How am I indebted to him? Let me count the ways. No, it would take too long. Suffice it to say that he received me into full communion; he ordained me a priest; he was a friend who never said no when he could say yes. And he was a great Cardinal Archbishop of New York. John Paul II called him “the archbishop of the capital of the world,” and here he was known as The Shepherd of the City. Most of the time, he relished the role, and excelled in playing it to the hilt.
No day goes by that I do not think of him, and pray for him. It was eight years ago this week that he died. There are many stories to tell, and some day, if I ever get around to memoirs, maybe they’ll get told. One story that never stopped giving was his relationship with our parish newspaper, the New York Times .
The Times was like the troublemaker who says, “Let’s you and him fight.” Sometimes the troublemaker does it just for the fun of making trouble; at other times because he wants a proxy to advance his own interests. The NYT regularly picked fights between O’Connor and then governor Mario Cuomo. One time O’Connor issued guidelines reminding pastors that they should avoid giving a platform at parish events to speakers who oppose Catholic teaching. Immediately the eager reporter was on the phone. To the archdiocese: Did the guidelines have Cuomo in mind? Answer: No. To Cuomo: Did he think he was being targeted? Answer: He doesn’t know, but the guidelines smack of a denial of the right of lay Catholics to speak their mind. That rated a big front-page story the next day. The Times is not satisfied, however. By its own account, the reporter repeatedly calls Cuomo and an official of the archdiocese, each time relating to the one the uncomplimentary things said about him by the other. At last the official is moved to allow that, yes, just maybe, the guidelines could apply to Cuomo; and at last (it didn’t take very long) Cuomo is in high dudgeon against tyrannical prelates who would violate the freedom-loving spirit of Vatican II, or words to that effect. That rates an even bigger front-page story, and the Times has the brouhaha it wanted¯the next round in the O’Connor-Cuomo fight, of which the New York Times was promoter, announcer, referee, and judge.
The first round was promoted in 1984 when the NYT set up an unusual interview with Cuomo at his home and invited him to hold forth on Catholic teaching and political ethics. The reporter zeroed in on his disagreement (and the disagreement of Geraldine Ferraro, a former Queens politician who was then running to be vice president) with what the Church says should be done about abortion. Cuomo’s answers were generously spread across the most influential front page in the Western world. That was promptly followed by a breathless report revealing that Cardinal O’Connor, in however low-keyed a manner, took a somewhat different view of Catholic teaching and political responsibility. The paper announced that the fight of the season was on, and it offered gleeful accounts of real or imagined blows exchanged. You knew a round was over when a magisterial editorial appeared declaring Cuomo the winner. So much did he take to his assigned role that the Thomas More manqué of Albany (who had a portrait of More in his office and was undaunted by the fact that Thomas’ quarrel was not with the pope but with the king) decided to throw some blows from that capital of popular Catholic intellectuality, Notre Dame. There Cuomo declaimed on the “seamless garment,” an image that suggests that abortion is one issue among others, such as opposing handguns, capital punishment, drunken driving, and unkindness to whales. According to Cuomo, what makes the abortion issue different is that nothing should be done about it. Cuomo’s reasoning was something less than a seamless garment. He aggressively (and, I believe, rightly) tried to build a consensus against capital punishment and used the power of his office to override the existing consensus in favor of it. At the same time, he proclaimed his devotion to Roe v. Wade and defended his state’s funding of abortions, all the while saying he wanted a consensus against the pro-abortion position he promoted. “Please, someone stop me!” he seemed to be pleading.
Yet the Times declared that the governor’s moral, political, and theological logic was impeccable. Yes: theological, for that is the heart of the matter. The question is who defines Roman Catholic teaching on faith and morals. The editors seemed deeply to resent the presumption of John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and John O’Connor, who claimed to speak with particular authority on the subject. It would not have been seemly, however, for the Times to take a direct role in redefining Catholic teaching. Hence the need for proxies and “Let’s you and him fight.” The current round over those guidelines about inviting speakers to parish events was, in the reporting of the Times , closely linked to other putative outrages by putatively reactionary Catholic leaders. Rome lifts its official approval from theologians who have long and publicly disapproved of Rome, the pope curbs an archbishop who preaches that American foreign policy is the moral equivalent of Auschwitz; for the Times it is all of a piece with whether Gloria Steinem may be invited to address the next meeting of the Sacred Heart Society over at St. Jude’s.
The running storyline in the Times and in the media that take their cue from the Times is simple: The battle is between Rome, on the one hand, and the Catholic people, on the other. The Times conducts and trumpets polls showing that many Catholics disagree with church teaching on various issues. There is perhaps nothing objectionable in doing that, even if it has been overdone. But the editors then invoke such evidence to suggest that “the people” (those who agree with the Times ) are right and the teaching is wrong.
The Catholic Church continues to have its problems with the American democratic ethos, but it seems unlikely that it will accept the idea that questions of faith and morals are to be decided by opinion polls. Equally unattractive is the idea that the Times should, through its proxies, replace the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Academic theologians have been known to style themselves as a “parallel magisterium,” along with, and frequently in contradiction to, the magisterium of the pope and the bishops. Their pretensions are modest compared with magisterial aspirations of the New York Times .
Later in his sixteen years as archbishop, John O’Connor had second thoughts about his relationship with the media, and not only with the NYT . When he first came to New York, he said, he had the naive idea that, in what is certainly the world’s communications capital, the media could be used to magnify the message of the Church. At one point he even had a platform built beside the pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and there he regularly held news conferences after Sunday Mass. He was hurt that some of his priests thought he was becoming a publicity hound. More important, he began to realize that he was more used by than using the media. Too often, stories were more about Cardinal O’Connor than about the Church’s teaching. To the disappointment of many in the media and in the public, he had the platform dismantled and discontinued the news conferences.
Not that he retreated from the public square. Not by a long shot. But he chose his occasions with greater care. Even then, there was hardly a week when the papers and networks did not consider newsworthy something he said or did. The odd thing is that, in most ways, John O’Connor was a very shy man. Unlike most politicians (whether of the secular or ecclesiastical kind), he did not enjoy pressing the flesh and was touchingly eager to have you understand that the real John O’Connor was not the fellow mixing it up in the public square. The public tasks were just that, duties that he believed came with the job. He never got over the wonder of the improbable fact that a kid from working-class Philadelphia was archbishop of the capital of the world. I miss him very much and look forward to picking up where we left off.
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