There’s no point in simply talking to people about filling their souls if you don’t fill their bellies.
—John Cardinal O’Connor, Christmas 1986
Even before John O’Connor left his post as the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1984 to become archbishop of New York, he ignited a firestorm of controversy. In a Sunday morning interview on WNBC-TV, O’Connor compared ‘the killing of 4000 babies a day in the United
States’ to the Holocaust.
‘Hitler tried to solve a problem, the Jewish question,” he said. “So kill them, shove them into ovens, burn them. To me [abortion] is precisely the same.”
Supporters of abortion rights were furious, and many Jews charged the newcomer with diminishing the horror of Hitler.
I was on the staff of The New Yorker then, as well as being a columnist for the Voice, and decided to find out if O’Connor was worth a profile in that magazine. If he was just a rigid, orthodox conservative, it wouldn’t be worth the extraordinary time and trouble those pieces took. So I went to the Catholic Center on First Avenue to see for myself.
Waiting in the anteroom of his office, I heard him shouting in the corridor. In all the time I spent with O’Connor in the years since, I never again heard him raise his voice. But on this day of a citywide hospital strike, including the Catholic hospitals, called by District 1199, the man in charge of labor relations for all the hospitals had decided to hire strikebreakers.
“Over my dead body,” the archbishop was yelling, “will any person be fired because he or she belongs to a union and is exercising the right of collective bargaining. I will not stand for union busting.”
Three years later, in 1987, he held a press conference with Jesse Jackson in New York to call indignant attention to the indecent wages being paid to the largely black and Hispanic home-care health service workers. He told reporters that 51 percent were earning less than $7000 annually, and that 80 percent were living below the poverty level.
I remember Francis Cardinal Spellman’s reaction in 1942, when the United Cemetery Workers, Local 93—earning $59 for a six-day, 48-hour week—went on strike. Spellman commanded a large number of seminarians from St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers to go to Calvary Cemetery in Queens and break the strike by digging the graves themselves. Cardinal Spellman was the first to dig.
The new cardinal turned out to be much more difficult to stereotype than I had first thought. But some New Yorkers still found him repellent. O’Connor knew, for instance, that Gloria Steinem had said that the two worst things to happen to New York in years had been “AIDS and Cardinal O’Connor.”
I asked him about this tribute, and he said, laughing, “She’s not the only one who thinks I’m the Genghis Khan of the Church.”
There were others, however, who were convinced that the purportedly conservative prelate had dangerous socialist leanings.
One evening, the cardinal was the guest of dishonor at a dinner held by a group of prominent conservative and neoconservative intellectuals in a private dining room of a university club on the East Side. Because I was writing about him for The New Yorker, I was asked to come along.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops had recently issued the first draft of a pastoral letter on the economy. It called for economic justice for the poor in this land of rampant free-market inequality. O’Connor had signed and strongly supported this speaking of truth to the powerful.
I knew that at least one of the men at the table was a big contributor to Catholic charities. He and the others accusingly asked the cardinal what business it was of the church to get involved in political, secular advocacy that undermined the future economic growth of the nation. “It’s a socialist document,” one of them said.
Firmly, O’Connor looked at his inquisitors and said, “About 900,000 individuals in New York live in substandard conditions not fit for pigs, including overcrowding, with all the attendant evils of that kind of life. I would be failing my religious and moral responsibilities if all I did was to say Mass and carry out the customary religious duties of my office.”
Later that night, sitting across from him, I whispered, “Maybe you now have a keener appreciation of some of the economic thinking on the Left than before you came into this plush place with those hunting prints on the walls.” The cardinal laughed and kept laughing for quite a while—to the puzzlement of the stern critics around the table.
At another time, a man dying of AIDS wanted to renew the civil-marriage vows he had made to his wife three years before. A Protestant, he had been gay in the past, and desperately hoped for a religious marriage ceremony in St. Patrick’s Cathedral because his wife, a Catholic, regarded St. Patrick’s as her “dream church.”
The cardinal was in Israel, where he was characteristically creating controversy by saying that since “the Palestinians don’t have a land they can call their own, they can hardly be called a people who yet have the right to self-determination.”
The rector of St. Patrick’s refused to allow the marriage ceremony. On his return, the Genghis Khan of the church reversed that decision. On Valentine’s Day, the cardinal welcomed the couple to the cathedral, kissed the bride, shook hands with the groom, and blessed the couple.
“There are many who would question my very presence at such a marriage,” O’Connor told the press, “but every human life is sacred.”