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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1992

The Cardinal of Repression

Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944

by James M. O'Toole
University of Notre Dame Press, $28.95

by James Carroll

AMERICAN Catholics have known what it is to be attacked by the narrow-minded and prejudiced among their fellow countrymen, but the full possibilities of American Catholic contributions to the life of the universal Church have also been under sporadic attack -- from Rome itself. For more than a century Catholics who have valued the "American" virtues of democracy and pluralism, and have waited for the Church to become more tolerant of differences, more fully catholic, have been in turn rejected and accepted by those in Church authority. Lately, after the momentous acceptance of American Catholicism under Pope John XXIII and Vatican Council II, in the early 1960s, the cycle has turned again. Repeating a tragic mistake, Roman Catholicism is doing its best to repudiate one of the Church's most promising traditions.

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  • When Pope Paul VI solemnly reaffirmed the Catholic Church's condem nation of "artificial birth control" in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, most observers outside the Church and many inside, especially liberals, thought his reaffirmation was a historic mistake. Today, in Europe and North America, as the Pope's critics predicted would be the case, the prohibition is ignored: polls and birth rates show that Catholic use of contraception is no different from non-Catholic use. In the developing countries of, say, Latin America, where the Church is strong, soaring populations almost certainly have more to do with economic and other cultural factors than with simple acquiescence to papal authority. Yet though it has harmed the Roman Church, Humanae Vitae may have saved Roman Catholicism, by undercutting one of the most misguided propositions the Church ever promulgated as a central tenet of the faith: the doctrine of papal infallibility.

    Strictly speaking, Humanae Vitae was not issued as an infallible papal statement, but it was imposed on Catholics with the full weight of papal authority. It has been vigorously defended by bishops, some of whom defrocked priests who refused to teach it. The present Pope has made it clear that he regards Humanae Vitae as absolutely binding. In rejecting the teaching on birth control, Catholics have rejected the unquestioned authority of the papacy and have, simultaneously, drastically weakened whatever claim the doctrine of papal infallibility had on the Catholic conscience.

    Even at the height of the papacy's temporal power, when medieval and Renaissance popes deposed emperors, appointed kings, and divided the world among competing colonizers; even during the Reformation, when popes fought Protestants to the death and excommunicated half of Europe, the universal Church's ancient claim to "inerrancy" in its mission of handing on the Gospel was not formally restricted to the person of the Bishop of Rome. The claim that the Pope, teaching ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, was exempt from the capacity for error was not solemnly made until 1870 -- as an act of the fathers gathered at the First Vatican Council. They were moved to make this extraordinary proclamation as a kind of compensation for losing the last remaining temporal holdings of the papacy to King Victor Emmanuel II, in the same period. The Papal States had once stretched from coast to coast across Italy, but from then on the Pope's worldly sway was to extend only to the hundred-odd acres of Vatican City. The fathers of the council saw to it that the spiritual sovereignty of Peter's successor would be as absolute as possible -- far more absolute than Peter's authority had ever been.

    The story of the Catholic Church from 1870 through the first half of the twentieth century, ending with Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, is the story of an efficient, ever extending spiritual imperialism under the banner of papal infallibility. That proposition has politicized -- and parochialized -- the New Testament notion of the Holy Spirit's enduring presence in the Church. Future generations of Catholics will surely seek to explain away this astounding doctrine with ever more arcane redefinitions, much as this generation explains away the once solemn doctrine of no salvation outside the Church. The key to the papacy's success in solidifying its hold over the soul of the Church was not the virtue of the men who held the office or the clarity of their moral vision but a far simpler thing: the Pope's expanded authority to appoint bishops without regard for the preferences of local churches. The Pope controls dioceses and archdioceses around the world by making sure they are administered by men whose first loyalty is to him. Nothing demonstrates the significance of this power better than the career of Boston's flamboyant Cardinal Archbishop William Henry O'Connell.

    AT THE TURN of the century the incubator for Romanita, the extension of papal control to the United States, was the North American College in Rome, and its rector was a forty-one-year-old priest from Lowell, Massachusetts, named William Henry O'Connell. It is no coincidence that not long after Leo XIII condemned the heresy of "Americanism," in 1899, he made O'Connell a bishop and sent him back to the United States as the head of the diocese of Portland, Maine. Promoted to Boston in 1906, O'Connell was to be the Pope's leading agent against a New World movement that threatened to infect Catholicism with the dangerous -- and "Protestant" -- ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, separation of Church and State, and democracy. Americanism was associated with the ideas of Isaac Hecker, a convert to Catholicism and the founder of the Paulist Fathers. Hecker had been a member of the Transcendentalist commune at Brook Farm and an intimate of Henry David Thoreau and Orestes Brownson. Hecker's argument that the American experiment could revitalize a moribund European Catholicism stood on a central theological pillar: the notion that the Holy Spirit acts through the entire people of God, and not just through the hierarchy. That idea, of course, would ultimately be affirmed by Vatican II, but in 1899 it was condemned as heresy.

    Despite Vatican II, the present Pope, John Paul II, seems as suspicious of Americanist ideas as any of his predecessors. The current, obvious division of the Catholic Church between forces of the hierarchy that value conformity and control, centralized in Rome, and those that regard differences, whether of national identity, political program, or theological nuance, as enriching and inevitable aspects of true catholicity is illuminated in James M. O'Toole's new biography, which tells O'Connell's story with dispassionate judiciousness, but also with a sharp eye on the story's significance for the disheartening detour that the Catholic Church has taken in this century.

    ALTHOUGH HE was succeeded by the folk-hero archbishop, Richard Cardinal Cushing, O'Connell is still legendary in Boston. John F. Fitzgerald was mayor when O'Connell came down from Portland. Like Fitzgerald, and like Fitzgerald's successor as mayor, James Michael Curley, O'Connell would be, in O'Toole's phrase, "both agent and avatar" of the social, political, and economic arrival of Catholics in Boston, especially the Irish.

    Archbishop O'Connell was a large, gaudy figure who aped Old World styles and tastes. He was a Roman prince, after all. When, in a sermon marking the centennial of the Boston diocese, he declared, "The Puritan has passed; the Catholic remains," he was implicitly enlisting the great Catholic geniuses of intellect and art, so many of them sponsored over the centuries by the papacy itself, in the battle against the austere, forever condescending Yankee Protestants of Boston and Massachusetts. His predecessor, Archbishop John J. Williams, had lived modestly in an anonymous room in a priests' rectory in the South End; O'Connell immediately took up residence in an ostentatious mansion in the Back Bay, a district in which the Irish had lived only under the eaves, as servants. Curley led the charge in those years, but O'Connell and the imperial religious spirit he embodied were a crucial part of the historic transformation of immigrant consciousness from self-doubt to self-assertion.

    O'Toole compares O'Connell to Theodore Roosevelt, as well as to Fitzgerald and Curley, as a leader who instinctively understood the symbolic hero's role that his people needed him to play His "advent to power coincided with the expansion of mass journalism. . . ." O'Connell cultivated celebrity in Boston and used it to advance his two-fold agenda: undercutting the power of the Yankee establishment, and expanding the power of the Vatican over American Church affairs. He developed a style that bishops in the United States continue to emulate -- aggressive on public matters in which the Church has a clear stake (for example, abortion and public funding for parochial schools) and indifferent to matters that do not directly impinge on Church turf. (Judging by O'Toole's narrative, O'Connell had nothing of significance to say about women's suffrage, the First World War, the Depression, or the virulent anti-Semitism of some Boston Irish Catholics.) Unlike most of the American bishops who preceded him, most of those who have come after O'Connell could take as their motto his statement "We turn Romeward as naturally . . . as the needle seeks the North."

    If O'Connell was, in a way, the first Church celebrity in the United States, O'Toole's book is no mere celebrity biography. But in its most vividly written chapter it does, ironically, adopt the breathlessness of expose that has so trivialized public discussion recently. O'Toole describes the scandalous behavior of O'Connell's closest associates, the priests who were the instruments of his fierce control over the Church, "Romanizers" all, who styled themselves "Il Circolo." Apparently they loved Rome not only for its spiritual meaning but also for la dolce vita. Unconsciously acting out the lurid stereotypes of priest-baiting anti-Catholics, they threw "raucous dinner parties" that, according to one observer, featured "enough liquors to sink a battleship," and, at least once, menu cards "so indecent" that the printer was shocked. In his absence, again at least once, the cardinal's favorite priests brought women to his Back Bay residence; rumor had it that the sanctity of the cardinal's own bed was violated. These priests were embezzlers and liars. At least two, including the cardinal's beloved nephew, the archdiocesan chancellor, were secretly married, leading double lives with wives and families in other cities. O'Toole portrays O'Connell as a secret coward who, if not one of these villains, was at their mercy for years. He even lied to the Pope's face to protect them -- Il Papa! -- because, O'Toole's narrative suggests, O'Connell was an active homosexual with secrets of his own to hide. Not even the scholarly O'Toole, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, can avoid a seeming relish as he hoists the cardinal on his own sex-as-mortal-sin petard. (When John Cooney's The American Pope was published, in 1984, much was made of its report of rumors about the alleged homosexuality of Francis Cardinal Spellman -- who as a young Boston priest had worked for O'Connell.)

    The reduction in U.S. politics of the so-called character issue to matters of sexuality has been unfortunate precisely because it exempts from moral analysis a leader's public record. The real moral crises of our time have far more to do with the wielding of power, economics, racial justice, and international relations than with sexuality.

    But in fact on this score the Catholic Church is different. Sex is relevant as a public, ecclesiastical issue, in ways it may not be in secular society, and O'Toole's focus on sexual scandal is appropriate. One is tempted to argue, perhaps, that O'Connell should be judged on what his four decades as the Romanizing leader of the Catholic Church in Boston did to the structures of the Church in America. O'Connell may have enabled immigrants to feel vicariously that they had arrived, but he also legitimized and perpetuated some of the worst tendencies in the episcopate: the identification with wealth, an authoritarian disregard for dissent, an overly clericalized view of the Church, a marked condescension toward women. From the point of view of Catholics who continue to value democracy and pluralism, O'Connell was the first of many disasters, even if one focuses only on institutional issues.

    But notorious facts of sexual deceit are to the point here, even if they confirm what Catholics always denounced as outrageous libels, because in the Catholic Church questions of sexuality are grossly manipulated for purposes of institutional power. O'Toole does not make this point directly, but his thorough documentation of sordid and secret decadence speaks volumes about what outwardly repressive regimes like O'Connell's really mean.

    In the papacy's effort to extend its absolute control over the inner lives of Catholics, teachings on sexual morality (birth control, but also abortion, divorce, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, sex education in public schools, and the role of women generally) have been and continue to be its chief instrument. Even the establishment figures of the celibate clergy are human beings, no more exempt from the ambiguous, restless, and sometimes destructive energy of sexuality than any of the rest of us. But when they seek to control the lives of millions of men and women chiefly by denying that very ambiguity, then for once the sexual is essentially political and should be seen as such.

    That there was a sexual lie at the heart of William Henry O'Connell's achievement as an agent of the Pope's dominion over the American Church seems to carry a perverse justice with it, like the perverse justice according to which increasing numbers of Catholic priests are exposed today as sexual misfits. After all this time -- 122 years since the doctrine of papal infallibility was proclaimed; twenty-four years since Pope Paul VI condemned birth control, nearly three years since Pope John Paul II rejected the use of condoms even to prevent the spread of AIDS -- it has become apparent to many people, including Catholics, that there is a sexual lie at the heart of official Church teaching. That deception has tragic consequences, both for the burdened men charged with maintaining it and for the many who look to Church leaders for images of integrity and faith.

    But the Church is more than its leaders. The increased willingness of Catholics to trust their own consciences, even in grave violation of official teaching, represents the long overdue beginning of a new era in the life of the Church, one that builds on earlier, unrealized impulses. Ironically, William Henry O'Connell, by helping two generations of American Catholics to overcome an immigrant legacy of self-doubt and to arm themselves against the assaults of anti-Catholic stereotypes, thereby sowed the seeds of this harvest. American Catholics, with the Church's help, reshaped America; "heretics" still, they are now reshaping the Church.

    Copyright © 1992 by James Carroll. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1992; The Cardinal of Repression; Volume 270, No. 1; pages 90 - 95.

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