John Joseph O'Connor

views updated May 11 2018

John Joseph O'Connor

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. □

O'Connor, John Joseph

views updated May 21 2018


Cardinal, archbishop of new york; b. Jan. 15, 1920, Philadelphia; d. May 3, 2000, New York. The fourth child of Thomas and Dorothy Gomple O'Connor, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, where he attended local public elementary and junior high schools and West Catholic High School for Boys before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in 1936. Ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Dec. 15, 1945, he spent the next seven years as a teacher and guidance counselor in archdiocesan high schools while also serving as a parish priest.

In 1952 O'Connor began a 27-year career as a navy chaplain. His service with the Marines during the Vietnam War earned him the Legion of Merit. He strongly defended American involvement in the Vietnam War in A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam (Cleveland 1968), but later he expressed regret for having done so. In 1972 O'Connor was appointed the first Catholic senior chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, and in 1975 he attained the highest position available to him when he became the U.S. Navy Chief of Chaplains with the rank of rear admiral. He retired in 1979. During his military career, he also earned a doctorate in political science from Georgetown University.

In 1979 O'Connor was appointed titular bishop of Curzola and auxiliary to the military vicar, Terence Cardinal cooke. O'Connor first became well known nationally when he was appointed to the five-member episcopal committee that prepared "The Challenge of Peace," the pastoral letter issued by the U.S. hierarchy in 1983. One week after the publication of the pastoral letter, he was appointed the bishop of Scranton, Pa. He was installed in June of 1983, but he remained in Scranton for only another seven months; on Jan. 31, 1984, he was appointed archbishop of New York in succession to Cardinal Cooke, who had died the previous October. One year later, Pope John Paul II made him cardinal, with the titular church of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo. On the same day as his elevation, it was announced that the Military Ordinariate had been reorganized as the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., severing the connection between the archbishop of New York and the Military Ordinariate that had existed since its inception in 1917.

Cardinal Cooke, a shy man who disliked confrontation, made no attempt to fill the national role of his predecessor, Francis Cardinal Spellman. By contrast, O'Connor seemed to welcome confrontation and clearly aimed at assuming a prominent role in the U.S. hierarchy. He liked to be compared to the feisty John Hughes, New York's first archbishop, and he favored a style of leadership that seemed to be modeled on that of John Paul II. Although he was 64 years old when he became archbishop, O'Connor adopted a grueling schedule with heavy emphasis on preaching and public appearances, the frequent use of both the press and television, and numerous pastoral visits to parishes and institutions. He also enjoyed occupying center stage at large-scale special events, such as the annual Mass for the Disabled in St. Patrick's Cathedral and a youth rally at Yankee Stadium that drew 40,000 people. In deference to New York's large Hispanic population, he mastered Spanish sufficiently well to celebrate Mass and preach in that language.

As in Scranton, O'Connor gave high priority to right-to-life issues. At a press conference in June of 1984, he answered a question about Catholic politicians and abortion legislation with the statement: "I do not see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion." The comment was widely interpreted as a criticism of Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice-president, and it led to public sparring between O'Connor and Governor Mario Cuomo of New York.

O'Connor's well-attended weekly press conferences after Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral gave him a forum to comment on public issues. He relished the publicity, but he discontinued the press conferences in 1990, candidly admitting that he had said "some dumb things."

Two groups with whom O'Connor established particularly warm relationships were organized labor and New York's large and influential Jewish community. The Service Employees International Union, grateful for his support of labor unions, publicly hailed him as "the patron saint of working people." Commenting on the award, Monsignor George G. Higgins said, "Few bishops in U.S. history have been as consistently supportive as Cardinal O'Connor of labor's basic rights." Dr. Ronald Sobel, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel-El, said: "I know of no member of the American Catholic hierarchy who has been more consistently sensitive to the interests of the Jewish people." At the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the former admiral tried to restrain widespread pro-war enthusiasm by declaring: "No war is good. Every war is at best the lesser of evils." Mario Cuomo, with whom he often clashed, paid tribute to O'Connor's commitment to social justice by saying, "His work should have earned the cardinal a reputation as one of the Vatican's favorite social progressives as well as one of its premier conservative dogmatists."

O'Connor committed the archdiocese to maintaining its network of parochial schools, especially in poor neighborhoods, despite the sharp decline in the number of

teaching sisters and brothers. The Catholic Church also remained a major provider of health care and social services to the poor in New York City. However, the staffing of parishes became increasingly difficult since O'Connor was reluctant to close or consolidate parishes even as the number of active diocesan priests fell from 777 in 1983 to 585 in 1999. The number of diocesan seminarians decreased even more precipitously, from 221 to 84, despite O'Connor's persistent personal efforts to promote vocations.

Cardinal O'Connor offered his resignation to Pope John Paul II on reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75, but the pope allowed him to remain in office. In October of that year O'Connor welcomed the pontiff to New York for a successful papal visit that included a Mass before 125,000 people in Central Park. In late August of 1999 O'Connor underwent surgery for a brain tumor from which he never fully recovered, although he continued to make limited public appearances until the following March. On the occasion of his 80th birthday, the U.S. Congress bestowed upon him its highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal. He died on May 3, 2000. He was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral, next to Pierre toussaint, a Haitian born into slavery who worked as a barber in New York and whom John Paul II had declared "Venerable" in 1996. O'Connor had

brought Toussaint's remains to St. Patrick's from an abandoned cemetery for blacks in lower Manhattan, and he had requested that he be buried next to him.

Bibliography: j. o'connor and e. koch, His Eminence and Hizzoner (New York 1989). n. hentoff, John Cardinal O'Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing Catholic Church (New York 1988).

[t. j. shelley]

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John Joseph OConnor

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