USCC Watch: O’Connor and Cuomo — One Year Later

One year ago it was Archbishop John O’Connor. Now it is Cardinal John O’Connor. But in the minds of the American secular establishment, it will always be arch-villain John O’Connor.

Just a year ago, Archbishop O’Connor took a strong public stance on two issues, each of which crucially affected the Catholic faith. In each case, presumably the Archbishop realized that his stance would provoke criticism; presumably he felt that the issue was too important to allow any other choice. So, like the good military man he is, O’Connor marched out “on the point,” expecting his troops to follow. He might still be waiting.

In case anyone forgets, Archbishop O’Connor first hit the headlines with his unequivocal opposition to abortion. When Governor Mario Cuomo challenged him on the topic (with the gleeful cooperation of the New York Times and the University of Notre Dame), and he refused to back down, the secular media began to wonder whether O’Connor would become a new one-man version of the Inquisition.

Shortly after that dispute, O’Connor crossed swords with another public official. When New York’s Mayor Koch issued his Executive order #50, requiring equal employment opportunities for homosexuals, O’Connor announced that his archdiocese could not comply. The media howled, the Mayor threatened to cut off city contracts and the case headed into the courts.

By taking those two unflinching positions, John O’Connor earned a reputation as a bedrock conservative. Since that time, he has made no notably conservative statements. On the contrary, he has: testified against new nuclear-weapons systems; challenged U.S. policies toward Central America; endorsed higher spending on poverty programs; and traveled to Nicaragua, where (as USCC Watch gulped) cameramen recorded his embrace with Daniel Ortega. Still, his reputation as an “ultra-conservative” arch-villain has not changed.

The price that Cardinal O’Connor paid for maintaining his principles is obvious. But, again, he must have anticipated the opposition. The more important question is how much he gained by his leadership. Did his troops fall in behind him?

On the level of public opinion, the O’Connor-Cuomo debate was apparently a draw. If the polls I read are accurate, New York Catholics have a very favorable view of Cardinal O’Connor, yet an equally favorable view of Governor Cuomo. Evidently their conflict did not register.

But polls are notoriously crude instruments. How have Catholic organizations responded to the election-year debate?

Late in October, the National Conference of Catholic Charities (NCCC) held its annual conference in October. On the original schedule, the keynote speaker was: Mario Cuomo. Appalled, the bishops’ conference of Pennsylvania wrote to express their “amazement and dismay,” and ask that the invitation be rescinded. When he heard of this protest, Governor Cuomo noticed a convenient conflict in his schedule, and announced that he would be unable to speak.

However the NCCC president, Monsignor J. Jerome Boxleitner, refused to let the issue pass. While informing the Pennsylvania bishops that Cuomo had withdrawn, he added: “I regret his decision because I believe he has great insight into the justice issues surrounding the current tax reform debate.” Indeed he does. When President Reagan suggested higher allowances for families with children, Cuomo railed that Reagan was discriminating against “non-traditional families.”

Oh, yes, of course the NCCC took great pains to point out that by inviting Governor Cuomo to speak the organization was not endorsing his views on abortion. But how many organizations recruit keynote speakers with uncongenial views? And how many official Catholic groups honor men who have challenged their bishops in public? And, for that matter, did the NCCC mean to endorse Cuomo’s views on tax reform, along with his enthusiasm for “non-traditional families?”

The message seems loud and clear. The bishops of Pennsylvania are backing up Cardinal O’Connor. The NCCC is not.

And what about the bishops’ own organization, the USCC? (The NCCC is only loosely affiliated with the bishops’ conference.) The USCC is set up precisely in order to give a public voice to the bishops’ initiatives. Since O’Connor launched his anti-abortion offensive, how has the USCC responded?

Back in 1984, Archbishop O’Connor was making a simple point—not even an original point. The official teaching of the Catholic Church, made abundantly clear by the Declaration on Procured Abortion that Pope Paul VI promulgated in 1974, is that Catholics can never accept the legality of abortion. In 1985, the USCC seemed lax in applying that teaching.

The problem arose when the USCC filed an amicus curiae brief in a Supreme Court abortion case. The USCC brief asked the Court to “clarify” the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, “and to give appropriate recognition to the legitimate interests of the states without unduly burdening the woman’s choice.” That might have slipped by unnoticed, except that the Reagan Administration used the same case to launch a much more ambitious effort. In its own amicus brief, the Justice Department called upon the Supreme court to overturn Roe v. Wade

Archbishop Philip Hannan, of New Orleans, noticed the irony. While the Reagan Administration challenged the legality of abortion, the USCC seemed to accept it. In his view, the USCC brief implied “that we accept as a constitutional right a woman’s decision to have an abortion.” As Archbishop O’Connor had so adamantly argued, no Catholic can ever accept such a claim.

Responding to that criticism, Monsignor Daniel Hoye, general secretary of the USCC, argued that “The USCC brief is a positive and reasonable step toward restoring full protection to the unborn.” And the head of the USCC pro-life office, Father Edward Bryce, pointed out that the seemingly offensive sentence in the amicus brief (the one quoted above) had contained a footnote, which reiterated the unyielding Catholic opposition to abortion. In other words, the USCC felt that this moderate brief was the most practical approach to the current case. And, after all, the brief had affirmed the fundamental Catholic point. In a footnote.

Well, what about Executive Order #50? Has O’Connor had any more support on that point?

The point at issue has nothing to do with civil rights. The archdiocese of New York does not question potential employees about their sexual preferences. Rather, the question is whether the government can dictate to the Church. Can the City of New York force the archdiocese to guarantee that practicing homosexuals will be hired? If the Catholic faith holds that homosexual acts are immoral, can the Mayor overrule that doctrine? Clearly, Mayor Koch’s order posed a massive challenge to the moral authority of the Church.

Fortunately, Executive Order #50 ran afoul of unrelated legal problems. But the issue will not vanish. Sooner or later, some government will issue an equivalent challenge to the Catholic Church; sooner or later the Church will have to fight. Has anyone out there heard anyone taking a stand with Cardinal O’Conner?

By

Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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