Bishops and Bosses: Changing Trends in Church-State Relations in Boston

Tom O'Connor
Boston College, University Historian

Date: September 9, 2003

Event Recap

Two dozen faculty and community members from across Boston crowded into the Boisi Center’s conference room on September 9th to hear the “Dean of Boston historians” Tom O’Connor share his thoughts in a presentation titled “Bishops and Bosses: Changing Trends in Church- State Relations in Boston.” O’Connor began by emphasizing the significance of the recent events that resulted in the highly publicized and scandal- ridden resignations of two Irish Catholic power brokers---Cardinal Bernard Law and William Bulger. O’Connor characterized the era in which these two men presided over political life in Boston as being marked by “separation, secrecy and silence.” Problems were handled behind closed doors, family loyalty was paramount, and there were high barriers of separation between the hierarchy and the clergy; the clergy and the laity; politicians and the electorate; and civilians and criminals.

Although O’Connor’s view is that the resignation of these men marks the end of an era, audience members raised theories of their own during the discussion period suggesting that the erosion of Irish Catholic power had begun even earlier. One audience member, a former editor at the Boston Globe, observed that significant changes were wrought in the power structure when the Boston Globe was purchased by the New York Times. This shift in ownership resulted in out of town editors being brought in who were more resistant to the “late night calls from the chancery” that he witnessed in an earlier era. Christopher Winship, from the Harvard sociology department, commented that the power balance also began shifting in the 1990’s when dot com money began to flow into Boston giving rise to a new kind of community leadership. There was also discussion about the role of non-Irish Catholic minority groups in Boston politics, the ethnic tribalism that seems to be a part of Boston’s character, and whether race and ethnicity still play as powerful a role in politics as they once did. True to historical form, O’Connor deferred a conclusive response to such predictions as a history yet to be written.