The Battle between Archbishops

John J. O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago, describe themselves as “good friends.” No doubt, they also seek to maintain brotherly amity in word and deed. Still, their public positions on religion and politics are remarkably different in intellectual approach, personal style, and public mode of argument.

In Round One, Cardinal Bernardin put defense spending on the agenda; O’Connor countered with abortion.

On October 25, in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Bernardin opened Round Two rather aggressively. He defended again a position for which he has been sharply attacked, his position (enunciated last year at Fordham in New York) that Catholics should approach moral issues concerning life as a “seamless garment.” No “single issues” for the Cardinal. He wishes to lump abortion, nuclear disarmament, defense, the “rights” to nutrition and jobs and housing, and concern for the poor, in one unbroken piece of cloth.

Archbishop O’Connor, by contrast, while not denying intellectual connections between such issues, has purposefully and clearly singled out the one issue which even Cardinal Bernardin admits is central: abortion.

Archbishop O’Connor is an admiral, and may have learned a little about strategic thinking. In strategic defense, to try to defend everything is in practice to defend nothing. Strategically and tactically, choices must be made. The public cannot handle all issues at once. One issue at a time. In Archbishop O’Connor’s judgment, the basic issue of life and human rights today is abortion.

Intellectually, the two Archbishops are not in contradiction. Cardinal Bernardin agrees that abortion is primary and central. Archbishop O’Connor agrees that there is a moral dimension that runs through a whole range of issues. The difference between them lies in timing and in emphasis.

But these differences are of immense political consequence. A great many Catholic politicians (mostly but not entirely Democrats) depend upon large pro-abortion constituencies. Cardinal Bernardin’s formulation of a “seamless garment” allows them to say that their “report card” on the “life issues” (defined to cover poverty, housing, defense, etc.) is pretty good.

Furthermore, Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless web” seems to show quite lumpy and visible seams. For example, there is no true parallel, as he asserts there is, between taking 1.5 million innocent lives through abortion each year, and finding current U.S. defense budgets unacceptably high.

In both cases, the principle is that innocent life should never be taken. But in the second case, the conclusion is not that there should be lower defense budgets; rather, that nuclear weapons ought never to be used.

To get to Cardinal Bernardin’s position on defense spending, one needs to do some pretty heavy stitching. First, higher defense spending may be necessary if nuclear war is truly to be deterred or (even better) rendered obsolete. Second, a switch from nuclear deterrence to conventional defense in Western Europe, as the Bishops’ Pastoral itself asserts, will require higher (not lower) defense budgets.

Again, Cardinal Bernardin stitches on a new meaning of “rights,” when he speaks of “rights” to nutrition, housing, a job, etc. An unborn child’s right to life comes naturally, unless someone takes it away. It is a constitutional right. Nutrition, housing, a job, do not come naturally. Someone has to work for them, either the individual or, in cases of those who can’t care for themselves, others. These are not constitutional rights. The right to life is not at all on the same level as the other “rights” the Cardinal mentions. The latter are “rights,” if at all, only in a secondary sense.

The stitches in the “seamless web” create very large seams, indeed. Round Two to O’Connor, even as the two Archbishops shake hands and each puts an arm around the other. They are both good men.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.