After the letter was released during the presidential campaign, Cardinal O'Connor said, "Geraldine Ferraro has misrepresented Catholic teaching on abortion." He went on to say that there was no diversity of Catholic opinion, only the opinion of the church that abortion was wrong under all circumstances.
This set off countercharges that Cardinal O'Connor was signaling church support for the 1984 re-election of President Ronald Reagan, whom he had praised as "a friend of the unborn."
Locally, the archbishop tangled with the city government over access to contraceptive information and abortion in the church's child-care agencies.
He also challenged Mayor Edward Koch's executive order barring discrimination against gays by any employer, including the church, that had contracts with the city.
When a court struck down the mayor's executive order, the archbishop was equally opposed to a similar City Council bill on gay rights, which passed, even though it contained an exemption for religious institutions.
Conservative Catholics were delighted to have such a fresh champion in town, but many others, inside and outside the church, were similarly fascinated. For the cardinal's proclivity for confrontation seemed part of a larger spontaneity and directness that seemed right at home in New York City.
At his installation in St. Patrick's Cathedral on March 18, 1984, the new archbishop put on a Mets cap, placed his own bishop's miter on the head of a 10-year-old altar boy from the Bronx who was also named John J. O'Connor, and mimicked Mayor Koch's regular query, "How'm I doing?"
He might have been the only major religious leader to hold a news conference every Sunday, after he had celebrated 10: 15 Mass at the cathedral. And in his early years, he was usually ready with a curbside quip.
Reporters monitored his Sunday sermons and his weekly columns in the archdiocesan newspaper, and pumped him at his news conferences, hoping for a tabloid headline for Monday.
Eventually, he expressed misgivings about the manner of his debut in New York and his high visibility.
"Time after time I have to ask myself if the church would be better off -- certainly, I would be better off -- if when I came here I had just become a silent servant of the people," he said in 1993 in an interview with the New York Times.
He wondered whether he might have thrust himself too much into politics, or whether a quieter style might not have been better.
But then again, he mused, "If you're false to your own temperament, you're not going to be an effective leader."
At times he did try to be more conciliatory. He dropped the Holocaust analogy in his preaching against abortion, and some Jewish leaders came to see him as an opponent of anti-Semitism.
Cardinal O'Connor also became close friends with Mr. Koch, and the two of them collaborated on a book, "His Eminence and Hizzoner" (William Morrow & Co., 1989), regularly dined together and gave each other moral support during their illnesses.