John Cardinal O'Connor

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John Cardinal O'Connor

His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor, (January 15, 1920May 3, 2000) was the eleventh bishop (eighth archbishop) of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York, serving from 1984 until his death in 2000.



He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a family of Irish descent, and ordained a priest on December 15, 1945. He was initially assigned to St. James High School in Chester, Pennsylvania. He obtained a master's degree in advanced ethics from Villanova University and a doctorate in political science at Georgetown University in 1970 where he wrote his dissertation under future United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and took classes at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. During his career he also performed the rite of exorcism.

He joined the Navy in 1952 as a Korean War chaplain, often entering combat zones in order to perform mass and administer last rites to soldiers. He rose through the ranks to become rear admiral and chief of Navy chaplains. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of United States of America, Military by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1979 and ordained a bishop on May 27, 1979 with the titular see of Curzola. He was appointed Bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania on May 6, 1983 and installed in that position June 29, 1983. He was appointed Archbishop of New York, New York on January 26, 1984 and installed in that position on March 19, 1984. He was elevated to Cardinal on May 25, 1985.

Archbishop of New York

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Coat of arms of Cardinal O'Connor

As Archbishop of New York, O'Connor was a complex figure. He proved very media-savvy with his effective use of the soundbite and his ability to charm journalists. Nevertheless he was a stern critic of New York's political leaders. He was also a close associate of President Ronald Reagan and was an outspoken critic of abortion and gay rights. He strongly opposed violence, the death penalty, and abhorred war, regularly questioning the unchecked military spending of the 1980s. He was vocal in his opposition to abortion, speaking out in the defence the rights of the unborn.

As Archbishop he skillfully used the power and prestige of his office to uphold traditional Catholic doctrine in a frequently hostile world. Known as a close friend of the labor movement and trade unions, he earned the sobriquet: "The Patron Saint of the Working Man."


O'Connor was active in interfaith and ecumenical relations. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs called him, "a true friend and champion of Catholic-Jewish relations, but as a humanitarian who used the power of his pulpit to advocate for disadvantaged people throughout the world and in his own community." He strongly denounced anti-Semitism, and wrote a moving apology to Jewish leaders in New York for past harm done to the Jewish community.

Relations with the Gay Community

Cardinal O'Connor opposed every gay-related bill considered on the city and state level during the 16 years of his tenure as Archbishop of New York. He condemned proposed legislation backed by Catholic Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that would grant homosexuals, lesbians, and unmarried couples the same legal rights, including the right not to be discriminated against in housing accommodations, as married couples. He also strongly opposed Mayor Ed Koch's executive order requiring all social service agencies, including those run by the Church, to provide equal services to homosexuals. The cardinal refused on the grounds that it would make the Church appear to be sanctioning homosexual practices and lifestyle. He also prohibited a pro-homosexual group from meeting in New York parishes, while at the same time celebrating Mass with Father John Harvey's Courage, a ministry to homosexual men and women who seek to live by the Church's teachings on human sexuality. He supported and defended efforts of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to prevent groups representing gay Irish people from marching in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade.

HIV and Contraception Controversy

The Cardinal opposed condom distribution as an AIDS-prevention measure, viewing it as being contrary to the Church's teaching that contraception is a sin. (Condoms distributed to gay men were, of course, not contraceptives, as gay men do not conceive). O'Connor stated that using an "evil act" was not justified by good intentions, and that the Church should not be seen as encouraging its members to perform sinful acts, regardless of the situation. He also agreed with the Church's position that the only sure way to prevent infection is sexual abstinence, as condoms at the time were only shown to be 90% effective against HIV transmission, and therefore claimed that any sexual activity by an HIV positive individual was a violation of the sixth commandment, Do not murder. HIV activist group ACT-UP was appalled by the Cardinal's opinion that it was sinful for an HIV positive person to use a condom to prevent transmission of HIV to his HIV negative partner, an opinion they believe would translate directly into more deaths. This caused many of the confrontations between the group and the Cardinal.

Early on in the AIDS epidemic, he approved the opening of a specialized AIDS unit to provide specialized medical care for the sick and dying in St. Clare's Hospital in Manhattan, the first of its kind in the state. He often nurtured and ministered to dying AIDS patients, many of whom were homosexual. Even though he refused to condone the actions of homosexuals (many of whom had invaded his St. Patrick's Cathedral to angrily interrupt services), he would not allow his moral differences to interfere with ministering to them. As USA Today reported, he "washed the hair and emptied bedpans of dying AIDS patients, some too sick to know who he was." Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said of the archdiocese, "No place in the country are they working more aggressively to help AIDS patients than in the archdiocese." O'Connor was one of the members of President Ronald Reagan's 1987 presidential commission on AIDS, serving alongside 12 other members with no expertise on the subject, including Richard DeVos and Penny Pullen. The commission was considered an embarrassment by medical authorities, and a fiasco by members of the Reagan administration. O'Connor's tenure earned him the enmity of New York's gay community, which had become radicalized in the late 80s and early 90s by government inaction on AIDS. O'Connor was a favorite object of scorn and ridicule in ACT-UP's demonstrations. Michael Petrelis, a founding member of ACT UP, indicated that the group "came to St. Patrick's in 1989 to repel the church's destructive intrusion into public policies concerning AIDS, gay civil rights and women's reproductive rights."


A staunch foe of abortion (he was characterized by Jerry Falwell as "a pro-life hero"), O'Connor also testified in favor of New York state legislation which sought to make human cloning research a crime punished by up to seven years of prison, presenting what the Daily News called "an apocalyptic vision" of clones as drones or slaves. The legislation was ultimately withdrawn.

Because of a rise in the number of people who were looking for help from demonic attack in 1992 the Cardinal appointed Father James J. LeBar as chief exorcist of the archdiocese of New York and three other priests as exorcists. When he reached the bishops' retirement age of 75 in January 1995, he submitted his resignation to the pope as required, but the pope did not accept it.

Illness and Death

In 1999 O'Connor was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. On March 7, 2000 O'Connor was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by unanimous support in the United States Senate and only one vote against the resolution in the United States House of Representatives. Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, opposed on the grounds that awarding the medal was not among the powers of Congress listed in the Constitution. Cardinal O'Connor died of a brain tumour in the Archbishop's residence, and is interred in the crypt under the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Cardinal O'Connor was posthumously awarded the Jackie Robinson Empire State Medal of Freedom by the Governor of New York, George Pataki on December 21, 2000.

The strong feelings that Cardinal O'Connor's campaigning against gay civil rights inspired were evoked at his passing, when Time Out New York, a weekly city entertainment guide, described his death as one of the best things to happen to the gay community in 2000, saying "The press eulogized him as a saint, when in fact, the pious creep was a stuck-in-the-1950s anti-gay menace. Good riddance!". The resulting cries of outrage forced the magazine to apologize.

Brendan Fay, of the Catholic gay group Dignity, summarized that "O'Connor will certainly not be remembered as a friend or advocate at our time of greatest need." This, even though beginning in 1995, O'Connor held a dialogue with the group twice a year. Jeff Stone, a spokesman for Dignity, did note, "We are saddened by his death."

With O'Connor's death the controversy surrounding his high-profile and vocal advocacy of the traditional and orthodox views of the Vatican has left, at best, a mixed legacy. Lauded by some traditionalists, demonized by many in the gay community, he was without a doubt one of the most controversial American clerics of the late 20th century.

See also

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