Bully Pulpit Indeed

John Cardinal O’Connor, who died
last month, was perhaps the most influential Catholic leader in America, known
as much for his just-folks manner as his strongly worded moral leadership.
People didn’t always agree with him, but everyone respected his moral
authority. He was an extraordinarily media-friendly personality; the sort
of religious leader that central casting used to supply to Hollywood directors
in the 1940s. He was, as has been repeatedly stated, “beloved.”

But this hagiography is, for the most part, revisionist history. Sure, press
accounts of O’Con-  nor’s legacy were careful to mention how
his strong anti-abortion stand elicited protests from feminists and other
liberals, and how his anti-gay statements drew the ire of gay Catholics and
ACT UP. But even these positions were recast and modified as minor differences
in ethical opinions. In some cases, they were being used to portray O’Connor
as a stalwart defender of traditional morality. Even O’Connor’s
detractors portrayed him as a loving, caring religious leader who 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 New York to manipulate and bully everyone from the mayor,
city council, and school board to the doctors and nurses of both public 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 and was responsible for such shocking tactics as employing seminarians
as strike breakers, and publicly supporting, in defiance of Pope John Paul
XXIII, right-wing dictators such as Nicaragua’s General Anastasio Somozao)
has a member of the clergy caused so much harm in New York.

To be sure, he supported labor and he spoke out against racism and poverty,
and welcomed immigrant Catholics to New York.  While such praise is the
stuff that eulogies are made if, they ring a little hollow: fighting for social
justice and caring for the poor are part of his job description. As far as
welcoming immigrant Catholics—that was not only his moral duty, but his
bread and butter as well since Latino and Asian Catholics now comprise a sizeable
portion of the Archdiocese’s congregations. But even in these lists of
positive accomplishments there are hesitations and qualifications: “…
some Jewish leaders came to see him as an opponent of anti-Semitism,”
noted the New York Times the day after his death. But for the most
part O’Connor took a staunchly conservative and traditional Catholic
stance on issues—particularly sexual morality—and then attempted
to make all of New York live by these standards.

O’Connor’s most passionately fought causes were abortion and gay
rights. Before he came to New York in 1984 (from his position of Bishop of
Scranton, Pennsylvania where he had been appointed just eight months earlier),
he had made an anti-abortion stand the flagship 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 infuriated a sizable portion of the 2.5 million
members of New York’s Jewish community. 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, then governor of New York, with veiled threats of excommunication.
When then-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 time he also publicly referred to then President Reagan as a “friend
of the unborn.”

O’Connor’s actions went far beyond pastoral counseling and into
the realm of influencing public policy. This conflict surfaced repeatedly
in the 1980s over the issue of gay rights. When Mayor Edward Koch issued an
executive order that barred anti-gay discrimination in any employer who had
a contract with the city, O’Connor successfully sued the city and forced
it to retract the policy. A year later, liberals on the city council tried,
after an almost two decades long battle, to pass a gay rights bill that granted
an exception for religious institutions. O’Connor vigorously lobbied
against it, once again demanding that Catholic city councilors tow his version
of the Church’s line. While the Roman Catholic Church has every right
to hold its own views on sexual morality, it has no moral or legal right to
impose those views on public policy. O’Connor’s stance—articulated
as a moral, pro-family position—endorsed and actively promoted a governmental
tolerance of discrimination against gay men and lesbians. It is also important
to remember that O’Connor’s belligerent political actions were not
morally mandated—many other U.S. Bishops hold his views, but choose to
speak out as moral leaders, not policy makers. Even by conservative Catholic
standards, O’Connor was a right-winger on sexual matters.

By the 1990s—in the wake of a worsening AIDS epidemic— O’Connor
became even more aggressive in his attempts to influence policy. In 1993 he
vigorously campaigned against any school health programs that would give students
information about birth control or safe sex, including the dispensing of condoms.
In 1994 he lobbied against then-School Chancellor Joseph Fernandez’s
Rainbow Curriculum, which would have presented gay and lesbians families as
facts of the 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
was that because these hospitals were now being run by the Archdiocese—although
still receiving a great deal of city and state funds and often the only place
for the poor and uninsured to go—medical personnel at these hospitals
would not be allowed to perform abortions; give patients information on “artificial”
contraception; provide safe sex counseling; or dispense condoms.

Much has been made of the fact that O’Connor started an AIDS clinic and
called for the training of nursing nuns in caring for AIDS patients. Yes,
O’Connor visited this clinic and did pastoral counseling to women and
men there. Yes, he emptied bed pans. But how many times? The man ran one of
the largest Catholic Dioceses in the country, a non-profit corporation with
an annual budget of $527 million dollars. He didn’t have much time to
do bedside nursing or even just comforting. The image of O’Connor as
the AIDS angel of mercy is a public relations lie. O’Connor no more physically
cared for the sick and dying than Princess Di did; it was, in PR talk, spin
control. This spin takes attention away from the fact that O’Connor was
responsible for policies in hospitals and schools— which received federal,
state, and city money and provided services and education to mostly non- Catholic
populations—that were overtly harmful and dangerous to people’s
physical and mental health.

But the dangers here are not only to the human body but to the body politic
itself. By actively working and campaigning against humane, intelligent, and
healthful social service and educational policies John Cardinal O’Connor
—with the full weight of his moral authority—turned the citizens
of New York against one another. O’Connor has been portrayed as a “conservative
Catholic.” This places him to the right of the progressive Catholic left
and mainstream increasingly liberal center but to the left of what is usually
called the Christian or religious right in the U.S. politics as exemplified
by the Christian Coalition. In 1993 he formed a coalition with Pat Robertson
and other Christian conservative fundamentalists that basically acted as a
nonaggression pact. Stating that, while they agreed to disagree on certain
doctrinal matters, they would 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. O’Connor also 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 mailings lists to his brother.

But perhaps most disturbing in the press coverage of O’Connor’s
career in New York is the absence of any critique of his own statements about
his power. O’Connor portrayed himself as a pastor forced to enter the
political fray because it was a necessary part of tending to his flock. But
O’Con- nor used his bully pulpit to become a bully. For more than a decade
he held press conferences after his 10:15 AM Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s
giving his opinion on all aspects of New York’s social and political
life. 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 the Brooklyn Museum’s
“Sensation” show, which included Chris Offil’s painting of
an African Virgin Mary that incorporated elephant dung. Here O’Connor
revealing an appalling insensitivity and ignorance about cultural difference
since Offil, a practicing Catholic of African ancestry who lives in London,
drew on African traditions of materials and symbolism in this Black Madonna.
Most shocking, and dangerous, was that he publicly attacked Salman Rushdie
for writing The Satanic Verses claiming that it was wrong to mock any
religion. Not only had he not read the novel, but Rushdie was living in hiding
because of a fatwa issued against him by an Islamic court. The audacity of
this action, which came dangerously close to endorsing the death sentence,
recalls Francis Kissling’s remark 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.” Kissling was president of Catholics
for Free Choice.

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 were a major factor in shaping New York’s politics and policies.
(Interestingly he had little to do with the less self-promoting David M. Dinkins.)
Pope John Paul II will soon appoint another Archbishop to the most important
dioceses 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 no telling
how the inner workings of Vatican policy play out. It is a certainty that
who-ever is appointed will be, in keeping with the Vatican’s recent policy,
a conservative.             Z

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.