A generation ago that disavowal might have ended the matter.
Fired aloft by the unwitting cardinal, and floating overhead like a flare in the nighttime sky, is that eternal question:
What is God?
Christians and Jews have a long tradition of describing God in masculine terms, referring to the Creator in prayer and scripture as Lord or Father or King or He.
But in recent years, various groups - and not all of them radical feminists - have begun to urge religious leaders to de-emphasize the maleness of God. Some have responded with stern adherence to tradition; others have begun to broaden their imagery of God to include Mother and She.
Rabbi Marc Margolius of Temple Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, for example, said that several years ago his Conservative Reconstructionist synagogue began using prayer books that alternate male and female references to God. One typical prayer reads:
"In all Her paths the Lord is faithful
in all His deeds He is loving."
"The rabbis here felt a need to get away from the purely patriarchal imagery of God, recognizing that any imagery used in prayer is potentially idolatrous," said Rabbi Margolius. "Judaism has always used a multiplicity of names and images to combat the tendency to fix a particular image in people's mind."
And while alternating male and female imagery "can be jarring" and disruptive of the sense of ritual, he said, the congregation has been "very accepting" of the new language.
But tradition doesn't always surrender easily.
"We have not in any way considered a change within my congregation," said Rabbi Aaron Landes of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. "And there has been no semblance of pressure to change. Perhaps my congregation is more conservative in this issue, but I would point out that we treat men and women equally, and this fits into the mainstream of conservative Judaism."
And Sheldon Ingelmayer, director of communications for the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, concurred. "We have had a trend toward more inclusive language, although there are people who would like us to go further and rip up the liturgy."
For example, Ingelmayer said the sabbath prayer for the Conservative congregations used to read, "Bless the members of this congregation and their wives and children." Now, he said, they read, "Bless the members of this congregation and their children."
But "there are limits to the changes," he said, "because a lot of the liturgy is biblically derived, and they'll be no fiddling with that. If the Hebrew said 'He,' that's what it will be."
The Rev. Joseph Martino, director of Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, sees it in a similar, albeit Christian, way.
"I'm ill at ease creating a term for God that is other than what Jesus gave us," he said.
"Christ's message was for all time," he said. "He said we have a God who is good and who wants us to be good, and He described God in certain terms. I don't think it's for us to say that He should have used other images, or that He should have come in the 20th century. . . . Let's not redefine the God of Jesus."
Father Martino added that he was baffled by those who say that traditional male imagery makes God less approachable. "My father was a very gentle man," he said. "He had a very tender side to him, and I think I project my own affection for my father onto God."
Feminist scholar Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is among those who find it difficult to relate to an all-male image of God, and she is among those urging that Christians expand their understanding of "Her."
"God cannot be limited in any way, and no set of metaphors can be the exclusive one," said Mollenkott, a professor of English at William Paterson
College. "That is what idolatry is. You can make graven images out of language just as surely as you can in stone."
She is the author of The Divine Feminine, a book that argues there is enough female imagery of God in Scripture to justify a concept of God in modern liturgy that embraces His (or Her) feminine side.
In Luke, for example, Christ likens himself to a "mother hen" who gathers her brood under her wing, Mollenkott observed. In Hosea, she said, God is likened to a "bear deprived of her cubs." And in Psalm 131 - the song of trust in God - the speaker says "I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with his mother . . ."
"I believe God is all we are and a whole lot more," said Mollenkott, an Episcopalian who refers to God as She and Her and Mother.
The use of male references to describe God "denies a whole side of Her," she said, and reinforces male dominance in both church and society.
"If God is male, then male is God - that's the message."
Sister Virginia Froehle, a writer and editor at St. Anthony's Messenger in Cincinnati, sees it similarly.
"I think very few people ever truly reject God," she said. "They just reject the images they've been given.
"Female images, even if they are human contrivances based on social conventions, allow us to approach God as mother, sister, comforter, nurturer, to come crying to the mother's breast if that is what we need," said Sister Virginia.
"We're not trying to change the image of God from male to female," she said, "but to expand the image of God to include the female."
Such are the "radical feminist" views that Cardinal O'Connor criticized in his Father's Day sermon.
While affirming traditional Catholic teaching that God is indeed genderless and includes both male and female and all creation, the cardinal took a swipe at those who want to see the imagery of God broadened to include the female. These feminist positions are based on "tragic misperceptions," Cardinal O'Connor said, and their cause is "sad indeed."
"It is the fatherhood of God that is specified in the scriptures," the cardinal told the assembled at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Catholics should use male and father images of God, Cardinal O'Connor declared, because "it is the fatherhood of God that is referred to so frequently by Christ, his son."
That position may be traditional, said Father Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, and he, too, objects to the "fringe movement's" use of feminine imagery for God.
But such feminine imagery is not theologically wrong, Father McBrien said, despite the cardinal's assertions to the contrary.
"You can use either one, (i.e., male or female) provided you understand that God is not a person and has no human attributes whatsoever. And maybe in the next century we will.
"But for now, I think, those words jar," said Father McBrien. "Remember that Vatican II (the Second Vatican Council, which modernized many Catholic rituals and practices) was only a generation ago.
"The church is still in transition. My feeling is, make changes where you can, in ways that are not jarring, and people will get used to change."