Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
CEO Gravy Train Keeps On â€¦
War & Peace
The Colombia Plan: April 2000
Slippin' & Slidin'
Bully Pulpit Indeed
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Bully Pulpit Indeed
John Cardinal OConnor, 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 didnt 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 OCon- nors 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 OConnor as a stalwart defender of traditional morality. Even OConnors 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, OConnor 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 Nicaraguas 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 Catholicsthat 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 Archdioceses 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 OConnor took a staunchly conservative and traditional Catholic stance on issuesparticularly sexual moralityand then attempted to make all of New York live by these standards.
OConnors 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 Yorks Jewish community. OConnor 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), OConnor 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.
OConnors 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, OConnor 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. OConnor vigorously lobbied against it, once again demanding that Catholic city councilors tow his version of the Churchs 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. OConnors stancearticulated as a moral, pro-family positionendorsed and actively promoted a governmental tolerance of discrimination against gay men and lesbians. It is also important to remember that OConnors belligerent political actions were not morally mandatedmany other U.S. Bishops hold his views, but choose to speak out as moral leaders, not policy makers. Even by conservative Catholic standards, OConnor was a right-winger on sexual matters.
By the 1990sin the wake of a worsening AIDS epidemic OConnor 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 Fernandezs 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 citys severe budget cuts, took on contracts to run several city hospitals and health centers. One of OConnors conditions was that because these hospitals were now being run by the Archdiocesealthough still receiving a great deal of city and state funds and often the only place for the poor and uninsured to gomedical 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 OConnor started an AIDS clinic and called for the training of nursing nuns in caring for AIDS patients. Yes, OConnor 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 didnt have much time to do bedside nursing or even just comforting. The image of OConnor as the AIDS angel of mercy is a public relations lie. OConnor 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 OConnor was responsible for policies in hospitals and schools which received federal, state, and city money and provided services and education to mostly non- Catholic populationsthat were overtly harmful and dangerous to peoples 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 OConnor with the full weight of his moral authorityturned the citizens of New York against one another. OConnor 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. OConnor also paved the way for Robertson and his friends to fundraise among New Yorks 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 OConnors career in New York is the absence of any critique of his own statements about his power. OConnor portrayed himself as a pastor forced to enter the political fray because it was a necessary part of tending to his flock. But OCon- 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. Patricks giving his opinion on all aspects of New Yorks social and political life. He recklessly, and ignorantly, attacked art of which he disapproved. He condemned Martin Scorseses The Last Temptation of Christ from the pulpit without having seen it. He criticized the Brooklyn Museums Sensation show, which included Chris Offils painting of an African Virgin Mary that incorporated elephant dung. Here OConnor 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 Kisslings remark about OConnor 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 OConnor marks the end of an era. His political alliancesand sometimes fights withNew York City mayors Koch and Giuliani were a major factor in shaping New Yorks 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 OConnor 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 Vaticans 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. Martins Press.