Prince of the Church, and Prince of the City

When the 1990’s were young, I asked a daily newspaper columnist who had described John Cardinal O’Connor in terms usually reserved for Attila the Hun why she hadn’t discussed the Cardinal’s outlandishly leftist pronouncements on issues of wealth and poverty, war and peace, housing and health. She was silent for what seemed liked a minute-long enough to conclude that she didn’t know much about the Cardinal’s views on such issues. Finally, she admitted as much.

Johnny, they hardly knew ye.

After nearly 16 years at the helm of the New York Archdiocese, 79-year-old Cardinal O’Connor is preparing for the next stage of his life. Ailing, perhaps more than we know, he has made it clear that somebody new will stand in his place sometime soon. No Cardinal-Archbishop of New York has ever actually retired; they held their positions until summoned to service by an authority higher than even the Pope. Under new rules, however, bishops retire at 75 unless granted an exemption (as Cardinal O’Connor was). Even the exceptions, however, rarely serve beyond age 80, which the Cardinal will be in January.

So, like two-term Presidents approaching their last year in office, the Cardinal has had the unique opportunity to read assessments of his career written in the past tense, and the archdiocese he leads is preparing ever so subtly for a transition. As those retrospectives have piled up in recent months, it would seem, at last, that some people are getting it right: Cardinal O’Connor, son of working-class Philadelphia, has been an extraordinarily complex clergyman, adamant as well as ecumenical; hard-edged and sentimental, a man who built bridges to such seemingly unlikely allies as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ed Koch, Elie Wiesel and union leader Dennis Rivera. Thankfully, we have come a long way since that paragon of toleration, Gloria Steinem, could say (without apparent fear of contradiction from her equally open-minded peers) that the two worst things about New York were AIDS and Cardinal O’Connor.

He did take some time, it must be said, to get in tune with the music of New York. On the job only a few months, he inserted himself into the 1984 Presidential election, in which the Democrats ran a New York Catholic who favored abortion rights, Geraldine Ferraro, for Vice President after another New York Catholic who favored abortion rights, Mario Cuomo, became a national star at the party’s convention. It was a clumsy moment, and it sounded to some that the Cardinal was playing partisan politics. Amazingly, few seemed to think that the Cardinal would be equally as harsh on Republican Catholics who supported abortion rights (as, in later years, he surely was).

Critics at the time said the Cardinal needed a refresher course in the separation of church and state-as memory serves, one newspaper spoke darkly about revoking the Archdiocese’s not-for-profit status if the new Cardinal did not cease and desist from political pronouncements. However indelicately His Eminence handled this episode, he at least was too diplomatic to point out that the keepers of church-state relations generally lead the applause when clergy speak out for what are deemed progressive causes.

From that moment, the caricature of Cardinal O’Connor as a right-wing ideologue was set in stone among those who claim that they couldn’t possibly be anti-Catholic because, after all, they just love Anna Quindlen, and isn’t she, you know, one of them? Such people chose not to notice that as he grew more comfortable in his role and more knowledgeable about the city, the Cardinal became one of New York’s most eloquent voices on behalf of the poor (remember them?), a man who used his pulpit to condemn Republican social service cuts in the early 1990’s, who demanded better, more accessible health care, and who reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s incredible commitment to the education of poor, non-Catholic New Yorkers in some of the city’s most forlorn communities.

Cardinal O’Connor served in the U.S. Navy as chief of chaplains and achieved the rank of rear admiral, but he was extremely dubious about the Gulf War, and, on matters of military spending, he sounded like a conservative’s parody of that old World War II bomber pilot, George McGovern. My friend Chris Franz of the Staten Island Register reminded me that in 1980, then-Bishop O’Connor had a leading role in writing a pastoral letter on war and peace from the American Catholic hierarchy to its flock. With Bishop O’Connor’s active participation, the letter not only questioned the very morality of nuclear deterrence, but called on Catholics working in the defense industry to consult their consciences in light of the bishops’ letter.

Such is the man who led New York’s Catholics into the new century. This Christmas, he will be on the minds and in the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.