Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Too Severe a Judgment?

Cardinals Gibbons and
O'Connell--not a mutual
admiration society
I had mentioned in the previous blog that among the horses’ asses honored with a miter (and later with a Cardinal’s hat) in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States was William O’Connell who from 1907 until 1944 was Archbishop of Boston.  Some have thought I was too severe on O’Connell and other named prelates in this judgment but I think the history bears out O’Connell’s reputation for one of the most undeserving of men to rise to power in the American Church.  Sean Winter, writing two years ago for the National Catholic Reporter, and comparing the tragedy of O’Connell’s rise to that of the equally fatuous Cardinal Raymond Burke in an essay “Gibbons Cried,” wrote:

It is said that when, in 1911, James Cardinal Gibbons learned that Archbishop William Henry O'Connell was named a cardinal, Gibbons cried. O'Connell was referred to at the time, by a woman who worked at the Vatican, Ella Edes, as "Monsignor Pomposity." He was most known for his efforts to have the U.S. Bishops Conference disbanded and his opposition to laws against child labor.

Cardinal Gibbons was no enthusiast for O’Connell whom he recognized not only as lacking in ability but strident in his antediluvian views on social reform.  Not only did he oppose laws outlawing child labor but he ridiculed the theories of Albert Einstein, suggested that priests refuse communion to women wearing makeup, and decried such singers as Al Jolson for their “crooning” which he considered effeminate.   
O’Connell’s promotion in the American Church was due to his sycophancy towards Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, the Machiavellian Secretary of State of Pius X.   O’Connell was to prove a major embarrassment to the Church over the years of his Cardinaliate.  His nephew, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, was aware of the Cardinals’ homosexual affair with a married judge and used the knowledge to cover his own embezzlement of funds from the Archdiocese to support a secret wife.  O’Connell had made the nephew, a Monsignor James O’Connell, chancellor of the Archdiocese, a position which gave him access to diocesan monies.  The nephew secretly married a woman in Ohio in 1913.  His secret was safe as long as Merry del Val was running the Vatican.  Merry del Val fell from power with the death of Pius X in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I.  In 1922 when confronted about his nephew, O’Connell lied to the newly elected Pius XI—and was caught in the lie—which sealed his fall from influence in Rome but not from power in the American Church where he continued to exercise a bullying influence over the other bishops especially after the death of Cardinal Gibbons in 1921.  O’Connell found an unholy ally in Cardinal Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia in attempts to suppress the emergence of a national bishop’s conference.  O’Connell and Dougherty believing their position as Cardinals should have given them authority over the other bishops and rendering any sort of consultative body superfluous.  O’Connell died in 1944—but there are humorous stories there as well.  Perhaps next time.    

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