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  • Ambition and Arrogance: Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston and the American Catholic Church
  • Robert Emmett Curran
Ambition and Arrogance: Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston and the American Catholic Church. By Douglas J. Slawson. (San Diego: Cobalt Productions. 2007. Pp. xiv, 232. $17.95 paperback.)

This "is the story," Douglas J. Slawson writes, "of a man who forced his way to the top and then attempted to become spokesman of the American Catholic church" (p. x). The story of William O'Connell's exploitation of Roman connections, ideology, and questionably gained wealth to secure episcopal appointments to Portland and Boston as well as a red hat is a well-known one, notably from James M. O'Toole's excellent biography, Militant and Triumphant (1992). So too are the scandals that threatened O'Connell's position as Cardinal Archbishop of Boston and eventually destroyed his influence in both Rome and America. What is new here is Slawson's mining of archival sources, particularly Vatican ones, to delineate a depressingly full picture of O'Connell's use of money and playing of the Roman card to win Vatican support, to show the extent and persistence of the effort to remove O'Connell from Boston, and to underscore the connection between the cardinal's struggle for survival and the shaky beginnings of the National Catholic Welfare Conference.

William O'Connell came of age in a period when ultramontanism was in the ascendancy, marked by the establishment of national seminaries in Rome, the global outreach of Vatican control with the appointment of papal nuncios and apostolic delegates, the curtailing of national episcopal councils, the promotion of Roman-trained or Roman-minded candidates for bishoprics, and the affirmation of papal infallibility as the source of all spiritual authority. O'Connell early on cast his fortunes to that star. He was proud to be known, he once told a Vatican official, as one who "stood for Rome, for Roman views and for Roman sympathies." He was the chief loyalist of the Vatican in America and the protector of its interests and position. Utilizing his friends in high places in the Vatican, O'Connell was able to get himself appointed coadjutor archbishop of Boston in 1906, despite being the choice of neither Archbishop Williams nor the New England suffragans, by painting those nominated for the position as proponents of "Americanism," the condemned ecclesiastical ideology, and himself as one who had been passed over because of his Roman loyalty.

Once O'Connell succeeded Williams as the Boston ordinary, he began to pursue plans to Romanize his diocese and province, first with the ouster of the Americanist-tainted Sulpicians from the archdiocesan seminary, then with a series of unsuccessful efforts to install Roman-oriented bishops in New England sees. The Romanization campaign resulted in his alienating most of his suffragans, along with many others in the church in the region. In 1914 several of O'Connell's bishops in the New England province sought his ouster, on the grounds of his misusing diocesan funds (by 1907 it was estimated that he had an income, as archbishop, of between $150,000 and $200,000 a year), and for buying off a woman who had accused O'Connell's [End Page 177] personal chaplain of a breach of promise to marry. Events, in the form of Pius X's death and the advent of World War II, bought the prelate four years. When even more serious charges arose in 1919 involving O'Connell's sufferance of the secret marriages of two priests living in the cardinal's household—his chaplain and his chancellor, who happened to be his nephew—a new pope, Benedict XV, ordered O'Connell to remove his nephew as chancellor. O'Connell fought the order, but the nephew eventually resigned and left the priesthood, supposedly, according to some, with three quarters of a million dollars of the archdiocese's funds.

Two years later Louis Walsh, who had succeeded O'Connell as bishop of Portland, renewed the effort to remove the cardinal himself. Pope Benedict promised Walsh that if the bishop was able, in effect, to get at least fifteen other American prelates to support his...


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