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The Cardinal and the Gay Rights Bill

March 20, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ When the City Council voted down a proposed gay rights bill in 1974, homosexuals gathered on the front steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest Cardinal Terence Cooke’s role in its defeat.

But as Cooke’s successor stood in the cathedral pulpit Sunday to denounce the latest version of the bill, the protesters outside were priests and nuns.

Cardinal John O’Connor’s apparently unsuccessful fight against the bill illustrates the prelate’s dilemma in a time of declining obedience to hierarchical authority and increasing disregard for church teaching on sexual morality.

The council is expected today to pass the legislation, which makes it a crime to discriminate against homosexuals in housing, employment and public accommodation.

Although O’Connor’s critics credit him with great political influence, his power is primarily the power to persuade, usually through the news media. In this case, the persuasion was relatively gentle.

Despite the urging of some Orthodox rabbis, O’Connor did not testify before the council, nor did the archdiocese’s lawyer, John Hale. When the bill’s opponents rallied Wednesday at City Hall, O’Connor was in Washington.

In an interview with the archdiocesan newspaper, the cardinal said he told Catholic lay leaders that ″the time has come for our lay persons to do what the Second Vatican Council urged them to do: to assume their responsibility for public policy issues...″

″My role is to express what the church teaches about the moral dimensions of these issues,″ he said. ″How our lay persons apply these teachings is a matter for their own competencies.″

O’Connor did write a letter denouncing the bill as ″exceedingly dangerous to our society.″ It was co-signed by Bishop Francis Mugavero, whose Brooklyn- Queens diocese has more Catholics in the city than O’Connor’s.

Politicians, however, went their own way.

″I have had clergy lobby me, but I’m still committed to my vote (for the bill),″ said Fernando Ferre, a Catholic councilman from the Bronx, who added, ″It’s possible (O’Connor) could defeat it, but I don’t think so.″

Brooklyn Councilman Sal Albanese, who has many conservative Catholic constituents, also said he would vote for the bill. He received hundreds of letters, and on Sunday his home was picketed by dozens of chanting demonstrators.

Cooke, said Monsignor Florence Cohalan, historian of the archdiocese, was less outspoken than O’Connor. ″He would have finessed it ... spoken quietly through intermediaries to the ones with the votes.″

As an aide to Cardinal Francis Spellman, a famed clerical power broker, Cooke ″saw how things worked. He knew more about the intricate machinery that controls New York, and that it’s not always controlled by office holders.″

O’Connor also lacked the interreligious unanimity which bolstered some of his predecessors’ public morals campaigns. Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore and reformed Rabbi Balfour Brickner not only endorsed the bill, but testified before the council.

The question, Moore said, was ″whether you take certain passages in the Bible literally, or take the spirit of the Bible and apply it to our time.″

For Catholics and Episcopalians, the debate had shifted from faith to morals, from topics such as papal infallability or Marian devotion to secular legislation.

O’Connor also found his own house divided.

His Catholic opponents argued O’Connor’s position was not the only Catholic position, that he was essentially interpreting a church law which, in any case, is not immutable.

They cited statements by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that seemed to endorse safeguarding homosexuals’ civil rights, and support by archbishops such as Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle for gay rights legislation.

″We realize today that the Catholic Church is not a monolithic institution,″ said Sister Jeannine Grammick, speaking on behalf of the American Coalition of Nuns. ″We can have diversity of views expressed, and in the long run the Lord will have the truth known to us.″

″The Spirit speaks through all the people of God,″ not just the hierarchy, she added.

There are indications many Catholics agreed.

In a survey taken shortly before the statement by O’Connor and Mugavero, 72 percent of Catholics responding to a New York Daily News-WABC-TV poll said they felt religious organizations should neither promote nor oppose the bill.

Earlier this year a Catholic University professor reported 39 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement that ″the Catholic bishops should take public stands on some political issues such as the arms race or the American economic system.″

In a 1984 Gallup poll, 52 percent of those questioned said they thought religious organizations should not try to persuade elected officials to enact specific legislation.

″The more publicity O’Connor gets, the better off any cause he’s opposing is,″ concluded Bill Roulet, president of Dignity, a group of homosexual Catholics. ″People want to live the message of Christ in their own ways.″

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