John O'Connor (1920-2000) is recognized as one of the most important American representatives of 20th-century Roman Catholicism.
As a Roman Catholic leader, Cardinal John O'Connor was his generation's most outspoken and unwavering supporter of the Vatican's policies and procedures. He tirelessly defended Pope John Paul II's positions against abortion, homosexual marriages, capital punishment, divorce, contraception, and sex education. He also worked to help financially disadvantaged families, supported labor unions, spread the moral message of the Catholic Church by opposing specific art installations and performances, questioned the need for unchecked military spending and nuclear armaments, fought against racism, and advocated maximum employment and minimum wages. His tenure as cardinal and archbishop of New York occurred during the 1980s, a time when tremendous religious, cultural, and political upheavals arose between conservative and liberal attitudes. O'Connor remained conservatively steadfast behind the dictums of the Church and is credited with reinvigorating the faith in America by engaging in the most controversial social and political dialogues of the era. When asked why he became involved in social issues not normally regarded part of the Church's domain, O'Connor replied: "I am a priest. About 900,000 individuals in New York City live in substandard conditions, including overcrowding, with all the attendant evils of that kind of life. I would be failing, as a priest, if all I did was to say Mass and carry out the customary religious duties of my office."
Recognized His Vocation
Born in Philadelphia on January 15, 1920, O'Connor was the fourth of five children born to Thomas and Dorothy O'Connor, both practicing Catholics. Thomas O'Connor was a skilled painter who was adept at applying gold-leaf to auditorium and church ceilings. In addition, he was also a staunch defender of unions, often citing the writings of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI to support his beliefs. When O'Connor was still a young boy, his mother suffered blindness for a year. When her sight returned a year later, O'Connor recalled that "She attributed her cure to St. Rita of Cascia, and afterward she made a novena at St. Rita's Shrine every year, having to take two trolleys and a bus to get there." O'Connor credited his mother's infirmity with elevating his consciousness to assist the disabled. He also displayed an interest in helping mentally handicapped children when he was only ten years old.
O'Connor attended public school in Philadelphia before entering West Catholic High School for Boys. The school was operated by the Members of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who were dedicated to assisting the financially disadvantaged with educational opportunities. In 1936 O'Connor enrolled at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and was ordained a priest nine years later.
A Navy Chaplain
O'Connor's first seven years as a priest were spent as an assistant pastor in a Philadelphia parish. During this period, he taught high school and night school courses, hosted two Catholic radio programs each week, and worked with mentally retarded children. In 1952 he left Philadelphia to begin a 27-year tenure as a Navy chaplain, his new vocation taken in response to a request from Cardinal Francis Spellman, the military vicar of the American Catholic Church, for additional military clergy. He became a full lieutenant in 1955 and served for five years in Washington, D.C. as an assistant for moral leadership to the chief of chaplains. He was chaplain on a guided-missile cruiser before accepting an assignment as chaplain of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. In 1964 O'Connor was sent to Vietnam for combat duty with the Third Marine Division.
While serving in Vietnam, O'Connor published A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam, in which he attempts to justify American military involvement in the Vietnam conflict. He later repudiated the claims of the book to biographer Nat Hentoff: "That's a bad book, you know. … It was a very limited view of what was going on. I regret having published it." In his 1981 book In Defense of Life, O'Connor maintained that he was responding to his perception that many other writers of the same era were biased in favor of the North Vietnamese. Despite his changing perception of the value of the war effort he aided, O'Connor received a Legion of Merit award for his service in Vietnam, earning the praise of his commanding general, Lewis Walt: "It is my opinion that no single individual in this command contributed more to the morale of the individual Marine here in Vietnam than Father O'Connor, who spent the majority of his time in the field with the men."
After Vietnam, O'Connor earned master's degrees in advanced ethics and clinical psychology at the Catholic University of America before earning a doctorate in political science from Georgetown University. In 1972 he became the first Catholic senior chaplain at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Three years later he became chief of Navy chaplains and was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. By 1979 O'Connor intended to retire to a priesthood in a small parish. Instead, he was made a bishop by Pope John Paul II and installed as a military vicariate, a civilian position in which he still supervised military chaplains.
Attended National Conference of Catholic Bishops
In 1981 O'Connor was one of five men named to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and charged with the task of drafting a pastoral letter on the American Catholic Church's position on the building and use of nuclear warheads. As the only member of the committee with a military background, his views were interpreted as hawkish, especially when he unsuccessfully attempted to change the word "halt" to "curb" in text covering the testing, building, and use of nuclear armaments. The bishops eventually issued a document condemning the use of nuclear weapons and stressing that nuclear capabilities were acceptable only as deterrents—and even then only if total disarmament was the eventual goal. The pastoral letter resulted in a meeting with Pope John Paul II. Shortly thereafter, the pope named O'Connor bishop of Scranton, New Jersey. When Cardinal Cooke, archbishop of New York, died in 1984, O'Connor was installed as his successor and in 1985 was elevated to cardinal.
Engaged in Abortion, Homosexuality Controversies
Almost immediately after becoming a bishop in the late 1970s, O'Connor became an outspoken opponent of abortion. His support of the Church's stance on abortion led him to pronounce in the mid-1980s that the willful and legal termination of pregnancy was "precisely the same" as the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1940s in which six million Jews were exterminated. The quote angered many Jewish listeners and abortion rights advocates who felt that the comparison was unjustified. Undeterred by such criticism, O'Connor continued to state his views on the abortion issue, declaring at one point that he did not understand how a Catholic would, in good conscience, be able to vote for a political candidate supporting abortion. His position rankled supporters of New York Governor Mario Cuomo and vice presidential candidate and New York congressional representative Geraldine Ferraro, both of whom were both Italian American Catholics who supported abortion rights. In the instance of Cuomo, O'Connor refused to deny rumors in the press that he might excommunicate the governor; in the instance of Ferraro, he issued a statement that she had "misrepresented Catholic teaching on abortion." In addition to being vehemently opposed to abortion, O'Connor was equally opposed to violence against those who either provided or received the procedure.
Throughout his tenure as cardinal, O'Connor also earned notoriety among many liberals for his opposition to the legalization of homosexual unions. Still, he was the first archbishop to meet with homosexual activists to hear them voice their concerns. He also visited and ministered both homosexual and heterosexual patients afflicted with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Continuing to publicly support the Vatican's position denying homosexual unions, O'Connor refused to support homosexual participation in New York City's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. He also sparred legally with New York Mayor Ed Koch, who had issued an executive order banning discrimination against homosexuals by employers receiving city funds. Since the Catholic Church provided city services, O'Connor objected to the order on the grounds that the city did not possess the right to mandate hiring practices overseen by the Catholic Church. O'Connor won the battle but lost a later fight against a similar bill that exempted religious institutions.
Because of his outspokenness, O'Connor was targeted by gay rights groups who led several demonstrations against him. Masses officiated by O'Connor were interrupted more than once by gay rights protestors who chained themselves to pews and disrupted services. In one case, a gay pride parade was deliberately routed in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral. O'Connor urged the congregation: "Please do not believe for a moment that you would be defending the Church or advancing Church teachings by expressions of hatred."
Was Honored with Congressional Gold Medal
Before O'Connor's death from brain cancer in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed legislation awarding the cardinal the Congressional Gold Medal. In part, Clinton's statement read: "For more than fifty years, Cardinal O'Connor has served the Catholic Church and our nation with consistency and commitment. … Whether it was the soldier on the battlefield or the patient dying of AIDS, Cardinal O'Connor has ministered with a gentle spirit and a loving heart. Through it all, he has stood strong as an advocate for the poor, a champion for workers and an inspiration for millions." O'Connor died on May 3, 2000.
Golway, Terry, Full of Grace: An Oral Biography of John Cardinal O'Connor, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Hentoff, Nat, John Cardinal O'Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.
New Republic, March 18, 1985; May 22, 2000.
New York Times, May 4, 2000.