Vol. 3, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing
Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage
What Really Happened in Uganda?
Go Down, Elian
A Religious Right Arrives in Canada
Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy
Mormon Women in the Real World
Peanuts for Christ
|A Cardinal in
by Ashe Reardon
The New York media in general, and the New York Times in particular, reacted to
the death of Cardinal John OConnor May 3 with the kind of pervasive coverage not
accorded a local religious leader in over 30 years. In an outpouring of Manhatto-centric
enthusiasm, the coverage lauded OConnor as at once a "peoples
priest," a big mouth, and the pre-eminent American Catholic prelate of the age.
Within hours of his death, the Times web site posted its cyber-extra: an
obituary by Peter Steinfels along with archived stories and a gallery of pictures spanning
the archbishops 16-year tenure in New York. In the coming days, the national
newspaper of record would not only describe the scenes of preparation, mourning, and
"ancient ritual and vivid spectacle" taking place in and around St.
Patricks Cathedral, but also supply interviews with the organist, the maintenance
man responsible for the "bank of tombs" where OConnors body would be
laid to rest, and the owner of the Syracuse company that manufactured the "red
African mahogany wood coffin."
OConnor was, in Steinfels words, "a leader whose views and personality
were forcefully injected into the great civic debates of his time." At the
invitation-only funeral Boston Cardinal Bernard Law kept the faith, making all the nightly
network newscasts by declaring in his homily, "What a great legacy he has left us in
his constant reminder that the church must always be unambiguously pro-life." After a
two-minute standing ovation from the assembled clergy and politicians, Law quipped,
perhaps spontaneously, "I see he hasnt left the pulpit."
Uncomfortable as the moment may have been for the pro-choice likes of President
Clinton, his New York senatorial candidate wife, the vice president who would be
president, Governor George Pataki, and Mayor (and not-yet-departed senatorial candidate)
Rudolph Giuliani, there was no question that St. Patricks was the place for
significant American politicians to be and be seen. Less uncomfortable, presumably, were
George Bush père et fils, ambiguously pro-life and hoping thereby to bracket the
Clinton presidency between them.
In the words of CBSs Jim Axelrod, "Presidents past and present gathered. The
high and mighty shared a pew, and the church said goodbye to a cherished son. Easy to
forget, perhaps, amid the trappings befitting Americas most powerful Catholic that
John Cardinal O'Connor used to say his greatest joy came from the simple daily work of a
Newspapers, and especially the New York Times, are creatures of precedent, and
the model for the full-court press coverage of the OConnor obsequies was the death
of Francis Spellman, the previous cardinal archbishop but one, in December 1967.
Spellmans successor, Terence Cook, had been a retiring figure whose October 10, 1983
funeral drew no politicians worth mentioning and received a minimum of respectful media
attention. But the diminutive Spellman was a Cardinal in Full. His term as archbishop of
New York spanned three decades under as many popes. New Yorkers knew his headquarters as
"the Powerhouse," and in the course of his tenure he built 37 churches, 130
schools, five hospitals, and a vast array of convents, old-age homes, and orphanages.
On the world stage Spellman was one of Romes leading Cold Warriors and a close
advisor on matters diplomatic and churchly to his patron and friend, Pope Pius XII. Nor
was he afraid to dabble in national politicsmost notably as a public supporter of
Sen. Joseph McCarthy and a not entirely discreet backer of the Protestant Richard Nixon
over the Catholic John Kennedy. Although his power and influence diminished significantly
during the 1960s, he was, as Alden Whitmans Times obituary put it, "the
best-known, most widely traveled and most publicized member of the American
hierarchy." After his death, condolences poured into the chancery from around the
world. For days, mourners passed by his open casket at the rate of 3,000 per hour, many in
tears, many reaching out to touch the hands that had directed their archdiocese for so
Spellman also happened to go to his Maker at the beginning of one of the wildest
presidential election cycles in history. The issue of the day was the war in Vietnam; the
question of the moment was whether an embattled President Johnson would pay his last
respects to the wars most prominent clerical supporter. He would. The Timess
legendary Homer Bigart was on the beat, covering the Presidents secret arrival by
way of a "helicopter shuttle to Sheeps Meadow in Central Park" and noting
the "tension over antidraft demonstrations."
Although hundreds of antiwar demonstrated had been arrested by police before the
Presidents arrival, hundreds more greeted his bulletproof limousine outside St.
Patricks chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids have you killed today?"
Inside the cathedral was Johnsons nemesis Robert F. Kennedy, the junior senator from
New York and soon-to-be challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination who had
transformed himself from a cold warrior to a leading critic of U.S. involvement in
In short, Cardinal Spellmans departure deserved all the media attention it got.
Did Cardinal OConnors?
Calling OConnor "the most combative and charismatic voice of Roman
Catholicism in the United States," the Timess Blaine Harden wrote May 7,
"His death last week is a reminder of the degree to which a confrontational style
helped make him the best-known and perhaps the most influential voice in the American
Catholic Church." It was, indeed, as a voice that OConnor made his mark, though
how influential it was is open to question.
The appraisals emphasized the succession of public utterances that upheld prevailing
Catholic teachings (in American terms, both conservative and liberal) on homosexuality,
womens ordination, condom distribution, and abortion, as well as on caring for the
poor, the rights of labor, and the death penalty. Until 1990, when he turned 70,
OConnor was known for his weekly press conferences. After that, he picked his spots.
Within the archdiocese he left his mark principally for what he did not do. Unlike
other Northeastern and Midwestern archbishops, he did everything he could not to close
churches and schools in urban parishes from which the Catholic immigrants of previous
generations had departed. Insiders were aware, though it was mentioned only sotto voce
in the press, that Job One for his successor would be to bite that bullet.
OConnor presided, of course, over a different Catholic world than Spellman had.
Not only was the great age of institution building over, but as Steinfels pointed out,
American Catholics today are less likely "to defer to the hierarchys
judgments" than once upon a time. Yet if times have changed and archbishops matter
less, why did the coverage remain the same?
In part, it was the death watch. After his surgery last August to remove a brain tumor,
it became clear that OConnor did not have long to live. In February, he paid a
well-publicized farewell visit to the ailing Pope John Paul II, who had plucked him from
obscurity 16 years before with the probably apocryphal comment, "I want a man like me
in New York." The end of this era was well anticipated.
More importantly, however, the OConnor coverage was puffed up by the infusion of
allegations of anti-Catholicism, like an evil ghost from the American past, into national
politics. After George W. Bush decided to make amends for his visit to Bob Jones
University, it was to OConnor that he addressed his February 27 letter of apology. A
week later, amidst the intense firestorm over the selection of a new chaplain for the
House of Representatives, Congress chose to honor OConnor with the Congressional
Gold Medal, the countrys highest civilian honor. In his last weeks, OConnor
became Americas go-to Catholic.
On the streets of New York, however, there was less fuss. As customary,
"thousands" of mourners were reported to have filed past the African mahogany
casket, but the reaction of New York Catholics seemed restrainedcertainly in
comparison to the hyped tone of news coverage. Nor should this be put down as but another
indication of the changing reality of the American Catholic Church.
When Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died in 1996, the outpouring of emotion was
huge. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, 100,000 mourners passed through Holy Name
Cathedral to pay their last respects.
Bernardin was truly beloved in Chicago, and after he was falsely accused of pedophilia
(and publicly forgave his accuser), he became a kind of saintly figure in the church at
large. He also happened to be the countrys most important Catholic prelate during
the OConnor years, a centrist whose authority within the church was second to none.
But to New Yorkers, Chicago and Chicagos Cardinal can never be more than