With 50 years as a priest behind him, retired Diocese of Austin bishop envisions Roman Catholicism for the future.
By Eileen E. Flynn AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Monday, June 05, 2006
Bishop John McCarthy writes everything down on neatly organized pieces of scrap paper: household tasks, phone messages and, on a recent morning, a list of his dreams for the Roman Catholic Church.
McCarthy is conscious of his life passing — at age 75, the days are precious — and of the possibilities he imagines for the institution to which he has given his life.
He's promoting reform in an institution famous for its resistance to change, taking public stands on controversial issues such as celibacy and divorce that have put him at odds, privately, with the Catholic hierarchy over the years.
He's known by friends and admirers, hundreds of whom helped him celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest at a special Mass in Houston on Sunday, as a champion for the oppressed and a man unafraid to challenge authority.
But McCarthy, who led the Diocese of Austin from 1986 to 2001, believes he's merely offering loving criticisms, not throwing grenades from the safety of retirement.
A hopefulness lights his blue eyes when he talks about the church's worldwide growth, but there's worry on his face, too.
Because of the priest shortage and church law on marriage, McCarthy says, millions aren't receiving the Eucharist, the communion wafer that Catholics believe literally becomes the body of Christ during Mass.
He would like to see the church reconsider its rules on priestly celibacy and the denial of communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried. He envisions bishops becoming more accountable to lay people and establishing a vehicle for change through more frequent gatherings of Catholic leaders worldwide (much like the historic second Vatican council in the 1960s but on a smaller scale).
"Our goal ought to be a better world, a better world for Roman Catholics, a better world for Muslims, a better world for everybody," he said. "That's a tremendous challenge before us."
Six years into his retirement, McCarthy has eased into a quieter existence. He moves slowly, often feels tired and spends his days "reading, writing and telephoning" at his diocese-owned house, an airy Spanish-style mansion in Northwest Austin.
A simple coffin he bought years ago serves as a bookcase for his volumes of Irish folklore and literature, standing against a wall near the back door, useful even before its final purpose.
"You're going to die," he says. "You might as well be ready."
He approaches the decline of priests and the changing face of the church with a similar pragmatism.
In the past four decades, the number of priests serving in the United States has dropped from about 58,600 to about 43,300, while the American Catholic population has risen from 45.6 million to 64.3 million, according to church reports.
Before his retirement, McCarthy wrote letters to the Vatican and to his fellow U. S. and Texas bishops, urging them to confront what he saw as a looming crisis and to consider a possible solution: optional celibacy. These days, he wants to share his ideas with a broader audience.
McCarthy doesn't have a specific plan in mind, but he makes clear that he doesn't want to scrap the centuries-old tradition of priests abstaining from marriage and sexual intimacy.
Celibacy "has been a terrific gift in the life of the church for the last thousand years," said McCarthy, adding pointedly, "It was not dominant for the first thousand years."
In the 1980s, the church began making exceptions to the celibacy rule by allowing married Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism to serve as priests, but it has otherwise reaffirmed its stance on mandatory celibacy.
The lack of priests has left some parishes without a resident pastor and forced many to close or merge. The U. S. church frequently turns to foreign priests to meet its needs.
The most devastating consequence, McCarthy says, is that there are people who do not have access to the Eucharist because there are no priests to consecrate the wafer and wine.
"The priesthood and the Eucharist in the Catholic Church cannot be separated," he said, "and we cannot bring the Eucharist to people without priests. The present system of utilizing the priesthood has got to be examined."
But McCarthy has had little luck convincing church leaders. Fellow bishops and Vatican officials either ignored his letters or responded politely but did not pursue his suggestions.
Louise Haggett, founder and president of rentapriest. com, an organization that supports men who have left the priesthood to marry, says many bishops are afraid to challenge the rules. McCarthy, she says, is a rare example of someone "willing to make public his views on the rejuvenation of the church."
Friends say McCarthy has always spoken his mind while remaining, as longtime friend Pat Hayes says, "right down to his toes, a man of the church."
"His desire that in the church there's an open dialogue about things is rooted in a deep love for the church and faithfulness to the church," said Hayes, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Seton Healthcare Network and past president of St. Edward's University, a Catholic college in South Austin.
McCarthy, a native Houstonian, began his career in Pasadena, a blue-collar industrial town south of Houston. He served at several churches and began a steady ascent through the ranks, working for national church bodies in Washington and leading the Texas Catholic Conference in Austin.
All the while, says Patrick Flood, a former priest and Austin interfaith leader, McCarthy used his sharp tongue against the establishment.
When McCarthy was appointed head of the bishops' committee for Spanish-speaking Catholics, which was staffed by Anglos, he made sure his successor was Hispanic. In the 1960s and 1970s, he served the national church on social action issues, lobbying the government on open housing and voter rights.
Flood and McCarthy helped found the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a national church organization that provides millions of dollars in grants to grass-roots organizations serving poor communities.
In those tumultuous days, when social activism was a key component to church life, priests longed to offer a prophetic voice, and McCarthy fit that bill, Flood says.
When he became bishop of Austin, McCarthy met other challenges. The largely rural, 25-county diocese was poised for rapid growth. During his tenure, the Catholic population more than doubled.
McCarthy spent hours covering the diocese's 22,000 square miles, guiding some 200 priests and interacting with a diverse flock that included new Vietnamese immigrants and fifth-generation Anglo Texans.
Because the bishop's office wields so much power, he says, he could solve the problems he had time to address. As bishop, he said, "it was easier to make decisions."
But not all decisions were easy.
McCarthy took heat from the Vatican for allowing Brackenridge Hospital, run by Seton, to perform tubal ligations, which conflicts with church law on birth control. He also carried out the unpleasant task of asking Rome to defrock an abusive priest in 1987.
McCarthy says his approach in that case reflects his general philosophy on handling a problem: "Deal with it aggressively and as forcefully as you can immediately."
He says bishops could have stemmed the sexual abuse crisis by taking that attitude and trusting lay people with the truth instead of covering up the scandal, a lesson on accountability and transparency he hopes the church will heed.
Bishop Gregory Aymond generally avoids addressing McCarthy's views, but he speaks warmly of his predecessor. "We thank him for saying yes to God not only on the day of his ordination but for every day of 50 years," Aymond said.
Since his retirement, McCarthy has repeatedly said that the diocese needs only one bishop and has remained in the background. But as he scans his list of dreams scrawled on scrap paper, McCarthy says he's still moved by the needs of Catholics, including those alienated from the church because of divorce.
Millions can't receive the Eucharist because church policy bans Catholics who have divorced and remarried from taking communion, he says. He quickly adds that he doesn't want the church to turn a blind eye to "flippant" marriages and divorces or to alter its theology, which states that marriage is indissoluble unless deemed invalid by the church and that those who divorce and remarry commit adultery.
"But when the situation goes by for years and people who are believing Catholics who believe that the Eucharist contains the reality of Jesus' presence in their lives, to tell them they can't (receive communion) because of a terrible mistake they made 18 years ago," he said, "no, I don't hold it."
McCarthy knows how difficult it is to change a 2,000-year-old institution. "Substantial change will only occur when and if our holy father decides that substantial change is necessary," he said of the pope.
Convening councils of bishops worldwide every 10 years might provide a "comfortable, manageable vehicle" for reforms, McCarthy says.
The last such council, known as Vatican II, was in the 1960s. It lasted four years and resulted in major reforms, including accepting the validity of other Christian faiths and dropping the requirement for Mass to be celebrated in Latin.
McCarthy may not live to see the next major reforms of the church, but "the last of the progressive bishops," as Flood called him, is not discouraged.
He has faith that, given time, the church will make the reforms necessary to be "a servant to the world."
"I may be naive," he said, "but I think that we're moving into a time where we're beginning to see that."