The full story
Over the past week, we've heard only one side of John Cardinal O'Connor's
controversial legacy. Here's what you haven't been reading.
by Michael Bronski
Since his death on May 3, a flood of tributes to John Cardinal O'Connor has
poured forth from parishioners, politicians, and fellow clergy. O'Connor was an
extraordinarily media-friendly personality, the sort of religious leader that
central casting used to supply to Hollywood directors in the 1940s. This helped
make him the most influential Catholic leader in America. He was known as much
for his "just folks" manner and plainspokenness as he was for his leadership.
Many people didn't agree with him all the time, but most respected his moral
Nevertheless, much of the hagiography we've read over the past week is, for the
most part, revisionist history. Sure, press accounts of O'Connor's legacy have
been careful to mention that his strong anti-abortion stand elicited protest
from feminists and other liberals, and that his anti-gay statements drew the
ire of gay Catholics and of ACT UP. But these conflicts have been recast as
minor differences in opinion. No doubt in deference to the Church and to
Catholic sensibilities, even John O'Connor's detractors are portraying him as a
loving, caring religious leader who simply spoke his mind about issues that
were important to him.
But the reality is that for the 16-year duration of his episcopacy, O'Connor
used his powerful position as archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York to
manipulate and bully everyone from the mayor, the city council, and the school
board of New York City to the doctors and nurses at publicly and privately run
social-service agencies. Not since the corrupt administration of Francis
Cardinal Spellman (who reigned over the New York archdiocese from 1948 to 1967,
employing seminarians as strike breakers and publicly supporting -- in defiance
of Pope John XXIII -- right-wing dictators such as Nicaragua's General
Anastasio Somoza) has a member of the clergy caused so much pain, divisiveness,
and harm in New York. And even though O'Connor's legacy will be felt the most
within the often insular world of Big Apple politics, we are all affected by
the ongoing debate it raises: the debate over the separation of church and
state, and the always questionable boundaries between them.
To be sure, some of O'Connor's policies were admirable, and the newspaper
reports of his life have played them up. He was a strong supporter of labor, he
spoke out against racism and poverty, and he welcomed immigrant Catholics to
New York. But even though such praise is the stuff that eulogies are made of,
it rings a little hollow. After all, fighting for social justice and caring for
the poor come with the territory of taking care of God's children. In other
words, these activities were part of his job description. As for welcoming
immigrant Catholics, that was not only his moral duty, but -- given that Latino
and Asian Catholics now make up a sizable portion of the archdiocese's
congregants -- his bread and butter as well.
Every church leader has the right, even the mandate, to instruct his flock, but
O'Connor repeatedly went far beyond pastoral counseling as he advocated for the
two causes he felt most passionate about: opposition to abortion and to gay
rights. Before he came to New York as archbishop in 1984 (from the position of
bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to which he had been appointed just eight
months earlier), he had made his anti-abortion stand the cornerstone of his
involvement in public and social policy. On the eve of his arrival, he said
that abortion in America was "precisely the same" as the murder of six million
Jews in the Holocaust. This pronouncement, which can charitably be described as
insensitive, infuriated many of New York's 2.5 million Jews. O'Connor
later apologized for the remark.
But soon after his arrival in New York, he began an active campaign against
Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights. He harassed Mario Cuomo,
who was governor of New York at the time, with veiled threats of
excommunication. When vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro signed a
letter claiming that there was a "diversity of Catholic opinion" about abortion
(a true statement), O'Connor proclaimed at a news conference that "Geraldine
Ferraro has misrepresented Catholic teaching on abortion." During this same
period he also publicly referred to President Ronald Reagan as a "friend of the
O'Connor engaged in the same kind of politicking around gay rights. In 1980
Mayor Edward Koch issued an executive order that prohibited any employer who
had a contract with the city from discriminating against gay men and lesbians.
Everything worked fine until, just months after he was installed as archbishop,
O'Connor successfully sued the city and forced it to retract the policy. A year
later, liberals on the city council tried, after almost two decades of
battling, to pass a gay-rights bill. Even though the bill granted an exception
for religious institutions, O'Connor vigorously lobbied against it, once again
demanding that Catholic city councilors toe his version of the Church's line.
By the 1990s -- after years of a worsening AIDS epidemic -- O'Connor became
even more aggressive in his attempts to influence policy. In 1993 he campaigned
against any school health programs that would dispense condoms or give students
information about birth control or safe sex. In 1994 he lobbied against school
chancellor Joseph Fernandez's "Rainbow Curriculum," which would have presented
gay and lesbian families as facts of city life. It was also during this time
that the Catholic Church, responding to the city's severe budget cuts, took on
contracts to run several city hospitals and health centers. One of O'Connor's
conditions for doing so was that medical personnel not be allowed to perform
abortions, give patients information on "artificial" contraception, provide
safe-sex counseling, or dispense condoms -- even though the hospitals and
health centers were still receiving a great deal of city and state funding, and
were often the only places the poor and uninsured could get care.
The Roman Catholic Church has every right to its own views about sexual
morality, but it has no moral or legal right to force those views into public
policy, which affects Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It's important to
remember that although many other US bishops share O'Connor's views, they
choose to speak out as moral leaders, not policymakers. And even though
O'Connor framed his stance on gay rights, for example, as an ethical,
pro-family position, he actively promoted governmental tolerance of
discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
Although much has been made of the fact that O'Connor started an AIDS clinic
and called for nuns in the nursing profession to be trained in AIDS care, these
acts are nothing more than good public relations. Yes, O'Connor visited this
clinic and counseled its patients. And yes, as several obituaries have pointed
out, he even emptied bedpans. But how many times? The man ran one of the
largest Catholic diocese in the country, a nonprofit corporation with an annual
budget of $527 million. The fact is, he didn't have much time to do
bedside nursing, or even just comforting. O'Connor no more physically cared for
the sick and dying than Princess Di did. These anecdotes are, in PR talk, spin
control. They take attention away from the policies O'Connor was responsible
for in hospitals and schools -- policies that were overtly harmful to people's
physical and mental health.
Over the past week, O'Connor has been portrayed as a "conservative Catholic."
This depiction places him to the right of the increasingly liberal Catholic
mainstream, not to mention the Church's progressive wing. But it also puts him
to the left of what is usually called the Christian or religious right in US
politics -- not necessarily an accurate placement. O'Connor's stances on labor,
welfare, and racial prejudice (all of which were in accord with the Vatican's
official policies) separated him from the US religious right in some respects,
but there is little doubt that he was an active participant in it. In 1993 he
formed a coalition with Pat Robertson and other conservative Christian
fundamentalists that amounted to a nonaggression pact. The coalition members
agreed to disagree on certain doctrinal matters, and agreed to work together on
such projects as saving the family, promoting sexual abstinence before
marriage, halting the promotion of homosexuality as a "valid lifestyle," and
eradicating sex education in schools. Even more telling is that O'Connor paved
the way for Robertson and his friends to fundraise among New York's Catholic
faithful. Greater love hath no man than to give his direct-mailing lists to his
But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the press coverage of O'Connor is
that it neglects to question the statements he made about his own power.
Throughout his time as the head of the New York archdiocese, O'Connor always
claimed that he had no interest in political power. He specifically and
repeatedly denied that he wanted his office to be "the Powerhouse" -- the
nickname Francis Cardinal Spellman gave to the position because of its enormous
political authority during his tenure. Yet at least Spellman, an infamous
manipulator of local and national politics, was honest. He was guilty of the
sin of pride -- but O'Connor was guilty of hypocrisy.
Though he always portrayed himself as being forced into the political fray by
his pastoral duties, O'Connor in fact used his bully pulpit to become a bully.
At the press conferences he held after his 10:15 a.m. Sunday mass at St.
Patrick's for more than a decade, he recklessly and ignorantly attacked art of
which he disapproved. He condemned Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of
Christ from the pulpit without having seen it. He criticized "Sensation,"
the Brooklyn Museum of Art show that included Chris Ofili's
elephant-dung-and-paint rendering of an African Virgin Mary -- thus betraying
an appalling insensitivity to the African traditions and symbolism that
informed Ofili, a practicing Catholic of African ancestry living in London. But
O'Connor's most shocking, and dangerous, act was to publicly attack Salman
Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, claiming that it was wrong to
mock any religion. (Again, O'Connor admitted that he had not read the novel.)
Rushdie was living in hiding at the time because of the fatwa issued
against him by an Islamic court. The audacity of O'Connor's action -- which
came dangerously close to endorsing a death sentence on Rushdie -- recalls a
remark that Frances Kissling, the president of Catholics for Free Choice, once
made about O'Connor: that he was "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."
The death of John Cardinal O'Connor marks the end of an era. His political
alliances -- and sometimes fights -- with New York City mayors Koch and
Giuliani shaped New York's politics and policies. (Interestingly, he had little
to do with the less self-promoting Mayor David Dinkins.) Pope John Paul II
will soon appoint another archbishop to the most important diocese in the
United States. Bishop Edward M. Egan, who worked under O'Connor in the early
1990s, is seen as the likely candidate, but there's no telling how the inner
workings of Vatican policy will play out. It is a certainty, however, that the
person appointed will be, in keeping with the Vatican's recent policy, a
conservative. New York will also soon have a new mayor. The future is
unpredictable. We can only hope that the new spiritual head of New York's
Catholics will remain just that.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash,
and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, which is now available in paperback from
St. Martin's Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.