Austin Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy may be retired, but he can hardly be considered “retiring” at the fine age of 86.
Preparing this week to celebrate his 60th anniversary of being ordained to the priesthood, McCarthy remains a beloved figure in Austin. He can frequently be found at parishes conducting masses as a guest priest, speaking at new church dedication, and just a few years ago was promoting his book “Off the Cuff & Over the Collar: Common Sense Catholicism.” Always gregarious with a wicked sense of humor, even if slowed some by age, McCarthy retains his lack of shyness about sharing his thoughts on developments in the Roman Catholic Church.
His 50th anniversary was celebrated in Houston, but this anniversary mass on Thursday is at my home parish, St. Theresa Catholic Church. (He was first ordained as a bishop at St. Theresa’s in Houston, a parish where he served as pastor.) I spoke to McCarthy a few days ago. Though his voice may not be as strong as it once was, he was quick to assert that he is feeling quite fine and he continues to be excited by the developments in the church under the leadership of Pope Francis.
Being a retired bishop is not easy. McCarthy has long been considered more liberal than his successors, Bishop Gregory Aymond (2001 to 2009) and now Bishop Joe Vasquez. Both men studiously gave McCarthy space and generally avoiding direct criticism of McCarthy’s views years since his retirement.
While bishop, McCarthy took heat from the Vatican for allowing Brackenridge Hospital, the city-owned hospital run by Seton, to perform tubal ligations, which conflicts with church law on birth control and was eventually discontinued at the behest of the Vatican. He also asked Rome to defrock an abusive priest in 1987.
McCarthy has also taken heat on the issue of priestly celibacy, writing 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. McCarthy fought the death penalty and racial injustice during his posts in Houston and in Austin, well before it was fashionable to do so.
In 2013, during an interview with American-Statesman’s Joe Gross about his book, he talked a bit more about how he sees the crisis of the priesthood.
“In the Catholic Church, the priesthood is the organizing tool, McCarthy says. “He makes possible the sacraments and they make Jesus Christ present in the material world. Since we are dependent on the sacraments, we are dependent on the priesthood. So to build new, smaller communities, you need more priests. And that might mean married priests. It might mean woman priests.”
So, for McCarthy, news that Pope Francis is open to female deacons is welcome indeed, as is the pope’s overriding message of mercy. In observance of his anniversary he submitted his own retrospective for publication. You can find the essay in its entirety here, but very telling is this small excerpt.
The Catholic Church today has approximately 3,500 laws, mostly insignificant policies or directives, but their legalism has hurt people by the millions. I see Pope Francis as gradually, painfully trying to change that, which is joyful for me. I think the Holy Father and I share a belief in the utter simplicity and centrality of love in our Catholic faith.
Personally, I count the bishop as one of the instruments in my path to the Catholic faith. Raised a Southern Baptist my interactions with Catholics were few and far between. The bishop would host Christmas parties for journalists and others at his residence and I was struck by his openness to questioning on matters of faith and commitment to social justice.
There would be many years and other men and women of faith that would guide me, before I decided to join the church in 2007, but Bishop McCarthy was among the first.
Peace be with with you, Bishop McCarthy.