Institute on Religion and Democracy
March 23, 2000
In an age when too many of America's religious leaders are wimps, better known for their shame over their faith and their country, John Cardinal O' Connor of New York has been a notable exception. Defying the culture's moral relativism in one of America's most liberal precincts, O'Connor has vigorously and colorfully defended the doctrines of his Church. And he has done so while procuring the admiration of conservatives and liberals alike.
His masculine brand of Catholic orthodoxy easily overshadowed the political correctness of more "inclusive" church leaders, who strove to be relevant and thereby ensured their own inconsequentiality. O'Connor, who is now ailing after 16 years as Archbishop of New York, has powerfully proven that Christianity, when espoused boldly, can prevail against the nihilism of today's popular culture.
The son of a working class Philadelphia family who served in Vietnam as a U.S. Navy chaplain, O'Connor did not shy away from debates over homosexuality and abortion with the likes of Governor Mario Cuomo, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and Mayor Ed Koch. Yet he has maintained friendships with many of his most vigorous debating partners. He likewise attempted to counteract the leftward bent of liberation theology that sought to capture American Catholicism during the 1970's and 1980's.
Resisting and sometimes outvoted by his fellow bishops on Cold War hot buttons such as nuclear arms and Latin America, O'Connor sought a political witness for the church that was partial towards democracy and human freedom over and against the final and dying gasps of Marxism-Leninism. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals by, and has been a loyal follower of, Pope John Paul II, with whom O'Connor is now entering the winter of life.
The grandson of Irish immigrants, O'Connor was born with the aid of a midwife in his parents' Philadelphia row house in 1920. He would later recall his parents and siblings as a "ham and cabbage Easter Sunday family." His father was a goldleafer whose work sometimes entailed gilding the golden walls and ceilings of Catholic churches, of which the O'Connors were faithful communicants. His mother suffered a temporary bout of blindness, forcing her husband to quit work for a year. She attributed her eventual recovery to prayer.
Her son, the future cardinal, was educated by the Christian Brothers at Philadelphia's West Catholic High School, while working at part-time jobs as a Western Union delivery boy, a street hawker of vegetables and a department store stock boy. Although O'Connor's father hoped he would follow him as a goldleafer, O'Connor wanted to serve the Church.
His robust and very traditional Catholic faith came from his parents. Many years later, after he had become a prince of the church, O'Connor would recall: "Perhaps if they had been more sophisticated I might be more liberated, and not believe a fraction of what I believe today, which is amazingly like what they taught me to believe when I was hardly a half-dozen years old."
With $400 from his parents in 1936, he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where he was an exacting director of stage dramas and a faithful reader of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. O'Connor would later recall his seminary years as difficult, especially his having to relinquish control over his time so completely to the Church. But some classmates would remember that O'Connor was prone to throw himself into a frenzy of varied activity.
He was ordained a priest in 1945 and began teaching high school in Chester, Philadelphia. He taught a wide variety of topics, including drama, while also earning his M.A. in advanced ethics from Villanova. But his "first love" was working with mentally retarded children, eventually helping to establish an archdiocesan center for them. "I really thought that was how I'd be spending my life," he would say 40 years later.
With the advent of the Korean War in 1950, O'Connor tried to enlist as a chaplain. The Archdiocese at first refused to accede, but finally approved in 1952. Having little affinity for the military, but sensing the chaplaincy to be his war-time duty, O'Connor joined the navy for two years. His navy career would ultimately span 27 years.
O'Connor served on a destroy in the Atlantic Fleet, worked as an assistant to the Chief of Navy Chaplains in Washington, D.C., served on a guided-missile cruiser, attended Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, and then became chaplain to the Third Marine Division in Okinawa, with whom he was shipped to Vietnam. He led Catholic troops in mass every day, even in combat situations.
The commanding general of the Third Marine Division would later admiringly recall to Nat Hentoff for his biography about O'Connor: "It is my opinion that no single individual in this command contributed more to the morale of the individual marine here in Vietnam than Father O'Connor, who spent the majority of his time in the field with the men."
In one dicey episode, O'Connor and his driver were in the field and inadvertently advanced beyond friendly territory. When the came under fire, the driver froze in fear, forcing O'Connor to physically move the young soldier from the driver's seat so he could commandeer the jeep back to safety.
Probably not realizing that he would later become a celebrity, O'Connor penned a hard-line defense of the U.S. role of the Vietnam War in 1968 called, A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam. He dedicated it to "all those who believe in the future of Vietnam and have given something of their lives to prove their belief."
In it, he bemoans the thoughtless criticism of the war by the media and many church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant. Noting the absence of any comprehensive moral defense of the war by a churchman, he undertook to articulate "the moral rightness of our position." After he became archbishop of New York, O'Connor tried to distance himself from the volume.
"That's a bad book," he told journalist Nat Hentoff. "It was a very limited view of what was going on. I regret having published it. It didn't take account of the cost in lives, resources and brutalization, of some of the U.S. troops." But even with this disavowal, O'Connor still noted his irritation with the media's biases in favor of the North Vietnamese.
Even after three decades and the war long since lost, A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam actually reads rather well. O'Connor writes crisply and tries to respond rationally to the "quivering emotionalism," "sheer authoritarianism," "absurdities" and "demonstrations of unreasoned hatred" by many war critics, including more than a few fellow clerics, who "sue for peace without victory, [and] negotiation without condition."
He observed of both anti-American academics and church leaders that, "amid our luxuries and affluence we seem to have developed an almost paranoid sense of guilt." As part of the U.S. Marine Corps Development and Education Command in Vietnam, O'Connor helped to warn Marines against "the hideous cost" of unneeded cruelty in warfare.
"I can honestly say that I have never met a Marine serving in Vietnam who is insensitive to our relationship with the Vietnamese people or to the problem of atrocities," he wrote. He contrasted U.S. efforts to combat the enemy while protecting civilian lives with the Viet Cong's campaign of atrocities that are "deliberately planned as a strategy of terror." He observed: "Vietnamese from every walk of life have responded to our presence with warmth."
Admitting the terribly high price of any war, he nonetheless concluded, "I believe the war in Vietnam is very much the lesser of the many evils that would engulf us if we chose not to fight it." O'Connor received the Legion of Merit for his Vietnam War service. His partial disavowal of the book in later years, when he became a senior prelate of the church, is typical of O' Connor. In a habit that has irritated some conservative Catholics, O'Connor sometimes has backed away from doctrinaire positions not related directly to the Church's tenets.
Revealingly, O'Connor does not typically reject his previously articulated views outright, or retreat from any substantive stance, but professes to have lacked enough information or simply to have made unspecified mistakes. Such political adroitness served him well when he would later preside over the church's most prominent archdiocese.
After Vietnam, O'Connor continued to serve the Marine Corps chaplaincy first at Parris Island, South Carolina and then at Quantico, Virginia, where he once again thrived while teaching the retarded children of marine personnel. He also studied for his Ph.D. in political science at Georgetown University.
In 1970 in returned to sea on a cruiser-destroyer in the Atlantic, and then became the first Catholic senior chaplain at the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1972. O'Connor was promoted to rear admiral and the head navy chief of chaplains in 1975. For the next four years he traveled around the world, authored manuals on character education, the ethics of military leadership, and family problems in the navy, while setting up drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs for navy personnel and designing religious programs for broadcast on ships.
O'Connor later explained that he never desired to remain in the military for so long, doing so only because the church asked him to renew his service commitment year after year. All the while he desired to return to a quiet parish in suburban Philadelphia. It was not to be. In 1979 he retired from the navy only to be ordained a bishop by the new Pope John Paul II, who assigned him to head the military vicariate, with authority over all Catholic chaplains in the U.S. military.
His military experience gave him a not totally undeserved hawkish reputation within the church. In 1981 he was assigned, as the "token militarist," to a five man committee to develop the U.S. Catholic bishops pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. "I was billed as the Genghis Khan of the committee. The resident barbarian," he laughingly has recalled. The committee was chaired by liberal Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and included notoriously left-wing Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Pax Christ, a group that advocated unilateral disarmament by the U.S.
O'Connor sought to counter bishops on and off the committee who denounced not only nuclear deterrence but the U.S. military in general. "I know of nothing in official church teaching that suggests that our military people are engaged in immoral activities in carrying out their responsibilities. It "could be immoral" for a government to disarm unilaterally," O'Connor explained to Walter Sullivan, the Bishop of Richmond, Virginia.
"There is no evil, in any particular weapon," he once explained. "The evil lies in the use that's made of it, and in the costs, if they're disproportionately high. Again, the objective is peace with justice, and it may be that getting rid of a particular weapons system may actually enhance the possibility of war."
Although he consulted with Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, and even brought him in as a witness, O'Connor's suggestions were continuously rejected by the committee, usually by a vote of four to one. He especially strove to change the statement's wording from "halt" to "curb" the production of nuclear weapons to avoid the appearance of endorsing a nuclear freeze. The full Conference of U.S. Catholic bishops defeated O'Connor by ten to one. O'Connor loyally supported the final draft approved in 1983.
In a similar fashion, O'Connor has warned the bishops against rushing into political statements on Latin America. And, although a staunch pro-union man, he would later ask the bishops not to be too harsh on the free market. "The business and industrial community. [have] obviously contributed enormously to the general welfare by providing jobs and income," he told them. "I cannot imagine the bishops attacking the concept of capitalism." Still, O'Connor always supported the bishops' final drafts, however flawed.
His sometimes unpopular conservative beliefs espoused among the bishops did not detract from his reputation at the Vatican. At the very meeting the bishops were voting in the nuclear statement, O'Connor was told he was the new bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. O'Connor relished the chance to return to his native Pennsylvania. He quickly became popular there for his no-nonsense, military crispness.
In an opening letter to diocese, O'Connor left little doubt as to where he stood. "I will give no support by word or action that could in any way be construed in favor of any politician of any political party who professes either a specific pro-abortion position, or takes refuge in a so-called pro-choice position. I categorically reject the evasion: 'I am personally opposed to abortion, but this is a pluralistic society, and I must respect the rights of those who disagree with me."
"The pulpit is not the place for theological speculation. Our people are crying for fundamentals," he insisted. And he did not care for the modern trend towards casual worship. "While we are grateful to see that most 'folk-music' groups are appropriately attired for the sanctuary, we still note attire, here and there, which is more fitting for outdoor barbecues." Although O'Connor later boasted, in a bemused fashion, that his greatest accomplishment in Scranton was to allow women to wear slacks for the first time in the chancery.
O'Connor was popular in Scranton, its mayor later pronouncing that the bishop had been the best politician he had ever known. But O'Connor remained there less than a year. Terence Cardinal Cook had died, and the Pope reportedly said, "I want a man just like me in New York." The conservative, multi-lingual, intellectual, charismatic, media-savvy and well-traveled O'Connor, who likes to write his own sermons and preach often, was probably the closest duplicate to John Paul II that America could provide.
"Obviously I am perceived as being theologically very orthodox," O'Connor has admitted when asked to compare himself with the pontiff. "And I am. There's no question about that. And the Holy Father is theologically very orthodox. That's what he gets paid to be." He has described his attitude to the Pope as one of "fierce loyalty."
In what the Pope would call the "capital city of the world," O'Connor, as archbishop, would preside over 400 parishes, more than 300 parochial schools, over 120,000 students, 13 Catholic colleges and universities, 200 social services agencies, 2500 priests, 5000 nuns, and several billion dollars in real estate. But his initial greeting by New York, at least by its premier newspaper was not warm.
In an early interview with The New York Times O'Connor likened the pro-abortion mentality with Nazism's disregard for human life. An editorial slammed the "highly offensive implications" of O'Connor's comments, claiming the archbishop had pegged every woman who sought an abortion as the moral equivalent of a Nazi. The Times and the new archbishop would quickly reconcile, but O'Connor would quickly invite new controversy by commenting during that presidential election year: "I do not see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion."
Democrats interpreted the comments as a reference to two prominent Catholic pro-abortion rights advocates, Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Governor Mario Cuomo. "The archbishop is insisting that everyone believe as we believe," Cuomo huffed. Ferraro, who also claimed to be "personally opposed" to abortion even as she opposed any restrictions, was equally sanctimonious. "I cannot and will not seek to impose my own religious views on others," she commented.
The New York Times once again ominously warned: "It might as well be said bluntly: .the.effort to impose a religious test on the performance of Catholic politicians threatens the hard-won understanding that finally brought America to elect a Catholic president a generation ago."
O'Connor was defiant, pointing out that he was not endorsing or opposing any candidates. He was only responding to "some things about abortion relevant to Catholic teachings [said by Ferraro] which are not true." He further explained: "I have to speak out when a position of the church is being misrepresented.It's one thing to say you're not going to follow the teaching of the church. But it's quite another thing to change the teaching of the church, to tell that to others, and fool yourself."
O'Connor was no follower of the Social Gospel, which equates Christianity strictly with a "progressive" political agenda aimed at alleviating the suffering of the poor and regulating the power of the wealth. "Nowhere does the [Second Vatican] Council tell us.that as long as we resist war, help the poor, abhor racism and sexism and all such exploitation and disguises for violence, we don't have to worry about such old fashioned sins as adultery or fornication or lying or stealing or infidelity or disloyalty or missing mass on Sundays," he insisted.
"And we still teach what we have always taught about heaven and purgatory and hell. I like to spend a goodly portion of lent meditating hopefully on the first, doing enough penance to try to avoid a lengthy sojourn in the second, and praying quite vociferously for deliverance from the third!"
O'Connor would profess that he disliked controversy and confrontation. But he rarely shied from either when he feared the doctrines of the church were threatened. "I'm from southwest Philadelphia," he would observe. "I played a lot of hardball there, but never the variety I've discovered here."
His next big political struggle was with New York Mayor Ed Koch over a "gay rights" initiative. Executive Order 50 prohibited city contractors, including social service agencies, from discriminating in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or affectional preference." The Salvation Army and an Orthodox Jewish group refused to comply. And although his archdiocese received $100 million a year from the city, O'Connor refused also. "We will not sell our souls for city contracts," he announced defiantly.
The law insisted that all agencies "actively recruit" members of all protected groups, O'Connor noted, and ""would invite unacceptable governmental intrusion into and excessive entanglement with the church's conducting of its own internal affairs." The archbishop reminded the public that the Catholic Church did not oppose homosexuals but did oppose homosexual behavior and would not support its being elevated to a protected category. Besides, he said, a religious agency cannot allow the government to dictate the requirements for jobs within that agency. "We would rather close our child-care agencies than violate church teachings"
In 1985 the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of O'Connor and the other religious groups. When the city still declined to reimburse the church for sheltering the homeless, O'Connor protested personally to Koch, who relented. When city bureaucrats threatened to close Yankee Stadium to a Catholic youth rally, O'Connor threatened to call a press conference. The city backed down.
Undeterred, O'Connor campaigned in 1986 against a new "sexual orientation" initiative before the city council. "By defining sexual orientation as "heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality" the bill gives the three forms of behavior equal legitimacy," O'Connor observed. "It would seriously undermine the moral education and values of our youth and the stability of the family in our society."
The Episcopal Bishop of New York called O'Connor's stance "morally wrong," and Gloria Steinem said the worst things about New York City were AIDS and the cardinal. (O'Connor was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1985.) The city council approved the law 21-14. But O'Connor had no regrets. "What the world needs is a voice that is right not when the world is right but when the world is wrong," he said, paraphrasing the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.
Although he does not receive the same amount of publicity, O'Connor spends the vast majority of his time administering a diocese, not debating with politicians. Unlike his predecessor, he preaches at mass every morning (until his recent health problems interceded). He also sets aside time for any parish priest or nun to see him, and he has been tireless in visiting the churches, schools, hospitals, prison ministries and outreach centers of his jurisdiction. He admits to being insomniac who sleeps only four hours a night.
He says his daily prayer is to prevent his own "stupidity" or "misunderstanding" from preventing anybody from doing good, explaining, "In my position you can indeed impede an awful lot of good, and that possibility terrifies me." Although commonly described as conservative, he prefers to be known as theologically orthodox and socially liberal. He is outspoken on behalf of unions and the rights of labor. He favors government funding for anti-poverty programs, opposed funding for the anti-Marxist Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980's, and criticized President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg Cemetary in Germany, where some SS men were buried. He appointed a black lay woman as a vice-chancellor for the archdiocese, the first time a white priest did not hold the position.
In his personal encounters with his critics, especially abortion and homosexual rights activists, O'Connor is unfailingly gracious, winning friends, if not converts. But he is perturbed when he is accused of "imposing" Catholic beliefs, when opponents of Catholic beliefs are not accused of the same when they attempt to legislate their agenda. "Catholics are not second-class citizens," he likes to remind listenders.
O'Connor has also been embroiled in a furor over regulations regarding who may speak in a Catholic church, a pro-abortion rights city council member once having been the issue. The Cardinal explained that most church members and parents of parochial school students sacrifice financially so they and their children can hear reliable Catholic doctrine at their churches and schools. "Where are those who demand "free speech" in our Catholic schools when it comes to paying for those schools?" he asked. "Are there really many Catholics who don't know the "other side?"
Through it all, O'Connor has maintained warm friendships with many critics, including former Mayor Ed Koch, with whom he not only dined often but also co-authored a book called His Eminence and Hizzoner. "What you are suggesting is preposterous," he responded to Koch, according to the book, when the mayor asked about the propriety of distributing condoms to prison inmates. Their discussions were often blunt. "You are not elected to do what a bad plumber can do, patch our ills with quick fixes, he told the mayor. "You have an imperative, a mandate from the people, to exercise the highest form of moral leadership." Summarizing his differences with Koch, as with most of his critics, O'Connor said: "In general, I operate from a basis of moral absolutes and you don't."
"Whatever violates natural moral law ultimately violates the human person and his or her pursuit of happiness and inhibits the opportunity that is given to be fully human," O'Connor wrote in his book with Koch. "How could any public official, therefore, really think it s a luxury to be a moralist?
O'Connor has remarked that, on his frequent hospital visits, he finds it a powerful reminder to meet the formerly prestigious and powerful who are now helpless and dependent. "You see enough of that and it's hard to take yourself seriously and think of yourself as a figure of historical significance," he opines modestly.
The Cardinal says he regularly visits the crypt under New York's St. Patrick 's Cathedral, to peer at the tombs of his predecessors. A blank marble block marks where O'Connor will eventually lie. "And all that's important when I move into that crypt is that I have served New York as a good priest," he has concluded.
Now age 80 and ailing, attempting to recover from a brain tumor removed last Fall, O'Connor knows his ecclesiastic and earthly careers have entered their final season. As one who has defended the sanctity of all human life at every stage in the sight of God, and whose theology has stressed life after death, O'Connor can be confident of his fate. But religious leaders of his caliber are increasingly rare. Can our culture, against whose worst impulses O'Connor has battled, be as equally confident in its future?