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Eyes on Egan in New York

NCR Staff
New York

New Yorkers for the next few months have a new sport: archbishop watching. In two days of ceremonies at St. Patrick’s Cathedral June 18 and 19, Archbishop Edward Michael Egan, formerly bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., took charge of the New York archdiocese.

He has an episcopal motto from St. Paul (“In the Holiness of Truth”) and a stentorian professorial voice obviously modulated long ago to penetrate seminarians’ reveries.

He is a penetrating speaker, but not a rousing one.

In closing remarks, Egan included in his thanks-for-coming the local political glitterati, who had sat through two days of bottom-numbing, wooden pew-sitting obeisance. His thanks, The New York Times noted, did not include New York senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton by name but did mention Catholic Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose blatant unfaithfulness to his wife apparently gets the archbishop’s blind eye.

Two parts amiability to three parts no-nonsense, Egan arrived in New York with a reputation for being cool toward gays, unions, nuns expecting open dialogue and with no particular fondness for reformist aspirations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Egan now plays to two audiences: the Big Apple socio-politico-arts crowd, and the Catholic crowd. Egan’s a cosmopolitan fellow with a nice touch for getting into the wallets of the moneyed power (a task his predecessor Cardinal John O’Connor admitted he hated). But Egan also did a crash course in Bridgeport to bring his Spanish up to snuff -- and that’s the native language of 36 percent of the archdiocese’s Catholics.

In a city that in two centuries has had only one non-Irish-American bishop, Bishop John Dubois, 1828-1842), Egan could well be the last of New York’s Irish-American ordinaries. Rome in time will have to acknowledge the rise of the new ethnics.

How will Egan do -- short-term?

On the political front, NCR’s Manhattan cognoscenti friends compiled a working list for gauging how steely is the new hand inside New York’s episcopal velvet glove:

1. Watch for the two Als, Al Smith and Al Sharpton. Will Egan invite President Clinton to the bishop’s New York Catholic bash -- the October Al Smith dinner? To invite the president had been the precedent. O’Connor never did. And the next time a white cop shoots a black kid, who will Egan embrace, who will he keep at a distance? How will he handle the radical black community, personified by motor mouth egocentric Al Sharpton?

2. Watch for how he deals with gays. Egan’s on a frayed tightrope there. He wants to cut a swath in the art world and is well equipped to do so. He’s a classical pianist who gives money-raising benefit concerts, and his pals include Met opera star Renée Fleming who sang Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” at the Monday ceremony. New York’s tony art crowd is sympathetic toward gays. And if Egan turns confrontational, the current open smiles of the Lincoln Center supporters and their ilk will take on a tougher cast.

3. Will Egan be politically partial? (U.S. cardinals -- and Egan is all but -- display little political finesse and generally end up as Republican photo ops.)

The two days of media commentary in self-absorbed New York was interesting as TV personalities noted that, while New York is only the third-largest archdiocese (after Los Angeles and Chicago), “it’s still the most important.” Media-wise, yes. But New York cardinals don’t cast much of a shadow beyond their metropolitan boundaries, nor will Egan. New Yorkers don’t understand how skewed is their view.

Though there’s only one cardinal west of Chicago (Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony), there’s a markedly varied church beyond the boundaries of the Northeast’s bricks-and-mortar, red-hatted sees.

With the media fixating on him, a New York archbishop has plenty of opportunities to shoot himself in the foot. (It happened already, if obliquely, when his gabby brother-in-law scooped the Vatican on Egan’s transfer to New York.) There’ll be more, and the media will yowl. It’s a sport.

For Catholics, depending on their preferences, Egan’s standing comes down to assessing him as a source of gaudium et spes (joy and hope). A story may be revealing.

Egan was once a judge on the Rota, a Vatican tribunal that judges marriage cases and one of the three Vatican courts established to adjudicate canon law. Another Vatican tribunal is the Signatura, which hears appeals in doctrinal and disciplinary disputes.

The question arose, early in Egan’s Vatican service some three decades ago, as to whether Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, should become part of the legally enforced teaching of the church. The Rota voted yes, the Signatura voted no. Egan went against his Rota colleagues and voted with the Signatura.

The new archbishop is to be warmly welcomed. One hopes he will be evenhanded, yet more than that, evenhanded with a light touch.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000