Documentation: Terence Cardinal Cooke

This appeared in the October 7 issue of the New York Post

Terence Cardinal Cooke was a good and gentle man, who changed the role of the Archdiocese of New York in American Catholic life.

Before Cardinal Cooke, the Archdiocese of New York — and specifically, the office of Francis Cardinal Spellman — used to be referred to as “the powerhouse.” It was the most potent jurisdiction within American Catholicism.

In those years, the relation between Cardinal Spellman and Pope Pius XII was particularly close, During the dark years of the Second World War and its hopeful aftermath, conversation between Rome and New York was frequent, attentive, and reciprocal. It was said that appointments Cardinal Spellman suggested in Rome, Cardinal Spellman got; and that help Pope Pius XII counted on from the American church, Cardinal Spellman delivered.

In those days, New York was the capital city of American culture and communications; it seemed far more vital and more central than sleepy Washington. Compared to New York, all the other dioceses of American Catholicism seemed to some Siberia. Chicago probably had the most enthusiastic, innovative clergy and most self-confident and outspoken laity; but if any such wanted to be read nationally, they had to appear in journals published, mostly, in New York: home of the Commonweal, The Catholic World, America, Jubilee, The Catholic Worker, and others.

Cardinal Cooke did not attempt to follow in the path of the flamboyant, brilliant, often controversial Cardinal Spellman. Nor did Cardinal Cooke try to exploit the symbolic dominance over America’s Catholics he might have exercised through New York’s preeminence in television, the newsweeklies, radio, and the wire services.

During Cardinal Cooke’s leadership in New York City, the wires often burned with “Catholic” news. Abortion, tuition tax credits, women priests, nuclear freeze — sex and politics are always news. Cardinal Cooke in the news as often as he chose. All a Prince of the Church has to do to make news is play the contrast between tradition and new opinion; things less newsworthy when said by others can make an archbishop famous overnight. Support for women priests will do it. Criticism of a public policy will do it.

Cardinal Cooke not only did not seek publicity. It was sometimes hard to get a controversial word out of him as, for example, when he recently declined service on the Kissinger Commission on Latin America. If Cardinal Cooke gave political advice to political leaders, or tactical advice to football coaches, no one seems to know what it might have been.

Such self-effacement as the Cardinal’s is, in these days, no small thing. It made New York’s “melting pot” or “ecumenical culinary” a quieter, more peaceful, more tranquilly productive place under Cardinal Cooke than it might have been. Great deeds include seeing to it, wisely, that certain events do not occur. In the nation’s most tumultuous city, Cardinal Cooke held his peace and kept the peace. He leaves behind no legacy of division or bitterness, complaint or animosity.

Cardinal Cooke’s method, moreover, allowed other prelates to flourish in the public eye. Who were the Catholic prelates in the national news the past few months? One remembers Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop Roach in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, Cardinal Medeiros in Boston, and even Archbishop Hunthausen in Seattle condemning “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound” — but, hardly ever, Cardinal Cooke.

It used to be said that NCWC, the initials for the National Catholic Welfare Conference (the old conference of Catholic bishops) stood for “Nothing Counts West of Chicago.” Clearly, that is no longer true. Cardinal Cooke allowed other church leaders to take the limelight.

He was a good servant. He was faithful to his tasks, generous, and yet content to go remarkably unnoticed. It will be difficult for any future Archbishop of New York to serve so many years in so much privacy. For a Christian, for a bishop, seeming to be last, being least in the public eye, is neither out of character nor off the mark. Cardinal Cooke seemed to want his headlines only in eternity.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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