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Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields

A Tribute to John Cardinal O'Connor

Aired May 6, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET



Now, Robert Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak.

John Cardinal O'Connor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York is dead after a long battle with brain cancer.



NOVAK (voice-over): Cardinal O'Connor was the most prominent Catholic leader in the United States and the principal American lieutenant of Pope John Paul II.

Worldwide, he was second only to the Holy Father as an identifiable leader of his faith. But in 1979, he was an obscure, recently installed bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, following a long career as a military chaplain.

When the pope selected him to head the archdiocese of New York, Cardinal O'Connor proved an outgoing, aggressive champion of the church's and his own ideas, not hesitating to sharply criticize Catholic politicians who were pro-choice on abortion.

He demonstrated his unique style two years ago, when Rowland Evans and I interviewed the cardinal. This was more than a year before a brain tumor was diagnosed, and at age 78 he was in vigorous health. He was virtually commuting between New York City and Rome, and before our interview began, Cardinal O'Connor told us he had tried to retire three years earlier but that the pope would have none of it.

Immediately prior to this interview, the cardinal had criticized President Clinton, a Protestant, for taking holy communion in South Africa in violation of church policy. The White House had responded that the cardinal was unaware that the president had permission from South African bishops.

At this point, the uproar over the Monica Lewinsky affair was in full fury.


NOVAK: Now our interview with John Cardinal O'Connor.


ROWLAND EVANS, CO-HOST: Cardinal O'Connor, is there a dangerous decline in the moral conduct of Americans today due partly to television and the easy access by all ages to computer chatterboxes?

O'CONNOR: I don't think there can be much question that there is a decline. But I think, at the same time, there is an ascendancy. I think the winds of the spirit are blowing. I see a lot of signs of new life, tremendous goodness on the part of many, many people. Otherwise, we wouldn't even notice the decline.

EVANS: Would you say that the allegations of sexual conduct in the White House are part of what you call this ascendancy?

O'CONNOR: I think perhaps the fact that it makes so much news again reflects that -- the titillating power of it, means that we have a taste for these things, and yet it is news. Thank God it is news that the president of the United States is being accused -- correctly or incorrectly -- of such things. When there is no longer news, then maybe we will have completely declined.

EVANS: Let me follow up, sir, by asking you this. You clearly indicate by your answer that this disturbed you. How do you account for the fact that the American voter appears to be totally untroubled by these allegations?

O'CONNOR: I wonder if that's true, really. You would -- both of you would know a lot more than I about such matters. You're essentially political analysts. I am academically, politically educated, but not in the real word.

I don't know how true that is, and we all know that the political winds shift so quickly that the stock answer given in the newspapers, of course, is that the economy is so magnificent, or apparently so, that really nobody cares much about anything else. Whether that's true, I think...

EVANS: Does that bother you, if it's true?

O'CONNOR: Yes. I don't think it's true.


O'CONNOR: Of course it would bother me.

NOVAK: Your Eminence, I want to clear up one thing. President Clinton took communion at a Catholic church in South Africa. You said that shouldn't be done. And Mike McCurry, his press secretary, said you were not aware of the rulings by the local Catholic Bishops. Have you been made aware of those rulings since then?

O'CONNOR: Oh, yes. I was aware of the rulings before then. And I could understand his saying that. I guess in his position, I would say the same thing. But it was very clear that these policies had been interpreted by an individual priest and an individual set of circumstances.

The Bishops themselves are now saying that they never intended that the policies be interpreted in that fashion. The Holy See has asked for a clarification from the Bishops. So I don't think there was any -- there was certainly no misunderstanding on my part.

NOVAK: Was the president blameless in this situation you believe?

O'CONNOR: Oh, I -- there would be no way that I could judge that. I could understand an individual's -- a couple's feeling that this would be the courteous thing to do, the polite thing to do.

If I understand correctly, the priest out there had printed a bulletin in which he said that Christians are all welcome to come up to receive -- so I wouldn't be in a position to, of course, read the president's conscience. I cannot imagine that he would have done this as a deliberate affront to Catholics. That wouldn't make any sense to anybody.

But I think that the priest made a mistake. Maybe it was honest, but an honest mistake is all alone there I guess, and who knows what you would do under those circumstances. But it was not what we do.

NOVAK: Sir, one of your predecessors in New York, Cardinal Spellman, had frequent conversations with presidents of the United States. Have you ever had a conversation with President Clinton?

O'CONNOR: I think I met him once when Pope John Paul II came to the United States and I went to the airport, as did everyone else. And the president was there, all the cardinals...

NOVAK: But you haven't had a conversation with him?


NOVAK: What would you say to him if you had a conversation with him?



O'CONNOR: I doubt that he would ask my advice about anything, but I would express regrets about some issues very crucial to me. For example, the question of partial birth abortion.

I think that the president could exercise enormous leadership in this regard. To me it is one of the most horrendous things to have hit our country, to have hit our culture. I think it's a perfect example of Senator Moynihan's defining deviancy downward.

I guess if I had an opportunity to talk with the president, I'd talk with him about that, rather than anything else.

EVANS: Cardinal O'Connor, it seems that many Democratic politicians who are Catholics are not hearing you and the Church on that and other issues involved in pro-life, pro-choice, the abortion question. Why is that?

O'CONNOR: Oh, I think they're hearing, if you'll forgive me. I think they all have a pretty good idea of what the Church teaches, and what some of the cardinals and bishops are enunciating very, very frequently. They've made their choices, they've made their decisions. They have decided apparently that they can still function as Catholics, and receive the sacraments. And yet, support a pro-choice position. I don't read the papal encyclical on human life that way myself. But, I'm not inside their consciences. And I don't hesitate to express to them what the Church teaches, how I think that teaching prevails.

EVANS: Well, just to follow that sir. The Supreme Court of the United States recently refused to overturn the decision by the circuit court of appeals on the Ohio case in which the Ohio legislature had passed a bill on partial birth abortion. Is the Supreme Court wrong?

O'CONNOR: I don't, since I'm not a lawyer, I can't say whether the Supreme Court was wrong or right, in this respect. It seems to me we need some Supreme Court briefs that they attempt often to choose a lesser evil, they attempt often to give interpretations which will lead to the possibility of a rehearing of a case. That's the sense that I got in the Ohio case. Is it true, how do I know if it's true? I think you have a peculiar mix on the court right now. And you can be always certain of some judges decisions and some justices decisions you can't.

NOVAK: Your Eminence, you said something about your reading of the Papal Encyclicals. Can you, do I infer from what you said that you are saying that politicians who are Catholics cannot be a good Catholic and be voting against partial birth abortion bans -- voting in effect to continue partial birth abortions?

O'CONNOR: That would be a very strong statement to say -- to use it would again go to the heart of that individual's conscience. I can only say that as I read the papal encyclical, they cannot support partial birth abortion. How the individual decides in his conscience that he can do this, I must confess is beyond me. But, I'm not inside his conscience. I think he's wrong, or she. I think it's a direct violation of the natural moralorance (ph), a direct violation of people teaching, of church tradition and of the encyclical on human life. And I don't know how they do this. I don't know how they work their way through the disposition.

NOVAK: We've got to take a break.

And when we come back, we'll talk to Cardinal O'Connor about the Yankees playing baseball on Good Friday.



NOVAK: Welcome back to a repeat of Cardinal O'Connor's interview with us two years ago.

The cardinal had just created a stir by criticizing the New York Yankees for playing baseball at the noon hour of Good Friday. At the same time, the Vatican was under criticism by Jewish groups for allegedly hiding files that reflected badly on the papacy.


EVANS: Cardinal O'Connor, James Davidson (ph) of the Thomas Aquinas Center wrote recently that the younger generation of Americans seem, and I quote him, "less religious and less committed to the Catholic Church and other churches."

In view of, you told us a minute ago about ascendancy. How do you resolve that contradiction, sir?

O'CONNOR: I'm a little bit surprised at that because they have, I think very highly of Thomas Aquinas. I just don't find it to be true in my experience. For instance, we just came through holy weekend Easter in New York. I can speak only within the intelligence of New York.

We have never had the kinds of crowds that we had at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I preached up a storm throughout the week. I had the so-called three hours agony (ph) -- 12:00 to 3:00, the seven last words, packed with young people, thousands and thousands. Easter Sunday, people were all the way around the block of the cathedral. They couldn't get in. Young people, just as well as old people. I find this wherever I go. I talk a lot to high school kids. I have regular meetings with high school kids. I have retreats for high school kids. I have what are called Evenings with the Cardinal. I find them hungry, I find it responsive. And I think we'd better not undersell them.

EVANS: Isn't it true though sir, the Church is having some difficulties recruiting young men for the priesthood?

O'CONNOR: I think that's changing. I really believe it's changing. In the Archdiocese of New York, I anticipate or my successor who will profit that a long about the year 2004, 2005, our seminary will be jam packed because we see all the signs. We see the young people coming along with new zeal. I'm a little bit surprised at what he said in that regard.

NOVAK: In that connection sir, I believe the Roman Catholic faith is the only major faith that does not admit women into the priesthood. Do you see any movement in that direction, or do you think it would be desirable?

O'CONNOR: No, first I think we could say that this is true of the orthodox. I'd be very careful about including them as a major Catholic base. We have the huge Easter rites. No, I don't think it's a matter of what we might think would be good or not good or practical or not practical. We sincerely believe that the founder of the Church was Christ himself. We sincerely believe that it was his intention that only men be ordained in the priesthood -- that he did this by example. We try to follow that example. We try not to innovate where we believe innovation is in violation of the mind of Christ. Many people have argued that, of course. I understand the argument, and I understand the passion of some women. I understand the anger of some women. But people get mad at the church for many things. People get mad at the Church for contraceptives, for stand on abortion, for all sorts of things. But it wouldn't be the Church if we simply changed it, right (ph)?

NOVAK: Sir, you got mad at the Yankees last week for playing between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 on Good Friday. Of course, there a lot of other things going on then -- movies, and other entertainment. Why did you particularly single out baseball?

O'CONNOR: I didn't really get mad at the Yankees. I would never want George Steinbrenner to think I was mad at him. That would be -- I'd be risking too much at that. And they're good friends of mine. The Mets and the Yankees are good friends of mine. And it's a valid question. It's been raised. There are sorts of pornographic things, for instance on television and in the movies. Why didn't I talk about that. And it is our national past time. There's kind of an Americanism about baseball. There's an awful lot of hoopla about it -- the big leagues. And finally, the World Series. And it's made into a big thing.

And I was amazed, I was shocked, and I think that it was a contribution toward secularization. And as a matter of fact, one of the answers given -- I won't bore you with this. One of the answers that I read in the newspapers from someone representing all of the League teams was that, well we can't accommodate to the Christians. And we'd have the Jews would want this, and the Muslims would want that and so on. Well, think about it. Think about, we accommodate to everything else in our culture. So, has now religion become the only thing we've got to accommodate to?

EVANS: Cardinal O'Connor, I want to change the subject and ask you why won't the Vatican open its files to Jews around this world, particularly in this country and Europe, who think they will find some bad things about the way Pope Pious and the Catholic Church handled the Holocaust?

O'CONNOR: I would modify that a little bit. I think that we have been slow, we, I think the Holy See in doing this. I think it's on it's way. I don't think that we can anymore ask the question why won't they do it. My understanding is, and I am not in the Vatican archives, my understanding is that you wish that they were in much better order than they are.

EVANS: The files?

O'CONNOR: The files. I am told that there is an effort not to delete, not to destroy, not to in any way to make the undesirable unavailable. But to try to get things in order. Inch by inch, I think that's being done. I think it will be... EVANS: So there's no effort at concealment of sin?

O'CONNOR: I don't think so. I don't think you can say about any big organization that no one in the organization will try to -- I certainly -- this Pope has demonstrated his openness time after time. The new book, "The Hidden Pope" which features Jerzy Kluger, his Jewish friend makes the same point that my Jewish friends make, that he's been the best friend to Jews that the Papi (ph) has ever seen. But, and people in, you know there's a big bureaucracy.

NOVAK: We're going to take another break in just a few seconds sir. But, I wanted to ask that there's been reports that you might play a part in negotiating a concordant between the Chinese communist government and the Vatican. In which the Catholics would be given freedom of religion in return for the Vatican's recognition of the People's Republic of China. Are you involved in that in any way sir?

O'CONNOR: I am not involved. I have been approached. The -- I understand he's the number two man in China who I am also told is the number one man for persecuting Christians. Was in the United States, came to New York, wanted to see me. I did not see him. I did not meet with him. I had overture that allegedly involved an unfortunate Chinese figure in Washington. I did not meet with him.

So, perhaps there have been parties interested in involving me, but at this moment, I'm not involved except to criticize the persecutions. I'm very proud of people like Abe Rosenthal for instance, who are constantly pointing out the (OFF-MIKE).

NOVAK: Columnist for "The New York Times".

O'CONNOR: Yes, yes.

NOVAK: OK, we're going to take another break. And when we come back, we'll have "The Big Question" for Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.



NOVAK: Our big question was based on Cardinal O'Connor's background as a 32-year-old foxhole chaplain serving with the Marines in Vietnam, beginning a 27-year military career that concluded with his retirement as a rear admiral in the Navy.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for Cardinal O'Connor.

Sir, as the former chief chaplain, chief Catholic chaplain for the U.S. Armed Forces, how do you feel about the current policy of same sex training and same sex barracks?

O'CONNOR: I think it's an absurdity. I think it's an utter absurdity. I was just getting out of the service when the question came up about women at sea. And the Navy was very, very conscientious. Five ships were selected, and we had a number of staff meetings for the Chief of Naval Personnel. And these women were put through very vigorous training before going aboard. I had one primary objection to this. I said you're not training the men. You're having these women -- this is very, very forced (ph). So, they did a certain amount of training for the men.

Living aboard ship is one thing, in separate quarters -- whether or not it's a good idea, that could perhaps be argued both ways. But, their separate quarters, there are radically different circumstances. But living in the same barracks -- it's looking for trouble. It's naive. It's childish.

EVANS: So, you agree with the Marine Corps. Which ...

O'CONNOR: I agree, absolutely.

EVANS: All right, now let me follow up there. Were you at all surprised at all the sex scandals at Aberdeen and other army bases involving the drill instructors? Did that surprise you?

O'CONNOR: I was very much surprised. My...

EVANS: Why, they're living in the same quarters?

O'CONNOR: My experience with drill instructors was with the Marine Corps drill instructors. And first of all, they worked 17 hours a day out on the grinder as we called it. It was difficult for their marriages, but I never saw any evidence of that kind of thing with Marine Corps drill instructors.

EVANS: But isn't the challenge there all the time? It's a challenge of sex appeal...?

O'CONNOR: Yes, but I think you're asking for trouble if you just, you put young people together under those circumstances. Just leave.

EVANS: We've come to end Cardinal O'Connor. I want to thank you for being with us sir.



NOVAK: It is hard to imagine any other prince of the church who would handle a wide-ranging, highly political interview as Cardinal O'Connor did. He never worried about taking conservative political positions, particularly on gay rights and abortion. But he was a staunch advocate of labor unions and minority rights and worked hard for Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.

Unlike his famous predecessor, Cardinal Francis Spellman, he did not work quietly behind closed doors. He was a people's priest and a communicator who went to the public. There is not now anybody quite like him. I'm Robert Novak.



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