David Brinkley in his 1989 book, Washington Goes to War, describes the World War II metamorphosis of the capital city from "a small Southern town that happened to host our nationally elected officials," to "the hub of international [End Page 725] affairs and government." Morris MacGregor provides a similar service ecclesiastically as he chronicles the life of Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle. The cardinal's nearly quarter-century (1949-1973) as first resident archbishop of Washington witnessed not only the growth of the Catholic presence in the area, but also the emergence of a Catholic Washington identity both at home and abroad. Although the book covers O'Boyle's entire life, his earlier years seem to be primarily a preparation for his time in the nation's capital.
In a very readable biography, MacGregor traces O'Boyle's roots in early twentieth-century working-class Scranton, and his first parish experience in St. Columba's, an "On the Waterfront" parish in New York City's Chelsea District. Both experiences had a strong impact on the future cardinal, and would help prepare him for a twenty-two-year career in the large and complex network of New York Catholic Charities. O'Boyle's organizational skills and success in bringing modern social service principles and practices, which he studied at the New York School of Social Work, to archdiocesan agencies such as the Catholic Guardian Society and the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, helped propel him onto the national scene as well. During the 1930's and 1940's he rendered service to the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the National Catholic School of Social Service, and War Relief Services (WRS).
O'Boyle's presence on the Washington scene at WRS and his ability in dealing with governmental and non-governmental agencies during the war and postwar periods caught the attention of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani. Add in O'Boyle's organizational skills, and he was a logical choice to help organize a newly-activated archdiocese in the national capital in 1949. For many people, the memory of O'Boyle's Washington years is that of an archconservative, beleaguered prelate dealing with difficulty with issues of post conciliar theological dissent and academic freedom at The Catholic University of America, and with the 1968 controversy sparked by the papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae. While treating those controversies thoroughly and fairly, MacGregor does not let them overshadow the accomplishments of the O'Boyle years, including his sterling record on labor relations, and his work on behalf of the Declaration on Religious Liberty at the Second Vatican Council. In particular, his ground-breaking, determined, yet measured, efforts on behalf of racial integration in Washington and southern Maryland cast O'Boyle as a visionary religious leader, and balance what some may regard as his heavy-handedness in later controversies.
The author's task was not necessarily an easy one. Unlike other prelates with an interest in history and, perhaps, even an eye toward their own place in it, O'Boyle seemed almost cavalier about leaving a record of his time and work. MacGregor seems almost apologetic that, "to a great extent this biography depends on interviews" (p. 406). But the forty-eight interviews with a wide range of O'Boyle's family, friends, co-workers, and opponents are actually a strength of the book. The interviews provide a nuanced and human picture of [End Page 726] the cardinal that would be the envy of many biographers. For example, his cousins' reminiscences about O'Boyle's palpable anguish over the priests departing the ministry during the birth control controversy (p. 365) are an insight not normally gleaned from chancery office correspondence and add greatly to the appeal of this book.
As with any work, there are minor errors, especially toward the end of the book, that another editing-run might have picked up. For example, the Greek Melkite Patriarch of Antioch during the Council was Maximos IV...