John Cardinal O’connor

When John O’Connor was appointed Archbishop of New York in March, 1984, many observers inside the Catholic Church and outside it believed that the Pope was purposely selecting someone much like himself to become what John Paul called “the Archbishop of the Capital of the World.” The son of an Irish laborer, O’Connor had spent twenty-seven years as a navy chaplain, rising to the position of chief of chaplains before being appointed Bishop for the Military Vicariate in 1979. After service on the commission drafting the American Bishops’ statement on the morality of nuclear war and a brief stint as Bishop of Scranton, he was named to succeed Terence Cooke in New York City. In this city that prides itself on pluralism, O’Connor found himself at the center of several controversies which have become topics of dissension within the American Catholic Church: abortion, expanded roles for women, gay rights, the economy, and defense issues. A strong supporter of economic rights and the right to life in all forms, O’Connor nevertheless antagonized many “new Catholics” by his rigid insistence on obedience to the Papacy on issues about which contemporary Americans have serious questions.

Nat Hentoff is careful to place his subject at the center of this journalistic biography, letting O’Connor speak for himself whenever possible. He includes numerous discussions of other American Catholics, both religious figures and members of the laity, as a way of providing a context for the cardinal’s actions. Hentoff rounds out his portrait of O’Connor with contemporary estimates from both friends and foes, organizing his study topically so that the many sides of O’Connor’s personality are highlighted. He even includes an appendix (some thirty-six pages) of quotations from O’Connor’s writings and speeches so that the reader can form his own estimate of the man who is indisputably playing a major role in shaping the future of the Catholic Church in America.