In his May 29, 1986, column for the weekly newspaper Catholic New York, the cardinal wrote of having visited two dying AIDS patients at St. Vincent’s hospital. He had made such visits before, especially at St. Clare’s hospital, where he had helped create the first designated AIDS center in the city. There, as the Daily News reported on May 5 of this year, he would show up at all hours, unannounced, to visit patients.
And, O’Connor told me, he emptied bedpans as well.
Walking down the street after the visit at St. Vincent’s, he wrote in Catholic New York, “I was feeling not a little smug, quite noble. ‘What a fine fellow you are. And how lucky New York is to have you.’ ”
Coming toward him, strolling in the sunshine, was a group of young men. “They were looking very pleasant,” the cardinal recalled. “I smiled the smile I’m told does wonders on television.”
One of the young men said to the cardinal, “Take a hike, hatemonger!”
“That hurt very much,” O’Connor wrote. “But beneath the hurt . . . was the sadness of knowing how much hurt a fellow like that must be carrying around all the time.”
Soon after he came to New York, a delegation from the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights asked to meet with O’Connor.
His predecessor, Terence Cardinal Cooke—regarded by many Catholics as a saintly man—had refused to meet such a delegation. One of Cooke’s secretaries had met with a group of gays and lesbians, but, as one of them told me, “he did not have the decency to shake our hands.”
On the night of the meeting with O’Connor at the Catholic Center, the guard at the desk, who knew who they were, said: “This way, ladies—or whatever.” In the elevator, someone whispered, “Good luck.”
When O’Connor came into the room, he first shook everybody’s hand. Nothing was said about Cardinal Cooke’s secretary, but the gesture registered.
The delegation did not change O’Connor’s conviction that according to Catholic teaching active homosexuality is wrong. But Karen Doherty, a member of the Conference for Catholic Lesbians and a participant in that meeting, sent me a copy of a letter she had written the cardinal two weeks after the discussion:
“You impressed me as being a very straightforward, sensitive, and capable man. What I particularly appreciated was the fact that I did not feel talked down to or held at a distance because I am a lesbian woman. . . . I wanted you to know that while we strongly disagree, I have a great deal of personal respect for you and the fact that you are willing to stand up for what you believe.”
Some time after, Karen Doherty told me, “That letter of mine shocked a lot of my gay and lesbian friends, and some of the nuns and priests who support us. But I couldn’t have said anything different. It would have been a lie. He is a very human person, and he has a lot of integrity. That’s why he’s a tremendous adversary.
“He didn’t have to answer my letter [asking for a meeting]. He could have ignored it the way Cooke would have. It was a risk to write to me, to treat a woman who had identified herself as a lesbian the way you’d treat a human being.”
O’Connor had enough integrity to confess error unequivocally. During the Vietnam War, he was the chaplain for the Third Marine Division and was with it on the front lines, under fire. He received the Legion of Merit award, and he also wrote a book, A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam (World Publishing Company). It was, as he wrote, “a justification, moral and legal, for American intervention in Vietnam.”
“That’s a bad book,” he told me during one of our first conversations. “I regret having published it.” In addition to the enormous cost in lives on both sides and the brutalization of some of the American troops, he said, he hadn’t realized how many decisions had been taken for political rather than military reasons.
As cardinal, O’Connor testified before congressional committees against increasing military expenditures—and spoke in favor of billions of dollars for low- and moderate-income housing. He was also fully in accord with the concept of the “seamless garment”—the full meaning of being pro-life, as explained by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago:
“Abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale, public executions are fast becoming weekly events . . . and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger problem.”
When I first met O’Connor, I decided to tell him where I was coming from. I hadn’t heard of the “seamless garment,” but I said: “I’m a Jewish atheist civil-libertarian pro-lifer.” He took out a pen and asked me to repeat it. I think he thought he might have discovered a new sect.
Years later, I was to introduce him at a pro-life meeting in Toronto. But first, I was moderating a session during which I urged that there be more research on reliable methods of contraception as a way to avoid a good many abortions. (Not the kind that is a disguise for abortion.) Two large men, members of the audience, rushed to the stage, wrested the microphone from me, and denounced me as a heretic—not the first time I’d been called that in other circles.
The cardinal was watching bemusedly, and after I introduced him, he said, “I want you people to know that I’m delighted Nat is not a member of the Church. We have enough trouble as it is.”
Four weeks before he died, O’Connor was lobbying statewide to help those many people wasting away in prison by getting the Rockefeller drug laws radically changed.
As O’Connor lay in state at St. Pat’s, nine-year-old David Melendez said, “What he’s been through has been a great life for him. He lived the way he wanted to live.”