John Cardinal O’Connor, the distinguished and controversial head of the archdiocese of New York, has played an important role in affecting American politics, both inside and outside the Catholic Church. He is the pope’s point man in the battle for the soul of the US Church, and some say if an American were considered for the papacy. Cardinal O’Connor would be the likely choice.

This book pairs the fascinating political struggles of the cardinal with the talents of Nat Hentoff, the hardworking New York journalist and radical social critic, often praised for his fairmindedness and attention to detail. A self-described “Jewish atheist,” Hentoff writes a strongly sympathetic chronicle of the cardinal’s battles with critics, mainly leftist interest groups.

Among those assaulting the cardinal with demands are feminists, peace activists, homosexual groups, Jewish leaders. The New York Times, and New York Governor Mario Cuomo. The feminists want him to reverse the Catholic stand against birth control, abortion, divorce, and ordaining women to the priesthood. The peaceniks describe him as a Ghengis Khan among the American Catholic bishops (where the opposite is more often true, as Hentoff shows). New York’s Jewish leaders vehemently criticize the cardinal for upholding the Vatican position on Israel and for being sympathetic toward the idea of a Palestinian homeland. Governor Cuomo and the cardinal have nearly come to blows on the issue of abortion. O’Connor stands firm throughout.

The most outrageous potshots at the cardinal have come from New York homosexuals. While the cardinal has met with them, expressed concern for their plight, and visited hospitals to pray with AIDS patients, he will not approve of their behavior or grant them equal status in the church. Homosexual groups have harassed him, and even unfurled banners while the cardinal celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. One Sunday during Holy Communion, a group of homosexuals walked up front with signs around their necks reading, “I don’t receive communion from bigots,” and then turned and walked back.

The cardinal’s theological conservatism stems from his commitment to the church and his unswerving loyalty to Pope John Paul II. Hentoff largely respects this, but regrets that this loyalty also kept the cardinal from condemning the diplomatic meetings between the Holy Father and Kurt Waldheim, the president of Catholic Austria.

Yet Hentoff and the cardinal agree on more political issues than they disagree on. They both support the burgeoning US welfare state as a test of compassion for the poor, thereby ignoring the reams of scholarship that reveal the connection between state welfare and poverty. Hentoff agrees with the American bishops’ letters on economics and nuclear arms, both of which the cardinal helped prepare. And they, both see capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia as part of the dangerous and growing “ethic of death.”

Hentoff is impressed with the cardinal’s personal strength of character, his sensitivity toward others, and his openness, which, to Hentoff, symbolizes the greatest aspect of the post-Vatican II Church. Still, Hentoff devotes the first and last chapters to agitating for further liberalization. Every problem in the American church—the declining numbers of priests, the lack of adherence to the church’s moral teachings, etc.—can be solved, Hentoff says, by further abandonment of orthodoxy. He doesn’t consider that the church’s 20-year crisis is correlated not with the ascent of orthodoxy, but with the descent from traditional ecclesiastical and liturgical teachings.

Yet while the author’s bias flaws the book, it. does not spoil its strongest theme: how and why has the political ideology of the American Catholic Church come to cut across the boundaries of conventional partisanship? O’Connor is not alone among the US bishops in favoring positions of both the right (Christian morality, pro-life) and the left (welfarism, nuclear disarmament). And given the hierarchy’s commitment to social activism, this Catholic version of fusionism will continue to have influence, for better and worse.


[John Cardinal O’Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church, by Nat Hentoff (New York: Scribner’s) 320 pp., $19.95]