Cardinal O'Connor of N.Y. is dead at 80

Outspoken opponent of homosexuality, abortion rights

May 04, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Cardinal John O'Connor, the archbishop of New York City's 2.37 million Roman Catholics and the Vatican's most forceful spokesman in the United States, died last night at his residence around the corner from St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Cardinal O'Connor died of cardiopulmonary arrest, said his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.

But he added that death was "the result of the tumor and the cancer that he was suffering from." In August, Cardinal O'Connor had a tumor removed from the surface of his brain.

His failing health diminished his public appearances in recent months but did not diminish his stature as one of the church's most powerful symbols on moral and political issues.

When Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, seeking the Republican nomination for president, expressed regret Feb. 27 for not speaking out against racial and anti-Catholic intolerance during a campaign visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, he did so in the form of a letter to Cardinal O'Connor.

The cardinal was passionately outspoken in his opposition to abortion, the issue that shaped his tenure from the start.

He was unconditional in upholding official Catholic teachings on such topics as homosexuality and the ordination of women.

And he was unwavering in his loyalty to Pope John Paul II, who had named him archbishop of New York as part of an effort to restore greater doctrinal and organizational discipline in a church still feeling the reverberations of reforms undertaken by the Second Vatican Council 20 years earlier.

All this gave the cardinal the profile of a zealous conservative, but he was also a passionate defender of organized labor, an advocate for the poor and the homeless, a vocal assailant of racism and anti-Semitism, and an opponent of capital punishment.

Although he had spent 27 years as a Navy chaplain and retired with the rank of rear admiral, in the 1980s he condemned American support of counterrevolutionary guerrilla forces in Central America, questioned the need for spending on new weapons systems and, to the end, remained a cautionary voice about U.S. military actions overseas.

Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler was informed of Cardinal O'Connor's death while on church business in Rome.

"On late Friday afternoon, I visited Cardinal O'Connor at his residence in New York and he was able to recognize me. ... We were able to talk about several matters of common interest," Cardinal Keeler said. "I assured him of my own prayers for him and that of his many friends in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"Cardinal O'Connor was a person of enormous personal faith -- gifted with great eloquence and totally committed to preaching the gospel of Jesus. ... I am deeply grateful for an abiding personal friendship [with him] over many years, for his leadership in working for the cause of human life and for developing deeper bonds of friendship and trust with our Jewish brothers and sisters."

A spokesman for the archdiocese dismissed speculation that Cardinal Keeler might succeed Cardinal O'Connor in New York as "nothing but rumor."

Word of the cardinal's grave condition in the past few days had spurred speculation over his possible successor.

The name of Bishop Edward Michael Egan of Bridgeport, Conn., flew to the top of a list of candidates that has included William F. Murphy, an auxiliary bishop of Boston; Edwin O'Brien, who heads the archdiocese for the military services; Henry J. Mansell, the bishop of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Justin F. Rigali, the archbishop of St. Louis.

The appointment of an archbishop, however, is a secret process that rests in the hands of the Vatican, and appointments often come as a surprise to those in the church who thought they were in the know.

When Cardinal O'Connor was named archbishop in January 1984, his name had not even been mentioned in the speculation about who would fill the post.

His outspokenness caused waves even before he arrived in New York. He had upset many Jews in New York by declaring that widespread abortion in the United States was "precisely the same" as the Nazis' murder of 6 million Jews.

At a televised news conference a few months later, he said, "I do not see how a Catholic in good conscience" could vote for a political candidate favoring abortion, and, then, when asked whether he might excommunicate Gov. Mario Cuomo for his support of abortion rights, the new archbishop refused to rule it out, setting off an intermittent feud with the governor.

In his first year as archbishop, Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic who supported abortion rights, was nominated by the Democrats to run for vice president on a ticket headed by Walter Mondale.

When she was a congresswoman from Queens, Ms. Ferraro, with several other Catholic public officials, had signed a letter saying that there was "a diversity of Catholic opinion" about abortion.

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