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Spotlight Report

Selection seems driven first by local needs

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 7/2/2003

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he pope's selection of Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley to replace Cardinal Bernard F. Law as Boston's archbishop appears to give primacy to local needs over Rome's, breaking a pattern set during a contentious appointment process in Boston nearly a century ago, according to some historians and scholars.

Unlike all but one of his four predecessors in the last century, O'Malley did not make his clerical reputation in Rome, and he is now poised to become a prince of the church despite his lack of obvious personal ambition or Vatican connections, historians and scholars say.

Instead, they say, O'Malley's stock rose because of his record of cleaning up dioceses rocked by sexual abuse by clergy, which, along with his Irish heritage and his command of languages used by many of Boston's immigrant Catholics, made him a good fit here.

Still, others say that the century-old policy that gives precedence to Vatican interests over local ones is still in place, pointing to O'Malley's theological conservatism. They also suggest the true test of the appointment's historical significance will be how open O'Malley is to those who are critical of the hierarchy, especially lay groups and disenchanted priests.

Thomas H. O'Connor, a professor of history at Boston College and author of ''Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and its People,'' said the Vatican's apparent decision not to solicit the opinions of the archdiocese's priests and 2 million parishioners, despite the unprecedented upheaval, was ''a case of history repeating itself.''

But O'Connor said O'Malley's selection ''shows that the Vatican is taking local concerns into account more seriously than I and many others thought.''

''O'Malley has a reputation for listening, but who will he invite in? Who will he talk to? That will tell us a lot,'' he said.

Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest who edits America, a Catholic magazine published by his order, compared the situation in Boston to the one in Chicago three decades ago, when the contentious reign of Cardinal John Cody ended.

''In Chicago at the time, like Boston now, you had a lot of conflict between the archdiocese and [rank-and-file] priests,'' said Reese, author of ''Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church.'' He said the appointment shows ''the Vatican is not insensitive to the contingencies of a local situation and the need to get a crisis under control. They need someone with instant credibility who can hit the ground running.''

Throughout the 19th century, the Vatican deferred to local preferences when it came to naming American bishops. But that changed in the 20th century, when the Vatican, alarmed by a burgeoning independent streak in the Catholic Church in the United States, began picking Romanists, prelates whose first loyalty was not to their diocese, but to the Vatican.

James M. O'Toole, who teaches at Boston College and is author of ''Militant and Triumphant: William Henry O'Connell and the Catholic Church in Boston, 1859-1944,'' is among historians who trace this policy to Pope Pius X's decision in 1906 to tap O'Connell as Boston's archbishop. O'Toole calls the nearly 100 years that have followed ''the O'Connell century.''

When it became obvious that health problems would force Archbishop John Williams, Boston's spiritual leader from 1866 to 1907, to step down, the Vatican began searching for a successor. As had been the policy, there was a formal consultation of the bishops of New England and of ordinary pastors. Bishop Matthew Harkins of Providence, the overwhelming local favorite, ranked first of the three names forwarded to Rome.

O'Toole said that O'Connell, then bishop of Portland, Maine, wasn't even a finalist, but he was an Italian speaker and committed Romanist, a former rector of the American College in Rome who had raised money for Vatican projects. He used his connections to begin a whispering campaign against Harkins. As O'Toole notes in his book, O'Connell wrote to the Vatican, portraying himself as ''the innocent victim of Americanist intrigue.''

''Boston is at this moment in the balance between Rome and her enemies,'' O'Connell wrote.

When, to the shock and outrage of many Bostonians, O'Connell was installed as archbishop, he sought to quell dissension during his first homily at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, declaring, ''Rome has made her irrevocable decision.''

Many of O'Connell's colleagues were appalled by how the Vatican had ignored them. ''American bishops are treated like a lot of unreliable schoolboys,'' complained Bishop William Stang of Fall River, according to O'Toole's book.

Traditional deference to the hierarchy soon ended such open revolt, but resentment toward Rome lingered, and O'Connor contends it became a latent characteristic of Boston Catholics as they became more assimilated, better educated, more affluent, and less deferential.

O'Connell, meanwhile, ignored the begrudgers and his predecessor's spartan one-room apartment in the cathedral, built a palatial Italian Renaissance residence in Brighton, tooled around in a chauffeur-driven limousine during the Depression, and took so many foreign trips that Boston Catholics called him ''Gangplank Bill,'' though not to his face.

O'Toole said O'Connell's power play and the Vatican's decision to reward it transformed the selection process into one that was less sensitive to local wishes.

From 1981 to 1986, the Rev. Thomas Doyle was in charge of the process by which the pope's chief US emissary recommended American bishops for promotion. He said that during his tenure, soliciting opinion from lay people and local priests ''was done in the form of a letter, but it was really tokenism.''

While some historians view Rome's decision in 1944 to replace the scholarly but pompous O'Connell with the populist, anti-intellectual Boston-born Richard Cushing as ''giving one back to the locals,'' just as many see Cushing's selection being another case of Vatican politics.

O'Toole is among that latter group, which argues that Cushing's appointment was largely the work of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, who wanted to become the undisputed leader of the American hierarchy by ''blocking the appointment of a more potent rival in Boston.'' Spellman was widely blamed for the relatively long gap of 14 years between Cushing's installation as archbishop and his elevation to cardinal. Cushing did not make his reputation in Rome; in fact, he returned early from Vatican II deliberations, declaring that because they were being discussed in Latin and Italian he didn't know what was going on.

Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, Boston's first non-Irish archbishop, was born in the Azores and landed in Fall River as a teenager, but despite that local connection was seen as an outsider when he arrived as Cushing's replacement in 1970. He made his reputation as a scholar in Rome and then as a civil rights champion for Mexican farm workers in Texas. But O'Connor said that Medeiros's outsider status and his pious mannerisms gave him less credibility with Boston Catholics. Many Catholic school administrators ignored his directive that white students fleeing Boston public schools to avoid court-ordered desegregation should not be allowed to enroll in parochial schools.

His predecessor, Cushing, was beloved by many ordinary Catholics; he was one part parish priest, one part Irish ward boss. He chatted up old ladies outside three-deckers and put the arm on Boston's increasingly affluent Catholics, building a bevy of convents, schools, and churches, making the archdiocese the biggest property owner in the city.

''For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the American church was essentially an Irish church, and that much power concerned the Vatican,'' said O'Connor.

Medeiros, O'Connor said, was the antidote to the Irish bishop-cum-pol.

O'Malley's appointment has less to do with his surname and more to do with his ability to speak Spanish, Portuguese, and French, the first languages of many immigrants in the archdiocese, said Stephen Pope, a theologian at Boston College.

''Of course, in Boston,'' said Pope, ''the name doesn't hurt.''

Although he was a Harvard graduate, Law had no other Boston connections when he was chosen in 1984 to replace Medeiros.

''Law looked like a throwback to the Irish days, with his blue eyes and white hair, and I think a lot of the local pastors said, `Thank God, we've got one of our own back,' but he wasn't one of them, either,'' O'Connor said. ''At one level, Rome would say, `This will make them happy in Boston,' but these were archbishops who were known quantities and players in Rome, not in the archdiocese.''

Law had made his reputation as a civil rights champion in the Deep South of the 1960s, but once he came to racially polarized Boston in 1984, he made opposition to abortion his chief concern.

R. Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame theologian, said that O'Malley is, like Law, ''very prolife,'' but unlike Law, ''not in a condemnatory way.''

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 7/2/2003.
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