Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

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 Full

by Ashe Reardon

The New York media in general, and the New York Times in particular, reacted to the death of Cardinal John O’Connor 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 O’Connor as at once a "people’s 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 archbishop’s 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. Patrick’s Cathedral, but also supply interviews with the organist, the maintenance man responsible for the "bank of tombs" where O’Connor’s body would be laid to rest, and the owner of the Syracuse company that manufactured the "red African mahogany wood coffin."

O’Connor 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 hasn’t 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. Patrick’s 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 CBS’s 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 America’s most powerful Catholic that John Cardinal O'Connor used to say his greatest joy came from the simple daily work of a priest."

Newspapers, and especially the New York Times, are creatures of precedent, and the model for the full-court press coverage of the O’Connor obsequies was the death of Francis Spellman, the previous cardinal archbishop but one, in December 1967. Spellman’s 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 Rome’s 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 politics—most 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 Whitman’s 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 long.

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 war’s most prominent clerical supporter. He would. The Times’s legendary Homer Bigart was on the beat, covering the President’s secret arrival by way of a "helicopter shuttle to Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park" and noting the "tension over antidraft demonstrations."

Although hundreds of antiwar demonstrated had been arrested by police before the President’s arrival, hundreds more greeted his bulletproof limousine outside St. Patrick’s chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids have you killed today?" Inside the cathedral was Johnson’s 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 Vietnam.

In short, Cardinal Spellman’s departure deserved all the media attention it got. Did Cardinal O’Connor’s?

Calling O’Connor "the most combative and charismatic voice of Roman Catholicism in the United States," the Times’s 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 O’Connor 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, women’s 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, O’Connor 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.

O’Connor 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 hierarchy’s 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 O’Connor 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 O’Connor 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 O’Connor 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 O’Connor with the Congressional Gold Medal, the country’s highest civilian honor. In his last weeks, O’Connor became America’s 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 restrained—certainly 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 country’s most important Catholic prelate during the O’Connor years, a centrist whose authority within the church was second to none.

But to New Yorkers, Chicago and Chicago’s Cardinal can never be more than second banana.