In 1956 a young seminary student named Charles Curran bet a conservative classmate that Adlai Stevenson would beat Dwight Eisenhower in the fall presidential election. When Stevenson went down to defeat that November, Curran's classmate, Edward Egan, took great pleasure in exacting payment. "He made me read Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind," Curran, now a professor at Southern Methodist University, told me sheepishly. In May, Egan walked onto the national stage, succeeding Cardinal John O'Connor as the archbishop of New York. And more than four decades later, Egan's staunch conservatism appears little changed.
Egan has a reputation as a strict Vatican loyalist. Many believe it was his strong ties to Rome, where he worked closely with Pope John Paul II, that prompted the pope to look beyond a list of recommended successors and choose Egan instead. He is also known as a gifted administrator. (In his previous position as bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Egan shored up a beleaguered Catholic school system, a task he'll face again as he confronts New York's own troubled Catholic school system.) But what's significant about Egan's appointment as head of the nation's most prominent Catholic archdiocese is the odd disjuncture between his loyalty to the Vatican as it's been shaped by John Paul II and his own uniquely American brand of political conservatism.
The Catholic Church, particularly the U.S. Catholic bishops, embodies a political paradox--at least from the perspective of conventional American politics. The Church staunchly opposes liberal orthodoxies on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and contraception. But on social-justice issues like poverty, health care, and the economy, it is one of the most progressive institutional forces in American society. Few leaders of the American Church have embodied this seeming duality more vividly than Egan's predecessor, Cardinal O'Connor, who was an avid supporter of labor unions. But while Egan is a fierce opponent of abortion rights, he lacks the compensating support for socialjustice issues. "His positions can be inferred from the absence of any progressive social stances," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "Nothing in Egan's record suggests that he'll follow economic issues that benefit the poor. He has distinguished himself as a conservative." And that's what has many liberal Catholics concerned.
When Egan was appointed bishop of Bridgeport in 1988, he faced a Catholic school system in shambles. He shut down schools and consolidated the student population, forcing many children into public schools--a policy that didn't sit well with many in the community. "There was criticism that he targeted inner-city schools that served a considerable number of minority students and not the suburbs," says James Connelly, superintendent of public schools during Egan's 12 years in Bridgeport. "We probably had to absorb about 500 kids." Because Catholics were leaving the inner city and thus weakening the schools that served those neighborhoods, Egan devised a plan in which Bridgeport's 88 parishes collectively supported the 33 remaining schools, in effect socializing the Catholic school system. Most observers, including Connelly, believe this was a necessary step and credit Egan with stabilizing the city's teetering Catholic school system.
But the attention paid to Egan's managerial skills has overshadowed his controversial ties to the religious right. In 1996 he was one of only two bishops to endorse the Catholic Alliance, a political advocacy group founded under the auspices of the Christian Coalition. "We are Catholic Americans who support the agenda of the Christian Coalition," its director said at the time, and Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed called it "the most effective political partnership that the country has ever seen." It was a right-wing dream: one-stop shopping for the religious vote.
True to that aim, the Catholic Alliance distributed voter guides for the 1996 election, angering the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was quick to point out that Catholics differ from evangelicals on a variety of issues like welfare reform, health care, and economic policy. The voter guides prompted the California Catholic Conference to distribute its own flyers reminding voters that the Catholic Alliance hadn't received permission to use the word "Catholic" in its name and had "no official recognition as a Catholic organization." While purporting to represent Catholics on a broad range of issues, the Alliance focused almost exclusively on abortion. In fact, the single-issue focus was so pronounced that prior to the election one board member felt it necessary to announce, "We must state unequivocally that we are not against caring for the poor." More recently, the Alliance has loosened its ties to the Christian Coalition, but Egan remains one of only five bishops on the Catholic Alliance advisory board.
Egan's loyalty to Vatican teachings does not carry over as forcefully to labor unions, an area where his predecessor distinguished himself. After his death, union leaders dubbed O'Connor "the patron saint of working people." Egan will get no such honor from labor leaders in Bridgeport. While the pope once spoke of unions as "a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice," on at least two occasions Egan has been accused of trying to bust them. In 1993 the Bridgeport diocese sought to end an arrangement under which it had, for six decades, extended union benefits to nonunion cemetery workers. The workers went on strike and picketed Egan's house and Sunday Masses. They reluctantly returned to work with an open-shop clause, but accused Egan of breaking the union. A similar situation arose four years later, when the diocese demanded an open-shop contract for health care workers, many of whom were poorly paid Haitian immigrants. The diocese later agreed to a modified union shop after workers threatened to strike. But the incident again reinforced Egan's reputation for indifference to workers' rights.
The most common criticism of Egan is that his strong views on issues like abortion have undermined his efforts in other areas. While serving as New York's vicar of education under O'Connor in the mid-1980s, Egan famously derided the city's sex education program, suggesting to city council members, "Try decency. Try chastity. Try Western civilization."
But outspoken criticism from Catholic leaders like Egan and O'Connor ultimately had a polarizing effect on voters, and sex education won passage in New York, as it did in other cities like Boston and New Haven, where the church was a controversial participant.
Egan learned from the experience. When Bridgeport considered providing birth control in public schools in 1993, he took a different approach. Working with a coalition of Catholic priests, Eastern Orthodox clergy, and evangelical Protestants, Egan quietly launched an effort to prevent birth control devices from being distributed in public schools. He avoided heated rhetoric and relied on his status as a community leader rather than as a religious one. The proposal was defeated by a five-to-four vote. "I credit Egan's leadership and involvement as the pivotal thing to cause the measure to fail," says Connelly. "If he hadn't been part of this coalition, we'd have birth control devices in the schools today."
Egan's appointment as ninth archbishop of New York was widely interpreted as an effort to reassert Vatican influence on American life. How that influence manifests itself in social and economic policy is largely open to interpretation. "Papal social teaching is vague enough that Catholic neoconservatives could say they're under the umbrella," says Egan's old classmate Curran. Egan's rigid conservatism is likely to test that ideological boundary. To date, there is little reason to believe otherwise. ¤