Lord Acton’s quotation concerning the corrupting effect of power is widely known. Less so is the fact that the target of his criticism on that particular occasion was the power possessed not by government but by church officials. Acton’s understanding of ecclesiastical authority (as distinct from power) is debatable, but his insight into human nature is not. A case study—not that we need another to file away in the vast archives of the history of human frailty—is the collapse of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
Philip Lawler documents the details in this skillfully written account of the triumphs and travails of Boston’s Catholics. The history is episodic rather than thorough, but Lawler chooses his episodes well. The bulk of his attention goes to the last forty years, and much of that is focused on the sexual abuse scandals of the last ten. For anyone who has followed these developments closely, there will be little in the way of new revelations. Yet Lawler’s style, at once sympathetic and bluntly critical, is engrossing. The devout Catholic reader who was dismayed by the character and scale of the abuse scandal will be drawn back to those unpleasant times when it seemed that each new day brought fresh reasons to be ashamed of one’s faith.
This kind of reaction is exactly what Lawler wants. The more tractable problems within the Catholic Church have been addressed, he admits, but the more difficult have not. Shame, indignation, even anger, are the emotions he wishes to incite in the faithful Catholic and in every friend of the church, for he doubts that the major unsolved problem will be tackled otherwise. That problem is the leadership of the church, the bishops, and that returns us to Acton’s quotation and to the story of Boston Catholicism.
Lawler’s account operates on three levels. In places it is a general history and assessment of Catholicism in the United States. It is the story of a tiny minority, its numbers swelled by immigration and high birth rates, gradually gaining economic, cultural, and political clout. The second level is the local church in Boston, whose story comprises the largest part of the book. Lawler brilliantly evokes the personalities of Boston’s prelates, from Cardinals O’Connell (1930s), to Cushing (1950s), to Medeiros (1970s), to Law (1990s). In fact, one might interpret the book as a critical assessment of Boston’s bishops.
It is more than that, though. It is an account of the relationship between the archdiocese’s shepherds and their flock. Lawler possesses a significant attribute that presses him never to lose sight of the laity: he is one of them. Lawler’s personal involvement in parts of the story is the third level, lending it an emotional edge that never slips into maudlin self-pity or self-righteous apologia.
The book opens with an anecdote demonstrating episcopal power: Cardinal William O’Connell’s single-handed quashing of a proposed state lottery in 1935. It was a time when archdiocesan leadership carried appellations such as “Number 1“ (Boston’s O’Connell) and “The Powerhouse“ (New York’s Spellman).
As Lawler recognizes, however, political influence for American bishops is built not on government prerogative but on spiritual authority. Bishops’ “power,“ and by extension the church’s “power,“ in the secular sense depends utterly on their ability to command allegiance in the spiritual realm. O’Connell’s impact on legislation derived not from constitutionally enumerated powers, but from his capacity as respected head of a united community of believers. One might say that the power was the laity’s, and the bishop was their mouthpiece.
Gradually this spiritual authority dissipated. The reasons are many, and one can read about them in any number of books printed over the past forty years. Catholics in the latter half of the twentieth century became virtually indistinguishable from other Americans, most critically in areas that contradicted the official positions of their church: contraception, divorce, and abortion politics. Simultaneously, bishops squandered their authority by making ill-advised stands on policy issues less central to the moral teaching of the church and failing to support vig- orously those Catholics who remained committed to the traditional teachings.
The value of Lawler’s account is that it avoids the easy story lines so common in analyses of the Catholic Church in the post-Vatican II era. Fully appreciative of the assets of early twentieth-century Boston Catholicism, Lawler never dons rose-colored glasses that would blind him to the fact that the apparently indomitable church bore within it the seeds of decline. The sorry state of the Boston church in 2009 cannot be blamed solely on the inadequacies of the post-Vatican II era. At the apex of its influence before the council, the church in Boston confused the spiritual and temporal realms.
The Democratic political machine that provided ladders to success so desperately needed by impoverished immigrants also lured the church into cooperation with the expanding government of the New Deal and Great Society eras. Presiding over a coherent and devoted laity, Boston’s archbishops enjoyed the perquisites of secu- lar esteem. They enjoyed them so well that they forgot that such deference came grudgingly from a non-Catholic world and, with the crumbling of the spiritual authority at the foundation of the edifice, would be quickly withdrawn.
“From the first days of the Catholic ascendancy,“ Lawler writes, “church leaders in Boston experienced the temptation to build up that influence and power for their own sake, rather than nurturing the religious solidarity on which they depended. Cardinals became preoccupied with the needs of the archdiocese as a secular institution, sometimes even to the detriment of the archdio- cese as a community of faith“ (248).
There is incalculable wisdom in those words, and it is applicable to all religious groups. American Catholics and their bishops have not yet learned the lesson, Lawler thinks, and the evidence is with him. Lord Acton’s warning about power, however famous it may be, has not been taken seriously often enough.
Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute.