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A chronology of declarations, trips, some slips of the tongue and plain old political jousting

NCR Staff

John J. O’Connor, (episcopal motto: There can be no love without justice) was born Jan. 15, 1920, in Philadelphia; ordained in 1945; named auxiliary bishop to the military vicar in 1979; bishop of Scranton, Pa., in June 1983; and installed on March 19, 1984, as eighth archbishop of the New York archdiocese (founded 1808).

He was named a cardinal May 25, 1985.

A career military chaplain, O’Connor rose to rear admiral and Navy chief of chaplains. As such, while still a bishop, O’Connor was a well-informed early member of the U.S. bishops’ committee that produced the 1983 peace pastoral. He resigned from the committee prior to its completion, citing the pressures associated with a forthcoming archdiocesan synod.

As chaplain, O’Connor liked to get more than a word in edgeways. One retired Navy chaplain reported, “We used to have a monthly newsletter, items of interest from the Navy chief of chaplains’ office. Brief little messages. When O’Connor took over, they were vast. They were voluminous. They were like epistles to the Romans.”

In New York, the cardinal has been equally prolific. Highlights of his New York years to date include:

  • 1984, April -- Politically, O’Connor plays his major and top card -- opposing abortion -- early. At the first meeting of New York state’s bishops under his leadership, he lists pro-life issues as a top priority and asks public officials to “stand up for the sacredness of every human life.”
  • 1984, July -- O’Connor and Mayor Ed Koch spar over Executive Order 50, which bars discrimination in employment against homosexuals. O’Connor says the archdiocese supports antidiscrimination but would willingly risk losing city contracts if the alternative was condoning homosexual activity.
  • 1984, December -- Chicago perceives O’Connor “as antifeminist, anti-gay, anti-civil rights, anti-ERA and anti-Democratic Party, pro-Republican, pro-life, pro-Pentagon and pro-prayer in classrooms,” writes Tim Unsworth in NCR. O’Connor’s talk on “Religion and Politics” at the University of Chicago had pickets looking at their signs “to see if they were at the wrong protest” when O’Connor focused mainly on war and peace issues.
  • 1985, March -- At a time when the Reagan administration is pushing Congress for more funds to fuel the contras in Nicaragua, O’Connor, as the bishops’ Social Development and World Peace chairman, takes an El Salvador-Guatemala trip.
  • 1985, May -- Catholics whose views depart from church teaching on some issues are banned from speaking at parish-sponsored events in the archdiocese. Catholic public officeholders take issue with the guidelines.
  • 1986, October -- Local 1199 of the Drug, Hospital and Health Care Employees union, in a The New York Times ad praises O’Connor for his support of health care workers. He backs a 5 percent pay increase for them in Catholic hospitals, which means breaking with other New York hospitals, and gets the Catholic institutions kicked out of the region’s Association of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes.
  • 1987, January -- O’Connor causes a major flap in Israel when he cancels a Jerusalem meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres while visiting Jordan. The Vatican had belatedly warned him such meetings might make it appear the Holy See recognized Israeli claims on the city.
  • 1987, February -- O’Connor’s resignation from the peace pastoral committee is announced. He had appeared in speaking engagements with committee member and pacifist Bishop Tom Gumbleton and is alleged to have canceled those because he didn’t want to keep “playing Goliath to Bishop Gumbleton’s David.”
  • 1987, February -- The cardinal’s bedroom and office are ransacked by two men who escape on foot when detected. O’Connor was not home.
  • 1987, March -- A man charged with abortion clinic bombings turns himself in following O’Connor’s February televised plea.
  • 1987, June -- O’Connor calls New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s statement that he would not impose his moral beliefs on others on the abortion issue “Orwellian newspeak” and “politics at its least noble.”
  • 1987, December -- The cardinal causes a new uproar by condemning the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on AIDS and calling its release a “very grave” mistake. Five days later he semi-recants, saying, “I strongly agree with its primary thrust.”
  • 1988, January -- O’Connor announces he is donating his annual $6,000-7,000 Social Security income to a New York City scholarship program for black students.
  • 1989, June -- The cardinal’s goodwill mission to Lebanon as president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association stirs a hornet’s nest. The Christian Maronite leaders were wary that O’Connor might be an emissary of a disinterested-in-Lebanon Bush administration; West Beirut’s Muslim leaders were annoyed when he canceled a meeting with them on the advice of the American Embassy, which feared he might be kidnapped.
  • 1989, September -- O’Connor expresses dismay at Polish Cardinal Joseph Glemp’s remarks over Auschwitz that were regarded as anti-Semitic. At issue was a Carmelite convent being built at Auschwitz over strong Jewish objections. As a result of his remarks, O’Connor receives a barrage of hate mail objecting to his distancing himself from Glemp.
  • 1989, September -- Hospital workers again take a full page The New York Times advertisement to praise O’Connor for a new Catholic hospital contract.
  • 1989, October -- The cardinal tells reporters he would like to be arrested with antiabortion protesters who try to close abortion clinics but that his lawyer had warned him against it.
  • 1990, March -- Some rock and roll music is the work of the devil, O’Connor announces. He adds that two exorcisms had been performed within the New York archdiocese during the previous year. One result is a New York Post cartoon showing O’Connor, in his miter, leading a rock group of elderly priests as “Johnny O’Connor and the Exorcists.”
  • 1990, June -- In his weekly column, O’Connor writes that Catholics “perceived as treating church teaching on abortion with contempt risk excommunication.” After an uproar that keeps the story and commentary alive for more than a week, O’Connor goes on “Good Morning America” to say his original words had been misunderstood, that he had not threatened anyone with excommunication but was explaining church teaching.
  • 1991, May -- The Sisters of Life, a New York archdiocese order of nuns dedicated to the pro-life cause and ready to open their doors June 1, have drawn more applicants than they can accommodate, reports O’Connor.
  • 1991, July -- Feminist interpretations of God as mother are erroneous, says O’Connor. The fatherhood of God is established in the scriptures and cannot be altered.
  • 1991, October -- During Respect Life weekend, O’Connor reiterates his 1985 offer to pregnant city women considering abortions, stating that the archdiocese is willing to provide medical, legal and housing help.
  • 1992, February -- At his weekly Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, O’Connor admits to a recent instance of personal racism -- fearing a black man walking toward him. The cardinal said the man introduced himself and said it was an honor to meet him. O’Connor tells the congregation, “I felt delighted -- and ashamed.”
  • 1992, September -- O’Connor reacts against plans to distribute condoms in New York schools and against a “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum that critics said promotes easy acceptance of homosexuality. O’Connor teams up with Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition to distribute in Catholic parishes profiles of school board candidates.
  • 1993, May -- Protesters deplore O’Connor’s attendance at the Portland, Maine, launching of a new Navy destroyer named for a Catholic priest and war hero, Fr. John Laboon.
  • 1993, May -- O’Connor’s housekeeper christens him the “Bionic Man” for the speed of his recovery and return to work two days after prostate surgery.
  • 1995, October -- O’Connor invites televangelist Pat Robertson and other fundamentalists to meet Pope John Paul II during the papal visit to New York.
  • 1996, September -- The Al Smith Foundation board -- of which the cardinal is a member -- decides that President Clinton will not receive the invitation customarily extended to sitting presidents for the annual Al Smith dinner. Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban is said to be the reason.
  • 1997, January -- The cardinal expresses regrets about responding to media questions on topics about which he admittedly knows little. He tells The New York Times, “I said some dumb things. The press could have asked me about satellites to Mars, and I would have given them an answer.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1998