The Boston Phoenix
May 11 - 18, 2000


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 authority.

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 unborn."

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 brother.

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