The Pro-Life Work of Cardinal O'Connor

Saturday Book Pick: The Sisters of Life were the greatest legacy of New York’s feisty archbishop.

When a relatively unknown bishop of a backwater diocese in Pennsylvania was named archbishop of New York in 1984, he didn’t take long to get himself on the front page of The New York Times.

Even before he took up residence in the city, Archbishop-designate John Joseph O’Connor went on a television talk show and compared abortion to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. Father Charles Connor relates the story in John Cardinal O’Connor and the Culture of Life.

Two days later, The New York Times reacted with characteristic negativity. O’Connor was informed that his remarks carried highly offensive implications, and because of that, he might not be as ready for the media capital of the world as originally thought. … It was suggested that the new archbishop adopt ‘a change in tone’ if his administration was to have effect.

If nothing else, Cardinal O’Connor had a great sense for making news, and even admitted that he would “use” the media to advance the message of the Gospel. The cardinal knew he had a big pulpit, and he strove to use it for good. Hardly a month passed in the Big Apple that one of the tabloids didn’t have him on the front page. Some people felt the cardinal was too free in expressing himself. “Is there anything he doesn’t have an opinion about?” one indignant observer wondered.

And yet, as one of his former secretaries, Cardinal-designate Edwin O’Brien, points out in a foreword to Father Connor’s book, the cardinal was exactly what was needed at the time. Though O’Connor was appointed to New York only 11 years since the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, legal abortion was already an entrenched position on the part of most of the political establishment and the mainstream media. Most right-believing Americans were dispirited on the issue, and Cardinal O’Connor’s was a voice of clarity that burned through the fog.

Father Connor, a priest of the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., which Bishop O’Connor headed for a few months before the New York post opened up, takes us back a step, reminding us what it was like to grow up in an America before the 1960s, when the sexual and cultural revolutions changed everything — and when states began liberalizing their abortion laws. It was the America the future cardinal had grown up in, with his humble beginnings in Philadelphia in the 1920s; he was the son of a metal worker, a child of a churchgoing family whose parents expected their children to respect their elders.

“The culture in which John O’Connor was raised was vastly different from the one he engaged,” Father Connor writes. He quotes Cardinal O’Connor as reflecting: “There was a day when family values were taken for granted. There was a day when purity, when chastity were taken for granted. There was a day when it was taken for granted that children would obey parents, that we would all obey authority.”

With the legalization of abortion, everything changed. Father Connor returns several times to a favorite theme of O’Connor’s: The law is a great teacher. People growing up in a culture in which abortion is legal come to accept the practice as moral — there’s “nothing wrong with it.”

By the time of his death in 2000, Cardinal O’Connor had become one of the most prominent pro-life voices in the world, surely ranking with Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. It was the pro-life movement’s great good fortune that John Paul had appointed O’Connor as “archbishop of the capital of the world,” as the Pope himself later would quip. The archbishop of New York mustered all his intellectual and rhetorical skills to serve the cause of life. Many people who are pro-life today can credit the cardinal for their own formation. I myself recall reading his weekly column in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan newspaper, at a time when I was finding my way to a renewed engagement with the Catholic faith. I found that his arguments made sense. Not that he wrote about life issues every week. But what he wrote usually struck a chord with me, and his pro-life arguments strengthened in me a deepening sense that unborn life must be protected. Having grown up in the 1960s, I actually didn’t think that was all that important. Cardinal O’Connor helped me see otherwise.

Though Father Connor’s book reads at times like a thesis written for an advanced academic degree (he is, after all, a Church historian), it is a thorough look at John Joseph O’Connor’s efforts to inject common sense into a world that had gone mad with an obsession to protect “women’s reproductive rights.” It was perhaps a sense of that madness that made the cardinal realize that more — much more — was needed besides speeches, writings, marches and even disciplining members of his flock who failed to stand up for life in the political realm. Indeed, the real heart of Father Connor’s book comes in the second half.

The genesis of Cardinal O’Connor’s inspiration to found the Sisters of Life came several years before he was archbishop of New York, during a visit to the remains of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. He vowed to protect the sacredness of every human life. A few years after coming to New York, he wrote a column in Catholic New York that took on the character of a help-wanted ad. The help he wanted was from professional women who were willing to give their lives to the cause of life.

The column attracted a number of such women, and an initial discernment retreat led to the formation of a nascent community, the Sisters of Life. The sisters, whose community is thriving today, take the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a fourth vow: to defend human life in all its stages.

But a great deal of what the sisters are all about is summed up in Mark 9:29, as the cardinal often pointed out. The Gospel passage describes how Christ’s disciples complained that, even though the Master had commissioned them to go out and heal and cast out demons there were some devils that would not be cast out. The Messiah advised them, “This kind of demon can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.”

Thus, the Sisters of Life are a contemplative-active community. They are active in teaching and in helping pregnant women choose life. But the more important part of their apostolate takes place on their knees.

Father Connor bases much of this section of the book on reports in Catholic New York and archives of the Sisters of Life, particularly talks the cardinal gave at regular discernment retreats. They are talks that are spiritually rich, and Father Connor is to be thanked for bringing them to us. The book also contains a reflection by Mother Agnes Donovan, the longtime mother general of the Sisters of Life, on the “Spirituality of John Cardinal O’Connor.”

All the columns, all the homilies, all the fights with pro-abortion Catholic politicians, all the controversial statements, all the front-page headlines in The New York Post, even the scholarly addresses at home and abroad (including some very impressive work at the Vatican), could not compare to what surely was Cardinal O’Connor’s finest work and which will be his greatest legacy.

The book is called John Cardinal O’Connor and the Culture of Life, and the cardinal’s greatest contribution to restoring a culture of life in our society is documented here, in Father Connor’s description of the founding of the Sisters of Life.

John Burger is the Register’s news editor and a former reporter for Catholic New York.


by Father Charles Connor

St. Pauls/Alba House, 2011

112 pages, $14.95

To order:

(800) 343-2522