Austin Ain't Boys' Town

Meet the Most Reverend John McCarthy

photograph by Minh Carrico
There's an old joke that goes, "The day you become a bishop, you will never again have a bad meal or hear the truth." No offense, but Bishop John McCarthy, who presides over the Catholic Diocese of Austin, has heard that one before. He's had plenty of bad meals since his appointment on December 24, 1985, he says -- and, cleaving to his hard-fought image as a church leader whose feet do touch the ground, he claims he's had healthy portions of truth served to him as well.

The 66-year-old Houston native likens his role among the diocese's 270,000 Catholics, spread out among 89 parishes in 26 counties, to that of a fireman. Congregations will always have petty differences that the bishop helps iron out, but more often, the concerns of these congregations are fairly serious. About a third of the participation in Austin Interfaith, a coalition of area churches and synagogues organized around issues of equity and justice, is from Catholic churches. While there's no rule that the bishop must give the nod on all the groups' activities, Interfaith leaders say that his approval, even if it's only tacit, is incredibly valuable to their success. The bishop can not only open doors that used to be closed, but throw emotional support to people who never had it before.

"It can make all the difference," said Willie Bennett, a spokesman for Interfaith. "When you have your spiritual leader saying, `Yes,' then it gives you permission to go on."

With a view toward combating reductions in federal welfare assistance, McCarthy has also helped launch a project with State Comptroller John Sharp called Family Pathfinders. In it, church groups, fraternal organizations, as well as private entities, each work for a year with one family in trouble, listening to them, helping them learn to better use what money they have, encouraging them to get more education, and reviewing job application techniques.

And under McCarthy's reign, Central Texas Catholics have also expanded community and social outreach ministries to include such matters as counseling against domestic violence and caring for people with AIDS. The latter ministry has won the bishop some cheers -- and jeers. On the one hand, Austin Catholics were a bit slow to climb on board with AIDS care until McCarthy stepped in. And on the other, the church is still only doing the least it can do, says at least one critic. "The diocese has done wonderful things for people dying of AIDS," said Jose Orta, project director for Austin Latino Lesbian Gay Organization (ALLGO) Informe SIDA, "but nothing for people living with HIV, or for the spread of AIDS." (Orta and McCarthy have been at loggerheads, trading correspondence for months on the issue.)

The following are excerpts from interviews conducted with bishop last month. We asked him about the "job" of bishop, a few burning questions on Catholicism, and sought his opinion on some issues of the day.

AC: What is the annual revenue of the Diocese of Austin?

JM: About $3 million cash flow, at the diocesan level [which represents 8% of an annual, one-time offering from all parishes]. At the parish level, I would guess that all the offertory collections at all the churches would be $35 million... [The diocese's] real estate is worth about $300 million.

AC: What is the relationship of the Diocese of Austin, ultimately, to the Vatican?

JM: First of all, the Vatican is just a set of buildings... All the Pope is, is the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic church has an extraordinarily simple organizational structure. Authority is located at three levels -- the parish priest or pastor, the diocesan bishop, and the Bishop of Rome... The Bishop of Rome is the leading bishop of the world. But governmentally, he's my only boss.

AC: But do you have to write the Vatican a check every five years?

JM: No. We take up a collection every year, and I used to be in charge of it for the country. We call it "Peter's Pence" collection. It's a freewill offering from the people. We take it up and send it on. It amounts, in this country, to about $15 million.

AC: What is the mission of this diocese?

JM: The mission of this diocese is the same as the mission of any other diocese in the world. It's to celebrate the reality of God's love for the human family, manifested principally in the coming of God's son, Jesus of Nazareth, into our story, where He by his life, death, and resurrection, atoned for our sinfulness and redeemed the human family... And then by living out the corollaries of those facts -- God's love for us and our need to love each other -- by servicing the world...

AC: Do you think God is male or female?

JM: There's no sexuality in an infinite being... Human beings can only think in terms of images that they know. You ask somebody to really tell me what does it mean -- an infinite being that's pure spirit? We don't know what the hell that is... Our culture has credited maleness with authority and power. We're working out of that now.

AC: If you had to make a prediction, which would happen first: Ordination of women, or marriage for priests?

JM: Oh, I think that the chances of moving towards a married presbyterate is in the not-too-distant future, but the present leadership of the church is absolutely against this... But the ordination of women, given the Roman Catholic tradition, is a much more difficult question. And although there's strong agitation for it, the Catholic Church is like the Queen Mary in New York Harbor. It doesn't turn easily...

The Third World is not where Europe and North America are vis-a-vis women and male-and-female relationships. They may well be there in another 50 years. But right now, the Church operates across the planet. And it's a tremendous source of strength, but it's also a terrible problem, because it's hard to get anything changed...

There's no problem at all, theologically, about a married priesthood. The early leaders of the church were married. The Orthodox church have married clergy... But this pope is insisting that there's a theological problem with the ordination of women. And I'm not going to give The Austin Chronicle a story by taking on the Pope!

AC: Films and television make broad use of Catholic imagery. There's a commercial now for Kentucky Fried Chicken where a young Irish priest is telling the monsignor about KFC's delicious new product -- and the monsignor reprimands the priest for enjoying this worldly thing too much. The punch line is, `I'll see you in confession, Michael!'

JM: Well, that's like the ad, it's silly. A lot of it is malicious... I used to make a study of it... You could just start ticking off movies that attack the Catholic Church. It's monumental. Actually, what they're doing is attacking religion in general. But the Catholic Church, because of its size and because of its history... you can always work it in if you want to take the opportunity to blast religion in general. You know, we (Catholics) are so visual...

AC: Well, there are certain things that set Catholics apart from other Christians. The observation of Lent, weekly Eucharist. Candles, oil, water...

JM: ...Rosaries, crucifixes. That's what I mean by being visual. Often when I'm discussing this with somebody...

AC: It's sensual.

JM: I'll say, `Think a Methodist thought.' You see? St. Peter's in Rome. St. Patrick's in New York. Franciscans walking under vaulted arches. Gregorian chants. [Sings a line in Latin.] We've just got 2,000 years of story. So we are very visual, and you're right -- sensual. Catholicism tries to involve the total person -- the mind and the heart, the intellect and the emotion simultaneously...

Another thing, though, that enters into it is that the Catholic Church was so powerful regarding the marketing of films in the Thirties and Forties. We used to have a thing called the Legion of Decency... They would evaluate films.

AC: You can still get those fliers in some church bulletins around here.

JM: Do you? But people don't pay a great deal of attention to them.

AC: Why do you think they're there if people aren't paying attention to them?

JM: It's a service, if you're concerned about your kids, given the amount of trash -- did you ever see the movie Pulp Fiction?

AC: Yeah.

JM: Now, I went to see Pulp Fiction, primarily because I knew what it was about, and I'm very interested in violence and degrading vulgarity. I got up and left. Halfway through the movie I couldn't handle it anymore. I mean, I could handle it, I mean it was disgust. That was on the list for an Academy Award. Where are we as a nation that that movie -- all the jokes about violence, about drugs, the extraordinarily vulgar language, killing people. I was appalled...

...When I was growing up, of course, there were lots of movies about the Catholic Church -- the famous Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's...

AC: Boys' Town!

JM: All those old movies. Once again, because it was very visible. You know, the tough Irish priest, the street fighter. That's all B.S., really... I couldn't sit through Boys' Town if my life depended on it. But the image of the priest, because of his commitment to Jesus Christ -- I've lived through that...

AC: What I understood the Pope to say (recently) was: Evolution, Christian theology -- there's not really a problem here.

JM: The question is, why did the news media make so much out of it? That's always been the position of the Catholic Church... I read that story in three different papers and not one of them said, This has always been the position of the Catholic Church.

AC: You understand how important (this matter) is for other Christians -- that the literal unfolding of the Genesis story is how it is. To suggest that it is any other way is heresy. There's a Creationism museum that adapts science to theology. It's very important to some people.

JM: Not to Methodists, not to Lutherans, not to Episcopalians, not to Presbyterians. That position is held by fundamentalist groups.

AC: Should Christian prayers be instituted in public schools?

JM: ...We have allowed a very small portion of our leadership to say that religious values must be kept out of public debate or policy. I think the lack of religious values in our society is what's making us the very sick and confused society that we are -- [leaning toward the tape recorder and repeating for emphasis] very sick and confused society that we are... (But) I have no illusions about a 30-second prayer at the beginning of the day being equal to the transfer of values... notice how I say `values.' All values are ultimately religious values.

AC: How so?

JM: It's obvious... What is life? What is the purpose of life? How ought we to relate to each other? What are the responsibilities of parents? What are the responsibilities of children? Those all flow from spiritual reality. Otherwise, Pulp Fiction makes sense... But if you have values, that's trash.

AC: I take your point. But the tragedies of life to which you refer, about this being a sick and confused society -- surely this existed when religion was at the fore of public life? Child abuse, alcoholism, you name it.

JM: Nothing's new in the human story. But if you look at the mathematics of it... the percentages are much higher. Divorce. This figure was accurate two years ago: Last night, five out of 10 children under six did not spend the night under the same roof with their father. That's a terrible reality.

AC: Earlier you referenced the Christian Coalition.

JM: ...I forbid -- I didn't forbid, I informed -- the parishes in this diocese two months ago that these voter guides were not to be distributed at our churches. Not to be distributed!... from either right or left. But the ones who do most of it is the Christian Coalition... The church should always be strugglin g to build togetherness and unity. Partisan politics divide people bitterly. The church should not come down on one side or the other.

Roman Catholicism -- and this would separate us from the fundamentalists -- our theology is based on philosophy. The science and logic. We think. And therefore, we can make a lot of distinctions. If I talk to the average Christian Coalition member about the distinction between addressing public policy issues and not being involved in partisan politics, the average one would have a hard time understanding what's the difference. To me, there's a tremendous difference... I don't think that will last very long, the whole Christian Coalition thing.

AC: Pat Buchanan is a major spokesperson for them -- and he's a Catholic. Should he be doing that?

JM: ...I just tell you what the Catholic Church stands for in terms of public policy, and you say, `Look! I found Pat!' You need to take a course in logic. One more question.

AC: Uh, no. That's it.

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