By Tom Cornell
John O’Connor wasn’t yet a bishop when he wrote his book about the Viet Nam war, A Chaplain Looks at Viet Nam, in 1968. He sent me a copy. I remember getting it in the mail at the Catholic Peace Fellowship office in Lower Manhattan not long after I got out of Danbury federal prison. I had led the first group act of resistance to the Viet Nam draft. Five of us had burned our draft cards in a well-organized and dignified demonstration, with Dorothy Day and A.J. Muste participating in our support and about 2,500 people in attendance at Union Square. Press and radio/TV coverage was extensive beyond imagination. After trial and conviction and failed appeals, I served five months out of a six month sentence, a very lenient sentence it was by the standards of the day.
I thanked Fr. O’Connor and sent him a copy of A Penny a Copy, the anthology of writings from The Catholic Worker that Jim Forest and I put together, published by The Macmillan Company, which was hot off the presses, too. And I wrote Fr. O’Connor, thanking him for his thoughtfulness. I don’t have a copy of that letter in front of me, but I recall its structure. I said that no one of any responsibility in the Catholic peace movement would deny the men and women in the armed forces the ministry of the Church. I think I said that I would prefer, and so would most of us, that the military chaplains be paid by the Church and not by the military. I may have said something about chaplains having the rank of military officers, and that that is at least problematic from our point of view. But all that aside, because we know that’s not going to change. There are changes that can be made, and I forward them to you now.
Foremost among them is that military chaplains should be made aware of the theology of conscientious objection to war and to military service. It sometimes happens that an objection in conscience "crystallizes" after a man or woman has entered military service. Chaplains should understand the law and the rules and regulations that apply when a person in the military seeks separation on grounds of conscientious objection so that the chaplains might provide supportive counseling, assuming good faith in the absence if compelling evidence to the contrary. Even though the military pays the salaries of the chaplains, their first obligation is to their parishioners as pastors.
I then went on the war in Viet Nam. The bishops had accepted the Administration’s justification for US participation in the war in Viet Nam at that time and until 1970, when they published their decision that the war was no longer justifiable on grounds of proportionality, in other words, that the war was causing more harm than any good that might come out of its protraction. I simply stated my belief then in 1968, and the conviction of the Catholic peace movement that the war was unjust and immoral as well as illegal. I don’t remember how Father O’Connor replied to that letter. But not long after, he apologized for his book, calling it "very bad", and withdrew it. He must have received a lot more letters.
In subsequent correspondence, Father O’Connor assured me that he had seen to it that the military chaplains under him were acquainted with the theology of conscientious objection as well as the law, rules and regulations governing separation from military service for conscientious objector claimants within the military and that they were prepared to give positive support to conscientious objector claimants.
I don’t recall any further dealings with him until the 1976 Call to Action in Detroit. The Bishops’ Bicentennial Call to Action was a massive affair, years in the planning, with regional consultations on a wide basis in preparation for the big event. Dorothy Day and I participated in the preliminary hearing in Newark. There is a photograph of Dorothy there, published in the Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (OUP 1990). I was invited to represent CPF at Detroit also. I designated a young Franciscan seminarian my alternate, Roberto Gonzalez, who is now the Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Pax Christi had no real constituency then. The night before the Call to Action was convened, Fr. Ken Rollins, a Franciscan priest, gathered a meeting of people and groups especially interested in peace, perhaps eighteen people or so. I was designated chairman of the peace caucus. Eileen Egan was there, and Professors Joe Fahy and Gordon Zahn. Between plenary sessions addressed by weighty figures, there were to be workshops. Each workshop would have a chair and a rapporteur. Our caucus hammered out a wish-list and made sure that there would be at least one of us participating in every workshop bringing up the same items for consideration: that the Church uphold the right of conscientious objection to war and to military service, demand an end to the production and maintenance of weapons of mass destruction, and an end to the international transfer of weapons of mass destruction, an end to the arms race and transfers of conventional weapons. Some people started tacking on all kinds of additional items that were either redundant or implicitly contradictory. More unfortunately, a mind-set was established in every cause group at the event that said something like, "You vote for my laundry list and I’ll vote for yours. We’re all together in this, aren’t we, all of us enlightened progressives in a world and in a Church dominated by patriarchs?"
It seemed to be working very nicely. John O’Connor wasn’t in my workshop, as I remember, but some of his men were. He had a battery of priests who were doing the same thing that we were doing, seeding the workshops. But they got trounced! In every workshop the people who were trying to vote down or tone down the peace propositions were decisively outvoted. At the last plenum, the report from the rapporteurs had all our laundry list items and everybody else’s too, and they were all received by acclamation. At first it seemed like a dizzying success. I remember Eileen Egan with wide eyes saying, "Do you realize what a victory we have won for the cause of peace today?" I was stunned myself, largely because I didn’t expect all the liberal nonsense that passed by voice vote with no deliberation. It seemed very cheap to me. I kept my hand down and my voice still much of the time at the final plenum. But we wanted to be able to believe that we had won a victory. Gordon was very pleased. Joe Fahy was elated. And so was I, but not for long.
Jim Finn spotted me in a hallway. Jim was a liberal who drifted rightward and by then was a neo-conservative. He was a generous man and a loyal friend and gave significant help to CPF even though he never really agreed with us except on the Viet Nam war. Jim was a principal organizer of the event. He was furious, and he pointed his fury at me! "Do you have any idea what you’ve done?" He went on about all the time and money and effort that went into the event and all of it down the drain. A few minutes later, Professor David O’Brien, foremost authority on Catholic social action and one of our staunchest allies on the left, who had been working full time on the organization of the Call to Action came up to me and said the same thing! The bishops learned a negative lesson about consultation: The people in the pews are not represented by agency bureaucrats and the people who manage to get themselves chosen to go to monster consultations. They determined never to attempt anything as foolish as this again. We had gained no victory that day.
I met Father O’Connor with his men walking down a hall as we were about to leave the Detroit Conference Center. I expected him to express disapproval or disappointment in some way. Every objection that he and his men had raised had been dismissed. But not at all. He looked tranquil and his manner was gracious and kindly. Was it that he understood better than Eileen, Gordon, Joe and I what had really happened? I don’t think so. I think he was simply a very good man who had the spirit of nonviolence! And he was aiming it at me!
In late 1979, the FOR fired me after fourteen years on the job. Joe Fahy was nominated to the personnel committee of FOR the year after. He tried to figure out from the records why I got the sack. The only reason he could come up with was that I was working at too many different things. "Unique," he said. "Most people get fired for doing too little." Another irony is that I did the most important work I ever did in my life in the next three years of "self-employment," the consultation on the 1983 peace pastoral being the high point.
Hildegard Goss-Mayr, traveling secretary of the International FOR who generated her own salary along with her husband, Jean Goss, was aware of my distress. She managed to have IFOR give me an assignment (and $1500 for expenses and for the support of my five dependents): organize support actions for Central America on behalf of CELAM, the Central American Bishops’ Conference. She asked Archbishop Oscar Romero to give me the assignment officially by letter. It was extremely difficult on such slender resources, but I managed to generate some kind of program in a couple of dozen cities: a day of prayer and reflection in a seminary, a picket line in front of a post office or a teach-in or an inter-religious workshop, in early 1980. Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark participated in the one I led in New York City, at Saint Cecilia’s Church. I have a letter on my wall from Archbishop Romero thanking me and the CPF for the effort.
Needless to say, nothing we did could compare with the spiritual energy generated by the sacrifice of Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark, their two companions and the Archbishop very soon after, the women waylaid, raped and shot, buried in shallow graves in the Salvadoran countryside by US trained and financed death squads, the Archbishop shot down while saying Mass in a hospital chapel, again by US trained and financed assassins. But it did establish that we were onto an issue of great significance, and it strengthened the Catholic Worker’s and Catholic Peace Fellowship’s visibility in the geography of protest. But I had to support my family.
John O’Connor had nothing to do with these events. I’m just backing up a few years and filling in the personal story now for context until we come back to the late Cardinal. It was a little before I got the ax from FOR that the US Catholic Conference asked me to come to Washington for a consultation with their staff about the reintroduction of registration for the military draft, which had been suspended in the wake of the Viet Nam war. All the peace groups were convinced that re-imposition of military conscription was imminent. How was the Church to respond? was the question the USCC staff wanted to discuss with me.
I suggested that the USCC be explicit in its support of conscientious objection, including selective conscientious objection, and that the Church offer its good offices to the counseling of any and all who have any difficulties of any kind serving in war, with military service, or with compliance with the Selective Service Law. All my suggestions were accepted and printed as a commitment by the Administrative Board of the USCC on behalf of the bishops of the US in a 1980 document.
As soon as the words were in print, I visited the USCC once again. I thanked Fr. Bryan Hehir, who was then in charge of the Office for International Affairs, and Mr. Ed Dougherty, a long-time lay employee who played a quiet behind-the-scenes role for many years in their great work. And then I said, "What are you going to do about it? How are you going to train Church personnel in draft law, rules and regulations and counseling principles for this mission?" Fr. Hehir looked at me and laughed, "We can’t hire you, Tom, we don’t have the funds." He knew my situation. I said I wasn’t looking for a job at USCC. What I wanted was a letter or some kind of acknowledgment that CPF had a draft counselor training program of excellent quality, available to diocesan and other Catholic agencies so that they might prepare themselves to counsel any and every person who has a problem with military service or the draft.
Mind you, the wording here was careful. If there had been a reinstatement of the draft, I wanted to see the day, and soon, when any young man or any parent—Jewish, secularist, Protestant as well as Catholic—would think first of the Catholic Church or Catholic Charities or the local Catholic high school or college as the place to go for free quality counseling on questions of personal responsibility and war and military service. The Quakers have been known for that, and they have done a very creditable job of it. But they don’t have either the resources or the philosophy to do the job as we can. CPF’s success rate (that is, in helping clients to attain the draft classification they sought, usually 1-0, conscientious objector status) was far higher than AFSC’s, maybe because we are goal-oriented, and they are process-oriented.
Fr. Hehir understood exactly what I was after. He said, "You write the letter of recommendation. I’ll show it to Archbishop Quinn." The letter was mailed out on USCC stationery over Archbishop Quinn’s signature to every diocesan bishop in the US, suggesting that they contact CPF for the services of Tom Cornell or Paul Frazier for a two day draft counselor training seminar for their agency personnel.
The program was highly successful, in Davenport, Boston, New York, Chicago, Richmond, Butte, Helena, all over the country. The people involved were teachers, social workers, administrators, guidance counselors. They all expressed appreciation for the printed materials from many agencies and specialties, legal and medical, and for the oral presentations on counseling and the role-playing sessions. That year I made $3500. I had to put my house up for sale and take a job teaching 8th grade English and Latin 1 at a public junior high school in New Hampshire.
Early that spring, Ed Dougherty telephoned me at the school in Conway and said, "The Church needs you." We both appreciated the drama. He invited me to meet with the five bishops who would be drafting the peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, a groundbreaking document that would be published in 1983. In the meantime, the Education Department of the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Arch-diocesan Justice and Peace Commission asked me to come to Hartford with the Draft Counselor Training Program. We made a date. Days later, Jim Noonan, a member of the commission and an old friend, telephoned me at home in New Hampshire. "It’s all off," he said. "Somebody got to Archbishop Whealon. He’s a conservative, you know. They told him you were biased against the military and that you wouldn’t give a balanced presentation, that you’re not on the up-and-up. The Archbishop says you can’t come, the program’s off." I told him to go back to the Archbishop and point out to him that the program was endorsed by the USCC. He did, and he called me again to say it was still no good. I could come, but they couldn’t give me space in any church building or recruit participants through the Church network, or give me an honorarium or even pay my expenses. I told Jim to go back a third time, to tell the Archbishop that the program had been well received in several dioceses and that he could call any bishop who had the program for an evaluation, etc. Jim agreed. The result two days later: "You can come, Tom, if you get the OK from the military ordinariate in New York. But there’s no time for that and you’re up there!" It seemed impossible. "Fear not, oh ye of little faith," I told him. I’m meeting with Bishop O’Connor next Friday at St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale in New Haven. Keep everything on track." It was the consultation on the peace pastoral.
At the consultation I asked Bryan Hehir why they hadn’t asked Gordon Zahn or Eileen Egan, just me and Molly Rush and a nun I didn’t know and whose name I can’t recall. He said they knew what Eileen would say and they knew what Gordon would say. They didn’t know what I would say, but they knew that I could enter into dialogue on substantive issues.
The nun led off with a lovely and lengthy sermon on Jesus, reminding the bishops that our Lord was very good. The bishops were patient but bored. Lesson: never preach to bishops unless asked to. Molly Rush spoke briefly and affectingly, a middle-class wife and mother in danger of imprisonment for what she meant as an act of conscience against nuclear madness, but she did not engage any substantive issue.
I started off summarizing what we all know and agree to be true. The use of weapons of mass destruction has been unequivocally condemned by the highest level of teaching authority, the Second Vatican Council and the Holy See (Gaudium et Spes, par. 80-83). We know that the US continues to maintain and to expand its inventory of weapons of mass destruction. The question is, is this evil in itself or is it not? "I don’t know how you bishops are going to answer that question on behalf of the Church in the US. I know how the Catholic Worker will answer that question and I know how the Catholic Peace Fellowship will answer that question. We hold that it is evil in itself. We say that and we will continue to say it. It’s true and we can afford to say it." But, I went on in words to this effect: if you say the same, the Catholic people by and large will not believe you, and you know it. You are the leaders, but if the people do not follow you, you are not really leaders any longer, you are just taking a walk, and you have to lead. That is your God-given mandate. So I don’t know how you are going to finesse this question. You have got to tell the truth. But you also have to be able to be heard. You are in a dilemma. I hope I can help.
"Now, why do I say that the possession and further production of weapon of mass destruction are immoral? Because we either intend to use them or we do not. If we intend to use them, then we are already guilty because subjective morality lies in the intentional order. If we do not intend to use them, then the policy of deterrence is based upon a lie. We have always had difficulty in Catholic morality with lying, because it perverts the relationship of rational beings.
"So, bishops, how might we deal with this dilemma? You must tell the truth. But if you tell the whole truth now, you will not be heard and the teaching authority of the Church will be weakened."
The discussion went on for most of the rest of the morning. Fr. Bryan Hehir reminded the bishops that the moral principles that I based my argument upon are the same that they all learned in seminary and that my argument was conservative in nature, the same as Finnis’ and Greer’s. I engaged Bishop O ’Connor more than the others because he was the man to convince. On the other hand, I sometimes flashed the bad eye at our old friend, Bishop Tom Gumbleton, every time he tried to sell the hard-core pacifist line, to keep him quiet. I knew it was a non-starter and that by asking for too much, we would end up with nothing. There is an old Latin proverb: "Qui nimis probat, hihil probat." "He who tries for too much ends up with nothing."
In the event, the bishops avoided a clear and unambiguous declaration that the deterrent is intrinsically immoral. They held that the deterrent may be acceptable morally on a conditional and temporary basis only. The condition is that its maintenance be used as a means to buy time to bargain for multi-lateral disarmament. Temporary: how long? A hard question, but one that has to be answered on the basis of prudential judgment. `
The French and German bishops were upset by the work of the USCC drafting committee, especially its second draft, and pressured the Vatican to force the American bishops into retreat. They felt themselves in the line of first attack by Soviet tanks and that they were the prime recipients of protection from the US nuclear deterrent. Bishop O’Connor was assumed to be the most sympathetic to the French and German bishops’ point of view. But he held firm with the other US bishops. Had he not, the cause would have been lost. John Howard Yoder, the most persuasive thinker of the Mennonite pacifist tradition, considered this to be a most significant advance in moral thinking about war.
I made sure I sat next to Bishop O’Connor at lunch after our consultation at St. Thomas More Chapel. At the earliest opportunity I turned to him and told him that I was having a problem with the local ordinary, John Francis Whealon, the Archbishop of Hartford. He asked what’s the problem. I told him. Then I put my hand down to the briefcase at my knees and offered to show him the course outline and the printed materials for my draft counselors’ training seminar.
Bishop O’Connor said, "No, Tom, I don’t need to see it. Just get me a phone." A telephone was brought to the table. Bishop O’Connor telephoned the Archbishop’s office in Hartford. These are the words I heard him say: "I endorse Mr. Cornell without reservation, and I endorse his program without reservation." I was stunned. As soon as I could, I called Jim Noonan. The program was on. It was a small group, the sessions were without incident and everything went just fine. One of the participants, Reed Smith, invited me to his home for supper and offered me a job running a soup kitchen in Waterbury. I accepted, and for the next eleven years, with my wife Monica and our son Tom and our daughter Deirdre, ran two soup kitchens in Waterbury for the area council of churches as well as a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality.
The Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of Hartford resigned en bloc at their first meeting after the draft counselor training program, and told the secular press, the Hartford Courant, why: to protest Archbishop Whealon’s osbtructionist attitude toward me. I would have tried to talk them out of it if I had known. There was no point in embarrassing the man.
I introduced myself to Archbishop Whealon when he came to dedicate the St. Vincent de Paul overnight shelter in Waterbury, the biggest in the State of Connecticut not long after. I had helped to establish it, so I was there for the dedication. I’m sure the Archbishop remembered my name. He never forgot a thing, I came to know. "This is my wife, Archbishop, Monica Ribar Cornell. Do you remember Martin Ribar, of Cleveland?" "Yes, I certainly do," he answered. Martin Ribar was a Thomist, a half-blind scholar, who supervised the maintenance of an apartment building in Cleveland that Monica’s uncles owned. "Monica is Martin Ribar’s niece," I said. The apartment building was a short walk from the seminary where the Archbishop had studied. He had often walked over for sessions "for the clarification of thought" at the Catholic Worker cell which met in the building’s coal cellar, I knew. "The Coal Hole University," they called it. I joked and told the Archbishop that his secret past with the CW was safe with me.
Archbishop Whealon ordained me deacon in 1988. Not long after he asked me to help re-establish the Peace and Justice Commission (no mention was ever made of the old one or the circumstances of its demise). I served two two year terms on the new commission and helped write its basic statement of purpose and its by-laws. The archdiocese also committed itself to the practical assistance of anyone with any problem in regard to military service and established a conscientious objectors registry, after three careful conversations with the Archbishop. He was no sentimentalist and had to be convinced. But he was honest and highly intelligent.
Back to Cardinal O’Connor. Shortly after O’Connor was installed as Archbishop of New York, he asked, from the pulpit of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, advice from the people of New York, whether he should propose Dorothy Day for canonization as a saint. I wrote him a three page single-spaced letter telling him why he should not. By the end of the letter I had pretty well talked myself out of that position. Twenty year later, at Dorothy’s centenary, the Cardinal again brought the issue before the Archdiocese from the pulpit at St. Patrick’s. He said that he would soon convene a gathering of people who had known and worked with Dorothy, mentioning Robert Ellsberg and me.
That meeting was held at his office at 1011 First Avenue, The Catholic Center. There were nine of us, including from the Catholic Worker Robert Ellsberg, Pat Jordan, Frank Donovan and Jane Sammon. Cardinal O’Connor mentioned his changed attitude toward war and peace questions, and he told the group that it came about largely because of the correspondence that he and I had had over the years. I was grateful to hear him say this and to have the others hear it. The meeting was scheduled for an hour but lasted two. I think that the Cardinal, who did not take a "power" seat, but actually sat lower than anybody else in the room, seemed tired but fascinated. Nobody was trying to sell him anything. Nobody said you have to do this or that or how important it was. We just reminisced about Dorothy, told stories. Toward the end the Cardinal came out with it: do you want me to propose Dorothy to the Congregation for Saints or don’t you? Do you have enthusiasm for the cause? Pat Jordan, for many years and still managing editor of Commonweal, summed up all of our feelings spontaneously and eloquently. Yes, Your Eminence, we do!
Not long after this, I visited Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo on the 20th floor of 1011 First Avenue, the Archbishop’s office. It was a get acquainted meeting, no agenda. Father Greg was Cardinal O’Connor’s secretary, and he remains the Postulator for Dorothy’s cause for beatification. We had met the previous week at the Archbishop’s residence in a first meeting to form a Guild for Dorothy and an Advisory Board for the Guild. I liked Fr. Greg, as he asks to be called (so he doesn’t have to hear his family named mispronounced) right away. He is straightforward and unaffected. After the Cardinal’s death I visited Father Greg again. Entering his office, I noticed a cane resting against his wall. Fr. Greg isnt 40 years old, by the looks of him. "You dont use a cane, do you?" I asked. "No," he explained. "It was the Cardinals." I measured it against the cane I was carrying. It was a little longer. "I need another cane. This one is just right. Can I have it?" "Sure," he said. "Take it." I took the cane, then I had to turn to the wall again for a moment to compose myself. "A third class relic," I said. "I thank you so very much!" I had come to love the man.