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Historians have called George Washington “the indispensable man” in the founding of our nation. When reflecting on the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which reversed that Court’s decision to impose a national regime of abortion on demand for five decades, the question arises: Who was the indispensable person in bringing the nation, especially American Catholics, to this long-awaited result? 

A very good candidate for that honor is Cardinal John O’Connor. 

My recommendation follows in the footsteps of Rep. Henry Hyde, himself the indispensable member of Congress in 1976 and subsequent decades through his sponsorship and defense of the Hyde Amendment that prevents federal funding of abortion to this day. 

In 2000, when Cardinal O’Connor was dying of cancer, Rep. Hyde wrote:

The scourge besetting our civilization today is abortion, the destruction of millions of preborn children yet in the womb. Although there are many who bravely resist this carnage, one man stands above us all, one man has been the most effective and unshakable leader defending God’s gift of life, one man whose example has given us hope and inspiration—John Cardinal O’Connor.

The evidence justifying that tribute is ample.

Even when he was the little-known Bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1983, O’Connor wrote to his priests that the pro-life cause was “at the very top of my priorities.” 

That year he was asked to join the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, where he served until his death in 2000. After being named Archbishop of New York in 1984—a far larger and more public venue—and then cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1985, O’Connor took every opportunity to advance the cause of life in the Church and the public square.

Critics have used two stereotypes to minimize O’Connor’s witness. 

One was that he was a simple and plain-spoken Irish American who was out of his depth in the sophisticated world of politics and news media. Plain-spoken he could be. But he had served as Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Navy, with the rank of Rear Admiral, and earned master’s degrees in ethics and psychology, as well as a Georgetown University doctorate in political science.

The other stereotype was that he was an old-style “conservative” in a political sense. Yet his academic credentials and Navy experience enabled him to raise incisive questions about U.S. military actions in Europe and Central America; and he staunchly defended the labor union movement, and the poor and marginalized. While defending Catholic teaching on homosexual activity, he opened the first hospital in New York dedicated to people with AIDS, spending time with the patients and even emptying bedpans on his visits. He invited all women in New York experiencing problems in pregnancy to come to the Church for help. One of his dearest friends in New York was the city’s liberal mayor of Jewish background, Ed Koch, with whom he authored His Eminence and Hizzoner.  

None of this shielded O’Connor from unjust criticism when he saw an urgent need to address the phenomenon of Catholic politicians claiming a “pro-choice” or “personally opposed, but” stance on abortion. “I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion,” he said in 1984. This led to an extended controversy with New York governor Mario Cuomo, who supported abortion and its public funding—a controversy egged on by the New York Times, which would contact each one for comment whenever the other spoke on the issue. 

Cardinal O’Connor’s prominence as spokesperson on the responsibilities of Catholic public officials grew when New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro won the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1984. He knew that Ferraro had hosted on Capitol Hill a briefing for colleagues promoting “Catholics for a Free Choice,” a pro-abortion front group seeking to obfuscate and neutralize the Catholic bishops’ witness by claiming that there were many valid Catholic positions on abortion. 

The howls of outrage that would greet the cardinal’s comments on Ferraro ignored the nuanced way he responded. “I have absolutely nothing against Geraldine Ferraro; I will not tell anybody in the United States you should vote for or against [her] or anybody else,” he said. “The only thing I know about [her] . . . is that she has given the world to understand that Catholic teaching is divided on the subject of abortion. . . . As a formally, officially appointed Catholic teacher of the Catholic Church, all I can judge is that what has been said about Catholic teaching is wrong.”

The U.S. bishops reacted to his outspoken advocacy by electing him chairman of their pro-life committee at the November 1989 general assembly, succeeding Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. 

At that assembly, the bishops also unanimously approved a “Resolution on Abortion,” responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Webster abortion case in Missouri. Webster had upheld some laws regulating abortion, but dashed pro-life Americans’ hopes that it would overturn Roe v. Wade—a prelude to the even greater disappointment of the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. The bishops strongly reaffirmed the need to continue efforts to reverse Roe, support laws protecting the unborn, educate Catholics and others on the issue, offer compassionate care to pregnant women, and pray for God’s assistance in this cause. Cardinal O’Connor was actively engaged in its drafting, and many saw his influence in passages, such as “At this particular time, abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will,” and “No Catholic can responsibly take a ‘pro-choice’ stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.”

Cardinal Bernardin, O’Connor’s predecessor as chairman, had advanced a “consistent ethic of life” that some politicians misused to justify treating the killing of the unborn as just “one issue” among many others. (It should be noted that Cardinal Bernardin had no such intent and had publicly criticized that misuse.) For pro-life Americans concerned about this trend, the “Resolution on Abortion” offered a welcome and inspiring clarity.

And that clarity about the priority of defending innocent life from attack became a central theme of the U.S. bishops’ longer 1998 pastoral statement, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” responding to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Cardinal O’Connor was involved in this document as well—though its cogent argument and vivid language is also due to Archbishop Charles Chaput, a pro-life committee member who became a worthy successor to the cardinal in defending the Church’s public involvement in life issues. 

This document reaffirmed the Church’s strong commitment to an array of issues involving human dignity, but with a clear sense of priorities: 

If we understand the human person as the “temple of the Holy Spirit”—the living house of God—then these . . . issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation. These directly and immediately violate the human person's most fundamental right—the right to life. Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand.

This image of the walls and the foundation made its way into the bishops’ election-year statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” in 2007—a document that has been reissued without change every four years since. 

Even these joint statements did not exhaust the cardinal’s contribution to helping Catholics understand the moral issue of abortion. In 2000, O’Connor took the unprecedented step of making his regular column in New York’s archdiocesan paper into a separate 20,000-word insert, “Abortion: Questions and Answers.” It holds up well today as a guide to almost every possible question on this topic.

As chairman of the bishops’ pro-life committee, O’Connor led a massive and successful effort against two extreme proposals in Congress, the “Freedom of Choice Act” and the “Reproductive Health Equity Act”—predecessors to the current misnamed “Women’s Health Protection Act” in their goal of overturning even modest state laws placing limits on abortion or its public funding. And he obtained funding from the Knights of Columbus to hire a public relations firm to help develop more effective pro-life messages. Perhaps his most lasting contribution here was not a specific message but a person, Helen Alvare. The funding enabled the bishops’ pro-life office to hire her as a new Director of Planning and Information, launching her career as public spokesperson, teacher, and example to a new generation of female pro-life advocates, and co-author of Supreme Court briefs that helped bring about the Dobbs decision. 

The cardinal made two other major contributions to the ranks of Catholic advocates for the sanctity of human life.

In 1990, he received Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus into the Catholic Church, ordaining him as a priest the following year. Fr. Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, especially devoted himself to bringing together evangelicals and Catholics to help ensure that every unborn child is “protected in law and welcomed in life.” And in 1991, the cardinal formed a new religious order, the Sisters of Life, which has made an incalculable contribution of its own through service to pregnant women and their children, compassionate outreach to women suffering after an abortion, and prayer for respect for the gift of human life.

Considering Cardinal O’Connor’s life of service in this cause, one is tempted to say, “we shall not see his like again.” But the inspiration he gave to others by his wisdom, energy, and fearlessness makes that a doubtful prediction.

Richard M. Doerflinger retired in 2016 after thirty-six years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is a Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture.

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