March 15, 2005


Stephen Dubner recalls the cardinal as a peacemaker -- between him and his mom. (STEPHEN J. DUBNER, May 5, 2000, New York)

John Cardinal O'Connor was a man who liked to fix things, and since I had a broken relationship -- with my mother -- I went to see him.

My mother revered the cardinal, thought he stood for everything that was righteous and true about Catholicism, everything that had led her to convert from Judaism more than 50 years earlier.

I was a different matter. I had let my mother down, grievously. The youngest of eight children, I was her last, best hope for the priesthood. I had taken my altar-boy duties seriously; I tried in every way to believe as my parents believed, which was deeply. My father was also a Jewish convert, and you must believe me when I say that it would be hard to find a more zealous pair of Catholics than these two former Brooklyn Jews.

Not only did I not become a priest, but I became . . . a Jew. My mother thought this preposterous. To her, Judaism was an outmoded religion whose only contribution had been to preserve monotheism until Christ came along.

We fought, stewed, then stumbled into a prickly silence. That's when I went to see the cardinal.

This was four years ago, and he was still strong. His desk was immaculate, his in-box empty. On his lapel he wore a small red-rose pin, the same pro-life symbol my mother favored. I told him about our dilemma. "I don't mean to turn this into a shrink session or a confessional," I said, "but how would you suggest that we go about resolving that conflict?"

He listened hard; you would have thought he was considering a matter far more momentous than one family's theological dispute. "I think in two ways," he finally answered. "First off, I would look at recent declarations of Pope John Paul II about the validity of Judaism. This has radically changed Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Radically." His second point concerned "the primacy of an informed conscience" -- that is, the Vatican's belief that if someone has duly educated himself in the ways of the Church and the ways of another faith, and feels that God wants him to belong to that other faith, that is where he indeed belongs. The cardinal told me I should go to my mother and tell her "that this is where you think God wants you to be, an informed Jew."

This was what the cardinal's friends always said: For all his power and wit, what he loved more than anything was being a priest. Having eyes that see, ears that hear, and a tongue unafraid to deliver the verdict.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2005 11:52 PM

Dubners parents were an interesting pair. In his memoir Turbulent Souls, he reveals that she was the first cousin of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (yes that one, the hanged communist spy). His mother and father, both born Jewish, had individually converted to Catholisism. They moved to upstate NY and raised their children, including Stephen as Catholics.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 16, 2005 1:55 AM

Thank God for the "primacy of the informed conscience". Because of it, 90%+ of Catholic couples can and do reject the idiotic, hypocritical sophistry of Humanae Vitae's prohibition against the use of ABC by married couples.

Posted by: daniel duffy at March 16, 2005 8:47 AM