Executive Order 50: The Battle Between Two New York Dioceses Over Gay Rights

by Francis DeBernardo

New York City is divided up into two dioceses: the Archdiocese of New York covers three city boroughs–Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island–and seven upstate counties, while the Brooklyn Diocese covers the city’s other two boroughs–Brooklyn and Queens.

In the early 1980’s these two dioceses were headed by bishops of very different temperaments.

Archbishop John O’Connor was a very rule-oriented bishop in the Archdiocese of New York, while Bishop Francis Mugavero was a more pastorally sensitive prelate, known for compassionate views on justice and sexuality.

While the two dioceses generally found agreements on public policy issues, a case in 1984 saw the two churches taking opposite stands on a very important lesbian/gay issue.

An NC News Service story from July 1984 recounts that the two bishops took opposing positions on Mayor Ed Koch’s Executive Order 50, a directive which the news account described as “prohibiting agencies that receive city funds from discriminating against homosexuals in employment.”

The directive greatly impacted both dioceses.

Each one had social service agencies partially funded by millions of dollars of city funds. The words of the Order were that discrimination could not occur on the basis of “race, creed, color, national origin, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation or affectional preference.”

The news story reported that the order “has been challenged by Archbishop John J. O’Connor of New York on the grounds that it would impose undue government interference with Church agencies.” The story continued:

In an interview earlier in June, O’Connor said contracts for social service performed by the archdiocese for the city would not be signed for the fiscal year beginning July 1 unless the issue was resolved.

The Brooklyn Diocese, however, disagreed with this position. The Brooklyn stand on Executive Order 50 was articulated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan, the head of the diocese’s Catholic Charities agency and a national expert on social service. The story reported Sullivan’s reaction:

“I see no obstacle in the requirements of Executive Order 50 which prevents us from adhering to Church teaching,”  Sullivan said in an interview. The bishop, who is vicar for human services in Brooklyn, said, “To me, non-discrimination does not imply approval of behavior.”

The story continued with Sullivan’s perspective on the difference:

Sullivan claimed that there was no “split” between the Brooklyn Diocese and the New York Archdiocese over the morality of homosexual behavior.

“We are in absolute agreement with the archbishop on Church teaching,” he said. “But the archbishop has made a prudential judgment on the requirement of Executive Order 50, and we are in disagreement. Bishop Mugavero has taken the pastoral approach that this clause implies no approval of homosexual behavior.”

Mugavero himself did not make a statement because he was hospitalized at the time, recovering from surgery.

This story has some interesting points worth noting.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Executive Order 50 had been in place since 1980, when Cardinal Terence Cooke headed the New York Archdiocese. This controversy did not take place until 1984, when Archbishop O’Connor came to the office. That means that even Cooke, a conservative prelate by anyone’s standards, had not objected to the Order.

But, more importantly, this story recalls a time when bishops expressed disagreement on LGBT policy issues, though this incident may have been the last public disagreement for a long time to come.

Fr. Richard Peddicord, OP, author of a landmark study, Gay and Lesbian Rights: A Question–Sexual Ethics or Social Justice?, recounts the ecclesial history following the Executive Order 50 case. O’Connor, along with several other conservative religious leaders, took NYC to court, and they won their case.

But that did not end the story.

The court recommended that non-discrimination be handled legislatively, not executively. However, a gay civil rights bill had been stalled for years in New York’s city council. When the bill was brought up again following the court case, O’Connor predictably opposed it.

But Peddicord describes an unusual twist that occurred from the Brooklyn Diocese:

[T]he Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights believed that it had received a pledge of neutrality from the neighboring diocese of Brooklyn. Representatives from the coalition had met with auxiliary bishop Joseph Sullivan, counsel Mildred Shanley, and canonist Monsignor William Varvaro; it was reported that Bishop Sullivan had told Catholic Charities that they had no problem with the bill.

However, Brooklyn’s ordinary, Francis Mugavero, did not remain neutral. He joined Cardinal O’Connor in issuing a public statement which attacked the proposal as “exceedingly dangerous to our society” and said that “what the bill primarily and ultimately seeks is the legal approval of homosexual conduct and activity.”

Peddicord offered an explanation of Mugavero’s flip-flop:

Bishop Mugavero was assumed to have been pressured into the stand he took. He denied any such thing, but as Arthur Moore remarks: “This denial was not widely believed, the only question being where the pressure came from. Informed sources say that O’Connor got the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pio Laghi, to do the job for him.”

The bill passed. But it would be a long, long time before we ever saw bishops disagreeing in such a public way.

That didn’t happen again until the Vatican synod on the family in 2014.

Bishop Joseph Sullivan would go on to being a strong voice for LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church, until his untimely death in 2013. He spoke at New Ways Ministry’s National Symposium in 2007.

Equally important in this case is that we see an early predecessor of the type of thinking Pope Francis expressed in Amoris Laetitia. Not all bishops have to address problems in the same way; there can be a diversity of approaches. The pope stated:

I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.

As we in the 21st century Church debate questions of religious liberty and face issues like the firing of LGBT people from church jobs, remembering the debate that took place around Executive Order 50 can remind us that not all Catholic leaders need to take a law-and-order attitude toward LGBT issues.

Pastoral sensitivity is very much a part of the authentic Catholic tradition.

Originally published by New Ways Ministry; Photo via flickr user Jeffrey Bruno