Archbishop John O'Connor's Strong Stand on Abortion Makes Him a Holy Terror to Democrats

UPDATED 10/01/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/01/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

He has never run for public office. Indeed, he is not even registered to vote in the city where he has been living for the past seven months. But John J. O'Connor, the 64-year-old Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, has emerged as one of the most combative men in American public life. His assertion this September that "Geraldine Ferraro has said some things about abortion relative to Catholic teaching that are not true" drew a denial from the vice-presidential nominee and opened a holy war with the Democratic party. The Democrats' big guns—Sen. Ted Kennedy, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Walter Mondale—were prompted to spirited defenses of the separation of church and state. Conservatives made political hay. The Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell took to the airwaves to cement the ties between the antiabortion movement and the Republican party, and on at least this one issue the evangelical right and the Catholic hierarchy seemed to find common ground. Capitalizing on that, Ronald Reagan appeared with church leaders and before Catholic audiences. O'Connor's fellow bishops supported him staunchly, but individual clerics and theologians seemed more sympathetic to the Democrats. Not long after Cuomo's speech at Notre Dame, for example, the head of the university's theology department, the Rev. Richard McBrien, complained: "In focusing exclusively on abortion and making it a one-issue litmus test, O'Connor gives the impression that the only responsible vote is Republican."

That the seemingly mild-mannered O'Connor should be the catalyst of such controversy is a surprise only to those who don't know his history. Growing up in the working-class section of southwest Philadelphia, he would often listen to his father, an artisan who worked with gold leaf, giving "fiery speeches" in the living room for the labor movement and against the bosses. Young John entered the seminary at 16, joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1952 and served for 27 years in Korea, Vietnam and stateside, rising to the rank of rear admiral and chief of chaplains. He made no secret of his generally conservative views. At the height of the Vietnam conflict, in his book, A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam, he decried the opponents of the war as "pied pipers whose tune may sound very sweet in Hanoi but who are playing very badly off key." (Years later he said he would not have written the book had he realized his "ignorance about the war.") When a new regulation was about to go into effect allowing abortions on military bases, O'Connor protested directly to President Richard Nixon; the President later rescinded the order. Although he publicly supported the controversial pastoral letter condemning nuclear arms that was issued by the nation's Catholic bishops last year, O'Connor fought the document's dovish tone in committee. His performance was described as "obstructionist" and "domineering."

O'Connor's church career gained momentum when he left the Navy; in 1979 he became a bishop and was appointed assistant to New York's Terence Cardinal Cooke, serving as vicar general of the Military Vicariate—the church office that ministers to members of the armed forces. Last year he was appointed bishop of the diocese of Scranton, Pa., where in just eight months in office he erected housing for the homeless, began a continuing-education program in religion and—not surprisingly—captained an anti-abortion movement. Says one awed Scranton cleric, "He was a whirlwind."

O'Connor became Archbishop of New York in March, after Cooke died; he will almost certainly be named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, whose strong stand on abortion O'Connor follows rigorously. O'Connor always wears the cloth rose of the right to life movement on his lapel and shows little sign of moderating his stand. Last week he announced that he intended to give a major speech on religion and politics before the election—a promise that may have the Mondale-Ferraro ticket praying for mercy.

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