft-spoken son of immigrants and one of the Roman Catholic Church's strongest voices for social involvement, died early Thursday of cancer. He was 68.
Bernardin died at his home at 1:33 a.m., Bishop Raymond Goedert said.
Bernardin, the senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States and leader of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in June 1995, and announced Aug. 30 that the cancer had spread and was inoperable. He gave up his day-to-day duties Oct. 31.
In more than 14 years as archbishop of Chicago - often described as the most visible Catholic post in the United States - Bernardin helped steer the American church toward an anti-nuclear stance and staked out positions on AIDS and capital punishment. Just days before his death, he wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court urging against creation of a legal right to die.
But Bernardin spent much time in his final months discussing his illness, his struggle to overcome the fear of death, and his belief in eternal life.
''We can look at death in two ways, as an enemy or as a friend,'' Bernardin said when he announced his illness was terminal. ''As a person of faith, I see death as a friend."
His openness about his impending death won praise from religious leaders. It also brought him to extraordinary places, from the White House, where President Clinton honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the cell of a death-row inmate who asked to pray with Bernardin before being executed in September.
His most searing moment of national attention came in November 1993, when he was accused of having sexually abused a young man, Steven Cook, years earlier while Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. Cook recanted and reconciled with Bernardin before dying of AIDS last year.
Ironically, Bernardin had established a system for dealing with sexual accusations against priests that was considered a model for other dioceses. His vindication after calmly declaring his innocence and willingness to forgive Cook mitigated damage to the church's image from priest-abuse scandals.
Bernardin considered it a priest's duty to confront sticky social issues.
''If we live a religious life and encourage others to do that, there is no doubt we will come into increasing conflict with the prevailing values of this society,'' he told The New York Times in 1983.
His statements sometimes enraged critics, but Bernardin rarely raised his voice in public or dropped the humble demeanor that became familiar to Catholics in the Chicago archdiocese after he took over in 1982.
Bernardin was appointed after the death of Cardinal John Cody, a doctrinal conservative with a reputation for autocratic rule. Cody had been embroiled in accusations of financial wrongdoing, and Bernardin sought to repair divisions between traditionalists and progressives in the archdiocese.
''He gave the Chicago church a much needed renewal of spirit,'' Scott Appleby, a religious scholar at the University of Notre Dame, said prior to Bernardin's death.
Bernardin became an international figure when he guided the U.S. Catholic bishops' 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear war. The document rejected bombing of population centers, first use of nuclear weapons and any rationale for a limited nuclear war.
The document furthered Bernardin's reputation as a liberal-minded mediator and consensus-builder.
In 1987 he helped persuade the Vatican to restore the authority stripped from Seattle archbishop Raymond Hunthausen because of his liberal approach. Bernardin urged the Vatican to let bishops govern their dioceses without undue interference from Rome.
He struck a delicate balance as chief drafter of a 1987 document in which U.S. bishops said they would tolerate educational programs that describe how condoms may prevent the spread of AIDS. Critics, including Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, said the document could be interpreted as condoning condom use, which the Vatican condemns along with other artificial birth control. Bernardin said the statement didn't imply church support for condom use.
He won a small but significant victory for women in 1992 when U.S. bishops rejected a document that would have flatly prohibited women's ordination in favor of Bernardin's plan for more ''study and dialogue."
This year, he stirred criticism from Catholic conservatives once again by launching the Catholic Common Ground Project, an effort to open dialogue with Catholics who dissent from church teachings.
Bernardin was born April 2, 1928, in Columbia, S.C., to immigrant parents from northern Italy. His father, Joseph, was a stonecutter and his mother, Maria, a seamstress.
He considered a career in medicine but settled on the priesthood, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1948. He received his master's degree in education from Catholic University in Washington four years later.
He was ordained a priest that same year, and served 14 years in the archdiocese of Charleston, S.C. In 1966, Bernardin, then 38, was appointed auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, becoming the youngest bishop in the nation. He led the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the late 1960s and 1970s and spent 10 years as archbishop of Cincinnati before moving to Chicago.
Throughout his career, he expressed his ambition as a simple desire to be a good priest.
''My basic responsibility is to preach the Gospel, and this I try to do,'' he said in 1987.
He is survived by his mother, who lives in a Chicago nursing home, and a sister, Elaine Addison of Columbia, S.C.
Published Nov. 14, 1996