The saintliness of the late John Cardinal O’Connor’s unheralded ministry to AIDS patients should provide the light in which we discuss this. It takes nothing away from Cardinal O’Connor’s memory or his merit as a Christian for us to remember things that happened, and to hold events next to one another for comparison.
But the fact is that the March 18, 1993 New York Times reported that, in Cardinal O’Connor’s words, political correctness is not worth "one comma in the Apostles' Creed.” At issue was the desire voiced by New York’s Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to join the 1993 St. Patrick’s Day parade. (And, we should note that the Apostle’s Creed addresses neither homosexual acts nor parades.)
The question had gone into the air after new-President Bill Clinton had placed gays in the military on the national agenda. Before even a week of 1993 had gone by, Cardinal O’Connor was in the controversy and, already, he had compared letting gay and lesbian marchers in the St. Patrick’s Day parade to admitting “the PLO in the next Jewish parade.” He went on further to say that the parade is a “religious celebration of a Catholic saint,” and to wonder what power the New York mayor should have to alter such a celebration. And, that’s reasonable—if gay and lesbian Catholics can't be religious believers, or cannot have a devotion to St. Patrick, or if merely being gay or lesbian makes them sinners. At least, those seemed to be logical implications of what the Cardinal was saying.
On February 16, 1993, the Times reported that the Cardinal pushed all his chips into the middle of the table—if gay marchers were admitted to the parade, he and organizations of the Archdiocese would boycott. The Cardinal couldn’t order gay groups out of the parade, but he could control whether he or his Archdiocese would be there for it.
All of this is why, today, after announcing that the Archdiocese of New York would not oppose admitting gay groups and that he would honor his commitment to be Grand Marshal, Timothy Cardinal Dolan is mostly, technically correct that, "Neither my predecessors as archbishop of New York nor I have ever determined who would or would not march in this parade.”
But that legalistic evasion is attempting to conceal something important from us. The ground has shifted seismically.
If Cardinal Dolan is not breaking from his predecessors, he is doing something that looks a lot like it. Gone are the thundering comparisons to the PLO, the claims that letting gays and lesbians march in a parade (that is soaked with beer) diminishes the event’s Catholicity, and gone also are the threats to “determin[e] who…would not march in this parade.”
In 1993, having gay people in the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a religious liberty issue. Catholics asserted a right “to declare their beliefs publicly without governmental interference.”
In 2015, Cardinal Dolan--champion of the Church's religious freedom--will lead a St. Patrick’s Day parade with openly gay and lesbian marchers behind him.
Call it the Francis Effect. Call it the Holy Spirit. Call it whatever you want.
But, despite all of Cardinal Dolan’s there’s-nothing-to-see-here-move-along’s, the Church has changed. It has changed its mind, and it has changed its public witness. It takes little effort to see how, or how much.
And, Deo volente, it will keep changing.