Politics and the People's Prelate

Cardinal Richard Cushing Left
a Stamp on the Political Landscape

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff

Second of three articles.

“I’m no theologian,” Cardinal Richard Cushing liked to say.  His self-deprecating humor notwithstanding, Cushing had no trouble wading into battles theological, economic, parochial, and political.
His predecessor, the aristocratic, autocratic Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, had wielded statewide political clout that could make or break a man’s chances of holding any office from city councilor to governor.  The urbane cleric could – and did – steer his flock toward candidates he favored.
In virtually every way, the rough-hewn, genial Cushing, a son of South Boston and a man who had risen from a hardscrabble youth to a “prince of the church,” differed from the sophisticated O’Connell.  In one way, the two prelates were joined at the proverbial hip: each was committed to expanding and cementing the Catholic Church’s hard-won influence in Boston and beyond.  Cushing also reached out to the Jewish community and other denominations to advance the common good for the poor and the physically and mentally handicapped.
Cushing, named archbishop in 1944 and a cardinal in 1958, followed O’Connell’s blueprint for picking moments when church and political interests intersected, to Cushing’s way of thinking.  As historian Thomas H. O’Connor describes in his classics The Boston Irish: A Political History and Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People, Cushing first threw his influence in a decidedly public way behind a politician in 1949.  O’Connor writes:  “Coincidentally but significantly, the new archbishop’s ecumenical approach was also clearly in tune with the political exhortations of Mayor John B. Hynes, who had defeated James Michael Curley in November 1949 and who was urging the citizens of Boston to put aside their differences and work together for the renewal and reconstruction of the city.”
It was a momentous development, O’Connor notes, “to have the prestigious religious leader of the community voicing the same humanitarian ideals and moral sentiments as the city’s political leader…”
Cushing acknowledged that politics had always burned within him, and in a 1968 interview with Time, he revealed that, as a young man, he had once weighed politics as a career versus his evolving vocation:  “Originally, I wanted to be a politician.  I used to make money speaking for politicians from the back of wagons. I spoke for Jim Curley. I spoke for the suffragettes and the anti-suffragettes—anyone who would pay me. This was all outdoors—that’s how I developed this present style of talking indoors. Then the priest said, ‘If you do any more speaking for politicians or any other cause, I’m never going to give you a letter to the seminary.’”
Cushing’s long and close relationship with the Kennedys proved pivotal in John F. Kennedy’s landmark run for the presidency in 1960.  A man whose deep Irish roots defined his persona and his heart, Cushing’s rough-and-tumble Southie upbringing starkly contrasted with the “lace-curtain Irish” label that embodied the Kennedys long before John’s presidential campaign.  Cushing helped infuse even Irish Americans resentful of the Kennedys’ perceived “airs” with the idea that no matter what, the Kennedys had spring from the ould sod and a JFK triumph would prove once and for all that the Irish and Catholics had made it in America, had finally passed through the “Golden Door.”  Cushing also worked tirelessly to tamp down non-Catholics’ fears that a Kennedy victory would put the pope in the White House.  When the votes were counted – controversially in Chicago and West Virginia – and JFK was elected president, he owed much in political terms to the Boston cardinal.
In his long friendship with the Kennedys, Cushing’s loyalties were fierce, even if he chided family members in private for various transgressions.  He had married Jack and Jackie in 1953 in Newport, at a church fittingly designed by Irish immigrant and architect Patrick Kiely, who had also built Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.  Cushing baptized numerous children of the Kennedy clan, gave the invocation at JFK’s inauguration, in 1961, and delivered the eulogy at the slain president’s funeral mass in 1963 in Washington, D.C.
Proving every bit as formidable a friend as a prelate, Cushing publicly defended Jacqueline Kennedy when she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968.  Cushing received reams of hate mail for his unpopular stance and was even upbraided by the Vatican.
Until his death, in November 1970, Cardinal Richard Cushing had followed the design O’Connell had crafted for politics and religion, but Cushing added his own touches.  Without the aid of the South Boston cardinal, it is possible that John F. Kennedy might not have captured the White House.  Ted Kennedy offered apt words for his family’s friend and benefactor on Sept. 8, 1970:  “For three-quarters of a century [Cushing’s] life has been a light in a world that cries out for illumination. He will never have to account for his stewardship, for if his goodness is not known to God, no one’s ever will be.”

Next: The political impact and controversies of Cardinals Medeiros, Law, and O’Malley.