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number one
The man who set the style for America's bishops

By now, the story is all too familiar. A powerful cardinal cuts a wide swath in a predominantly Catholic city. Public officials defer to him, and anything he says on any topic makes news simply because he is the one who says it. He owes his position not to the support of the local Catholic community, but to powerful patrons in Rome, carefully cultivated over many years. The Vatican is his only real constituency—he is largely friendless among his own priests. He is equally remote from ordinary parishioners, most of whom respect but never grow to love him. And even as he wields considerable power, he also takes care to conceal a disturbing secret. Once the full story is revealed, his historical reputation is diminished.

That may sound like the story of Cardinal Bernard Law, recently resigned after 18 years as archbishop of Boston. But in fact it is a summary of the life of one of his predecessors, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, who served from 1907 until his death in 1944. Though he was originally from Lowell and had served in parishes in Boston and Medford, O’Connell was very much an outsider when he emerged as the surprise choice to lead local Catholics. The priests of the archdiocese actively wanted someone else for the job, but O’Connell used his connections in the Vatican to win the office for himself in the first such overt demonstration of personal ambition in American Catholic history. In the age of flamboyant local politicos like James Michael Curley and John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, O’Connell became a dominant figure in the region, unafraid to flex his political and social muscles on a broad array of concerns. Legislators and newspaper reporters learned to ask what “Number One” (as he was often called) or “Lake Street” (the location of his office and residence) thought of any important matter of public policy. In 1935, he single-handedly scuttled a bill to establish a state lottery, and in 1942, he marshaled his forces to defeat a referendum liberalizing Massachusetts’s birth control laws.

But even as he exerted this public influence, O’Connell was concealing a scandal. In the 1910s, his priest-nephew and another priest of his household were secretly married to women in Boston and New York, and they were embezzling money from the archdiocese to support their double lives. O’Connell knew of this but failed for seven years to do anything about it, until he was forced by Rome to remove the two from the priesthood in 1920. Boston’s priests, other U.S. bishops, and some local politicians had known the story, but deference to the cardinal’s authority left them reluctant to go public. Ordinary parishioners never learned of the underside of local Church administration. The city’s newspapers—it’s not clear how much they actually knew—were unwilling to take on the leader of the region’s largest church: With a word from him, circulation might drop overnight. After Rome cracked down, O’Connell continued to exercise power locally, but his authority within the national and global Church was finished. Not until the 1980s did the full story come to light, thanks to the opening of archives in the Vatican and elsewhere.

The parallels between Cardinal O’Connell and Cardinal Law are striking, but they are of more than purely historical interest. O’Connell set in motion trends whose logical conclusion was Law. How the archbishop defined his role in the wider Boston community; how that community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, viewed him; how an expanding Vatican influence came to outweigh local interests in choosing leaders—the patterns established after O’Connell came to Boston in 1907 remained fixed for nearly 100 years. Cardinal Law’s resignation, following a year of growing outcry from the Catholics of Boston, holds out the hope that the “O’Connell century” in Boston may have ended. Whoever Cardinal Law’s successor turns out to be, he may have the chance to move in a different, more positive direction.

At the heart of the problem was the procedure by which Catholic bishops were chosen during the O’Connell century. Changes in that procedure came from Rome, but O’Connell knew how to take advantage of them, and he showed other American churchmen how to do the same.

Contrary to what many people assume, the appointment of Church leaders was not always the sole prerogative of the pontiff. As late as 1870, a mere handful of the several hundred bishops in the world were chosen unilaterally by the pope. In most places, including the United States, the pope’s role was largely to select leaders from lists prepared by local pastors and neighboring bishops. This appointment system took account of local needs and knowledge, and it produced churchmen who were intimately connected to their own people. In Boston, this system had worked wonderfully well. John Fitzpatrick (bishop from 1846 to 1866) was a graduate of Boston Latin School, admired as much by Adamses and Lawrences as by the Irish immigrants who flooded into the city. John Williams (archbishop from 1866 to 1907) had spent years in parish work, though he was also a capable and shrewd manager. Indeed, Williams was the last archbishop of Boston who combined competent administrative skills with fundamental decency in addressing problems. His successors have possessed one trait or the other, but never both.

A new system of appointment—it was a genuine innovation, though presented as a long Church tradition—ushered in a parade of less successful leaders in Boston and elsewhere, as the Vatican bureaucracy came to control the process to an extent that it never had before. Ambitious prelates could lobby for advancement and succeed, because they only needed to persuade a handful of officials in Rome to secure the prize. The Vatican bureaucracy expanded significantly, and improved communication systems permitted officials there to scrutinize Church affairs around the world more closely than they had before.

O’Connell recognized the possibilities of this system early on. He spent his five years (190106) as bishop of Portland, Maine, actively campaigning for promotion to Boston, funneling large contributions to numerous Vatican causes, and loudly protesting that he was more loyal to the papacy than anyone else. While others followed his example, the dynamics of clerical lobbying could be complicated. Cardinal Richard Cushing, who succeeded O’Connell and served as archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970, was appointed after intense politicking by New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, who wanted to become the de facto leader of the American hierarchy by blocking the appointment of another, more potent candidate in Boston. (Even after Cushing’s selection, Spellman’s influence prevented Cushing’s designation as a cardinal for 14 years after his installation as archbishop.) Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, archbishop from 1970 to 1983, was an outsider to Boston. He was born in the Azores, grew up in Fall River, and served as a bishop in Texas; all this diminished his influence amid the anti-busing violence that broke out during the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s. Upon his appointment in 1984, Law—who was born in Mexico and had attended a seminary in Ohio—was connected to Boston only by a 30-year-old undergraduate degree in history from Harvard. But he had not been shy about drawing Rome’s notice, both in staff positions with the national bishops’ conference and in his previous assignment in Missouri.

The real problem was less with any of these individual men than with the system that produced them. Leaders were chosen precisely because they were disconnected from the city in which they were expected to be important players. In Boston and elsewhere in the world, the Vatican clearly preferred outsiders, leaders who would feel more connection to Rome than to any particular diocese. Independence from their own dioceses was tolerable; independence from Rome was not.

In Boston, another consequence of this system was that archbishops cultivated an imperial, even imperious, style of leadership. Beginning with O’Connell, they demanded to be treated as the “princes” of the Church that they were. Their closest associates addressed them as “Your Eminence,” never using their given names. (Fitzpatrick, by contrast, had been known as “Bishop John.”) After hours and off the record, this might give way to sarcasm: Among themselves, some of Law’s priests referred to him as “the Emperor.” In public, everyone was correct, speaking of “His Eminence, the Cardinal,” and deference came to be expected. For all his folksy manner, Cushing delighted when policemen knelt in the street to kiss his ring. Medeiros eschewed many of these trappings, but was often criticized for it: Boston’s cardinal was expected to be assertive, not self-effacing. Law restored the full imperial style. That Medeiros and Law had done their seminary studies elsewhere redoubled their remoteness. They had no classmates or old friends among their clergy on whom they could rely for frank advice or brutally honest debate over Church policy.

To be sure, having a powerful and imposing archbishop was often a useful thing in Boston, as it was in other cities. The cardinal’s “palace” at Lake Street and Commonwealth Avenue proved a sound investment, as wealthy donors flocked to the annual Catholic Charities garden party. One can only imagine the active role Cardinal Law would have played in bringing last fall’s janitors’ strike to a speedy and successful conclusion had he not been diminished by scandal. In the past, he had been effective in rallying legislative opposition to the death penalty and forceful in urging reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Cuba. But ironically, the archbishop’s determination to stand in regal aloofness at times diminished his influence. Even faithful Catholics felt deep down that he was not really one of them, that his interests were not always theirs, that he knew them as little as they knew him. This gulf between the leader and the led was laid bare during the last year, as angry parishioners demonstrated outside Holy Cross Cathedral and priests signed an open letter calling for the resignation of the man to whom they had sworn allegiance.

The next archbishop of Boston will be chosen in Rome. We must hope, however, that officials there have learned something from the disaster of the last year. The new leader of the local Church need not have the comforting Boston accent of the interim administrator, Bishop Richard Lennon. He must, however, have the confidence of people here. He must be someone with the talent to manage the large institution that the archdiocese is, one that provides vital services to people of all faiths and of none. Even more important, he must be a person whose experience is in the real work of the Church—saying Mass, baptizing and marrying, listening to the spiritual longing of ordinary people, offering both the comforts and the challenges of religion—rather than in the hallways of the Vatican. The next archbishop must forswear the imperial style and be as willing to learn as to teach. Only then will he be able to restore the trust in his Church that was tragically undermined during the O’Connell century.

James M. O'Toole '72

James M. O’Toole, a professor of history at BC, is the author of Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O’Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston (1992) and Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family (2002). This essay is adapted from a January 12 Boston Globe article.

The Church in the 21st Century is a two-year initiative launched by Boston College in September 2002 in response to the crisis in the American Catholic Church. BCM will include a special section covering some of the initiative’s significant lectures, seminars, and public meetings.

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