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

History-Option 1

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff  produces a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor:  Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 


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, as 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.”

(Cardinal) Archbishop John O’Connor

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.

Bishop Joseph Sullivan

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.’ “

Bishop Francis Mugavero

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.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



6 replies
  1. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    It occurs to me that while many Catholics of conscience disagree with hard-liners like O’Connor and more recently, Dolan and others, no one says they are not priests or that they are not part of the church. We live side by side. When the subject of LGBT people comes up, we may tense up, ready for uncomfortable conversations and even disagreements. And the conversations need to happen. I think this is what Pope Francis means by the ‘messy church.’ I would like to see way more emphasis on the undeniable connection between dignity and work. Because if we have that as a cornerstone in the ongoing conversation, it will become apparent that firing people is not upholding our commitment to dignity. As Sullivan said, “To me, non-discrimination does not imply approval of behavior.” There are plenty of situations where we do not agree or condone our neighbors’ behavior or choices, yet when we come together at mass, we share the Eucharist together. This may seem off point, but I recently saw the tryout film for the gay character in A Chorus Line. (I will try to find it and post it). It is beautiful in its acknowledging how a gay person feels, the underlying judgment and disapproval he lives with, but in the end, a beautiful acknowledgment that we need to take care of one another. That is what Pope Francis calls us to do above all else: to care for one another. We do not have to condone or even understand, but we do have to accompany and care for one another.


    • Wilhelm Wonka
      Wilhelm Wonka says:

      If only everyone (especially moral legalists in the Church) were as compassionate and thoughtful as you, then what couldn’t we all achieve together?

      Moral legalism is the progeny of fear, not love. And it is not what Christ calls us to, as he himself demonstrated when he mixed with the outcasts of HIS day: the tax collectors and the sinners. And much to the chagrin of the Pharisee’s scribes. Did Jesus care that he was scandalizing these ‘good’ people? No. Was he necessarily implying moral approval of anyone’s behaviour? No. But those who think in this way, like O’Connor, set boundaries on their willingness to love ALL others. This is not the example Jesus set.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    Something we all should keep in mind is that the vast majority of married HETEROSEXUAL Catholics use some form of “forbidden” artificial contraception — either the pill or condoms or an IUD — and nobody in the hierarchy comes crashing down upon them for doing so. Why is there no official condemnation? Because the Catholic Church’s leadership knows perfectly well that it would lose three-quarters of its married heterosexual members if it attempted to “reign them in” — and the bishops rightly fear the consequences of doing so. And yet some of them still think they can attack faithfully-partnered GLBT Catholics with impunity. I long ago realized that these forcibly-celibate (and often emotionally-frustrated) clerics are not to be taken seriously, when they pontificate about intimate human relationship issues in which they have (we presume) no direct personal life experience. Our sibling Episcopal and Anglican and Lutheran Churches — all of which allow for a married clergy, with most of them having families of their own — are far more savvy and tolerant on issues of intimate human relationships, including the relationships of same-sex couples. We can only hope and wish and pray that Pope Francis will somehow move the Catholic Church in a far more realistic direction — one rooted in contemporary common sense, rather than in totally untenable (and often downright medieval) theological abstractions.

    • Wilhelm Wonka
      Wilhelm Wonka says:

      The Catholic Church has already moved ‘in a far more realistic direction’ on the intimacies of human relationships (including LGBT ones). It’s just that the bulk of the Church is waiting for the hierarchs to catch up. (Well, they are old men and take their time.)

  3. amagjuka
    amagjuka says:

    Also, as young people delay marriage because of career goals, student loan debt, etc. many more are “living in sin.” They will never willingly go to a church that labels them sinners from the get-go. The theology has timeless resonance and wisdom, but we need to frame it in terms of “the most loving act.” How do we take the theology and use it as a guiding principle to do the most loving act in each situation. Lifelong conscience
    formation has taken a back seat to political posturing, in and outside of the church. We need to get back to basics–love.

  4. Rick Garcia
    Rick Garcia says:

    Thank you for this. I was in NYC during this time and remember it well. I remember participating in a meeting between O’Connor and the lg community. He was a mean-spirited man. But justice prevailed and Gospel values triumph.


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