Cardinal Edward M. Egan, a stern defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy who presided over the Archdiocese of New York for nine years in an era of troubled finances, changing demographics and a priesthood of dwindling, aging ranks shaken by sexual-abuse scandals, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 82.All true, and Cardinal Egan's record regarding the sex abuse crisis was distinctly poor, though not among the worst. (He, and his generation, were particularly prone to the clericalism I have chronicled elsewhere.) It is a blot on his escutcheon, no doubt.
His tenure in New York had mixed reviews. His priority was to restore financial stability to the deficit-ridden archdiocese, and he did it by closing or merging parishes and schools and by raising millions from corporations and wealthy laymen. But he also drew bitter complaints from affected parishioners and priests. He tried to recruit more priests, but with little success.
And as the sexual-abuse scandal widened, he tried to protect the church from liability. In Bridgeport, he was accused of withholding information about accused priests and moving some from parish to parish. In New York, he gave prosecutors files on accused priests, but critics said he was slow and reluctant to act.
But the rather chilly obituary leaves out a facet of Cardinal Egan I had the opportunity to glimpse, and serves as a reminder, particularly timely as we near the end of the second week of Lent: We are none of us reducible to our worst acts.
Just about 4 years ago, I spoke at a conference at St. John's University Law School (details here; my own contribution here, or here).
Anyway, Cardinal Egan was the keynote speaker, and he was quite good. Not just in his manner, but he spoke, with a genuine passion, of the Catholic Church's social justice teaching, and of the importance of labor having a voice. (A brief account is here, a fuller version, but behind a paywall, here.)
After his lecture, in the Q-and-A, a young priest--an Opus Dei type (trust me, I'd been sitting one row above him all day)--clearly upset to be challenging a Prince of the Church, but shocked at the "liberal" views the Cardinal had expressed, asked horror-struck, "But--Your Eminence--how can we afford to pay for the higher wages collective bargaining leads to--especially in the public sector?"
Clearly appalled, the Cardinal wasted not a second: "We can begin by ending these damned unlawful wars, to start," he grated out, with a what-is-the-matter-with-you-anyway expression on his face.
At the end of the Q-and-A, the Cardinal greeted attendees. He had mentioned in his lecture a book that sounded useful to me, but I'd missed the title, so I approached him, a trifle shyly. I mean, c'mon. I was raised Roman Catholic, and this was my first meeting with a Cardinal, after all. I introduced myself, and the Cardinal asked who I was. I explained my talk (it was on social justice in Anglican Anglo-Catholic theology), and asked about the book. After shaking my hand, and regretting that he'd missed my talk (he'd been attending a panel himself), he whistled up his secretary.
"Can you hunt out a copy of the Compendium on Social Doctrine for this young man?" He asked.
It was an unexpected kindness, and most generously done, for a stranger belonging to a different communion.
Not bad, Your Eminence.
Rest in Peace.