Cardinal O'Connor, R.I.P.

John Dubois (1764-1842), the only non-Irish bishop to lead the church in New York, is buried beneath the entrance to Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan. Dubois’s tenure as bishop was stormy, and he battled his mostly Irish congregants on many issues, including the ownership of parishes and the appointment of priests. Often he lost. "They walked over me in life," Dubois is supposed to have said about his burial plot. "Let them walk over me in death." The trustees of the cathedral obliged.

Cardinal John O’Connor, New York’s outspoken archbishop for the last sixteen years, was not a man anyone was likely to walk over. When he died earlier this month after a largely discreet battle with cancer, his passing was noted with sadness and praise by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. O’Connor was a stalwart champion of the poor, the working class, and the so-called man in the street. He was a fierce defender of labor unions, an advocate for AIDS victims, and a strong opponent of anti-Semitism. After a long and distinguished career as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, he became more and more outspoken on issues of peace and skeptical about military spending. Theologically he did not shy away from the label "conservative," and he was a firm supporter of Pope John Paul II’s sometimes counterproductive efforts to curb dissent and impose discipline within the church. O’Connor’s influence with the pope, especially on the appointment of bishops, was substantial. Whether or not that influence was beneficial remains a question. In the public debate about abortion, homosexuality, sex education, capital punishment, and similar issues he was an unapologetic proponent of the church’s views. He did not hesitate to call prochoice Catholic politicians to task for what he saw as the abandonment of Catholic principle. Yet even those who clashed with the cardinal, such as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, were impressed with O’Connor’s forthrightness, his ready sense of humor, and his commitment to the church’s social teachings.

Much has been written about O’Connor as a man who placed institutional loyalty at the center of his sense of himself as a priest and bishop. There is truth in that description, although it shortchanges the pastoral and evangelical emphasis O’Connor brought to his ministry. For the most part, he had his priorities right. The gospel places the poor, the needy, and the sinner at the forefront of the church’s mission. The next archbishop of New York could do far worse than to emulate O’Connor’s example in that regard. Where the next leader of New York’s church could broaden O’Connor’s legacy is in how he engages the world of ideas and art. New York is the cultural capital of the nation, if not the world. Much of the cultural elite in the media, the universities, and the arts remain notoriously indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the church. This continuing antagonism represents a loss for both communities, but it especially inhibits the church’s ability to get a fair hearing in the larger culture. Like O’Connor’s generous overtures to the Jewish community and for ecumenism in general, New York’s next archbishop should work to break down the stereotypes on both sides of this cultural divide. Though opposed on several neuralgic issues, the two communities could make common cause on many others. There is something anomalous about a church that exists in the smithy of modern culture-a culture whose appeal extends to the vast majority of Catholics-and yet seems removed from the forces and people shaping that culture. Establishing a dialogue and mutual respect between Catholicism and New York’s cultural institutions could go far to improve the effectiveness of the church’s countercultural moral message, a message Cardinal O’Connor represented so well.

Published in the 2000-05-19 issue: 
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