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Remembering O'Connor

by Conrad F. Goeringer
May 4, 2020

“...the kind of man who, if the church still had the power to burn people at the stake, would be right there lighting a fire.”

-- Frances Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice on N.Y. Cardinal John O’Connor

The deathwatch began early last night, when CNN broke the news: New York Roman Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor was lingering in his final hours of life, following a battle with brain cancer. O’Connor had been in failing health since last August. That had not prevented him, though, from maintaining his position as one of the most powerful, and politically influential assets of the Vatican in the United States. To the end, he remained an unconditional stalwart in defending the church’s traditional position on issues such as homosexuality, divorce, celibacy for the clergy, Sabbatarianism, and the status of women.

O’Connor reportedly died of cardiopulmonary arrest at 8:05 p.m. The story led on news reports across the country; after all, the New York prelate occupied the Catholic church’s most visible post in the United States. O’Connor supervised the country’s fourth-largest archdiocese with an annual budget of more than $370 million according to today’s New York Times, and “vast” real estate and other holdings worth “far more than $1 billion...” This included 413 parishes, 55 high schools, 238 elementary schools, and oversight of 882 priests, 3,707 nuns, 17 hospitals, along with a network of social service agencies whose total budgets we simply don’t know. O’Connor country technically embraced Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island along with seven out-counties. The Cardinal’s clout, though, spilled far over those borders and onto the national scene.

If there was a “Vatican’s man” in the somewhat independent, at times obstreperous American Catholic hierarchy, it was John O’Connor. Today’s obituaries and write-ups note that it was often rumored, though never confirmed, that when he shuffled O’Connor to the Big Apple from a mundane post as Archbishop of Scranton, Pa., John Paul II told his inner circle, “I want a man like me in New York.”

He got his man.

O’Connor took over the New York Archdiocese from Cardinal Terence Cooke who ran the show from 1968 to 1983 but demonstrated a low key style of ecclesiastical leadership and political manipulation. Both men lived in the shadow of Cardinal Francis Spellman, the “American Pope” who presided from 1939 to 1967. Spellman was heavily “wired” into the political establishment and even the intelligence community. He operated the American branch of the Opus Dei movement, a church group founded to preserve the conservative orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine beneath of a facade of technocratic, neo-fascist politics. Spellman wielded so much clout both in New York and on the national scene that the archdiocesean offices became known as “the Powerhouse.”

O’Connor took over a church still powerful but trying awkwardly to exist in an increasingly secular culture. Much of the church’s power had been built on the immigrant communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Times writer Peter Steinfels notes, “The migration to the suburbs had thinned the church’s solid constituency, especially among the Irish, and neither the new Hispanic immigrants nor the grandchildren of the older Irish and Italian ones were as likely to defer to the hierarchy’s judgment.”

Ideologically, O’Connor staked out positions which seemed to go against the modern grain.. The church of Cardinal Spellman’s time no longer existed, and surveys indicated that increasingly the American Catholic “flock” did not always unconditionally follow their shepherds on issues such as birth control or even abortion. Conservative Hispanics gravitated to the excited ambiance of the evangelical movement. There were cracks in the “Powerhouse.” Politicians would listen to O’Connor, but they were not as apt to call as they had been during the Spellman era. Many locked horns with the archdiocese over everything from parochiaid to abortion. When Geraldine Ferraro, a Roman Catholic teamed up with Walter F. Mondale on the Democratic White House ticket, she found herself under attack from O’Connor for her pro-choice views on the abortion issue. Ferraro, along with other church members had signed a letter stating that there was “a diversity of Catholic opinion” on the hot-button topic.

“Geraldine Ferraro has misrepresented Catholic teaching on abortion,” declared the Cardinal. There were also rumblings about the consequences -- including excommunication -- to Catholic political officials who strayed from doctrinal correctness when it came to social policy.

Like Spellman, though, O’Connor remained a political power broker. He once declared that he rejected “the concept of the Powerhouse,” saying “My job is not to acquire or wield political power,” but his actions and the necessity of his office were rooted in the realpolitik of the world.
At times O’Connor seemed a political Neanderthal who wanted to return to the heyday of Catholic power when politician did timidly seek audience at the archdiocese residence around the corner from imposing St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed a measure which would have made domestic partners employed by the city the legal equivalent of married couples, O’Connor made sure that Hiz Honor, along with other officials like City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, knew exactly where the church stood. The pulpit at St. Pats was becoming a bully podium, prompting one University of Notre Dame professor to quip that the Cardinal was “pushing the envelope a bit” in using his position as a political truncheon.

Another issue was Sabbatarianism. Most Sunday “blue laws” had been buried by the courts, or the demands of the marketplace as Americans worked “flex jobs” and shopped on weekends. O’Connor, though, announced a boycott of Major League Baseball, objecting to the fact that games were being played on major Christian holidays like Good Friday, and groused, “Why is it religion that must always accommodate?” In sermons at St. Patrick’s, O’Connor lamented “the constant erosion, the constant secularization of our culture, that I strongly believe to be a serious mistake.”

Then there were the gays.

O’Connor delighted religious conservatives and Catholic traditionalists by tackling incendiary issues like abortion, contraception and rights for homosexuals. The Cardinal even kicked a gay Catholic group out of a parish church where it had been meeting for years. He took on the popular Mayor Ed Koch who issued an order banning discrimination by any employer that did business with New York City, including the churches, on the basis of sexual orientation. Other culture war issues attracted his stern opinions as well. In 1990, he warned Catholics against listening to rock and roll songs which were a “help to the devil,” and might even “lead to demonic possession.” He chaired the powerful Committee on Pro-Life Activities in the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and enlisted professional PR firms to lobby against pro-choice ballot initiatives.

All the while, O’Connor bluntly and openly described himself “thoroughly orthodox in church doctrine and progressive, even -- heaven forbid! -- liberal, on social issues.”

Indeed, O’Connor typified the belief in a “seamless garment” of positions, and managed to link “life” issues such as opposition to abortion with an abhorrence for the state death penalty. Some of his pro-labor stances reflected an earlier era in American history, when urban churches in Chicago, New York, Boston and elsewhere sometimes allied with working class, ethnic-based communities -- the Irish, Italian, East European and Slavic. When the archdiocese was targeted by a hospital workers’ strike, O’Connor spoke out against hiring non-union replacements.

Like Spellman, though, O’Connor remained a political power broker. He once declared that he rejected “the concept of the Powerhouse,” saying “My job is not to acquire or wield political power,” but his actions and the necessity of his office were rooted in the realpolitik of the world. He praised the 1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan, saying that the President was “a friend of the unborn.” Deeper back, behind the public facade of his ecclesiastical office, though, and like his predecessors, O’Connor was a “conduit” to Washington, and even the White House and the Pentagon. When Catholic Bishops were struggling to craft a military policy position paper, O’Connor liased with groups inside the beltway. Steinfels notes: “He fought vigorously for wording in the pastoral letter that would keep the bishops from condemning nuclear deterrence altogether, or being identified with advocates of a nuclear freeze, who were also opposed to the placement of new medium-range missiles in Europe...”

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of O’Connor’s death, though, is the media coverage, and how it reports the news about a powerful yet divided church. The wire service copy, while laudatory, is not entirely lacking in criticism. Secularists and heretics may take some comfort in the fact that even the mainstream media is not quite as slavishly conforming and uncritical as it may have been in the time of Cardinal Spellman. O’Connor is portrayed as “moral and political leader” whose stature remains “undiminished” in the words of today’s New York Times, but there is the tarnish of his “ready, fire, aim” confrontational style with the secular world and his authoritarian agenda. It is good that Archbishops, Cardinals and Popes are shown as the flawed human beings they are, not just alleged conduits to the will of an Almighty.

Has the world changed that much, though? “The Powerhouse” remains, perhaps not the force majeur it once was, but still sufficiently potent to elicit the respect of political elites. The financial problems of the Catholic Church (indeed, all other denominations as well) may be solved thanks to the growing political penchant for “charitable choice,” faith-based “partnerships” and other schemes to open the public treasury to sectarian groups. In the wake of Columbine, there is the shrill cry of culture warriors who see the often elusive solutions to complex social problems in the cut-and-dried formulae of religious faith. The Republican House of Representatives, gazing into the political tea leaves last February, saw the wisdom of presenting O’Connor with its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. House Speaker Dennis Hastert followed up, after an imbroglio over his original choice of a Protestant for the post of congressional chaplain, by breaking with tradition and named a Roman Catholic priest.

Politicians speak of the “Catholic vote” as the deciding swing factor in the year election.

There has indeed been change, especially since the church’s halcyon days when Cardinal Spellman had a direct line to the White House, and President Kennedy had to explicitly defend his ideas about the separation of church and state. It cannot be taken for granted, though. We bury Cardinal John O’Connor, but not the ideas he defended. They await the attentions of the next “man in New York” that ecclesiastical leaders in Rome will send our way.

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