In Memory of A Remarkable Bishop

By Peter Galuszka

One of Virginia’s most important religious leaders in decades who held firm to his liberal beliefs died Dec. 11 at age 84. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, former head of the Diocese of Richmond, passed away after being ill with cancer.

Bishop from 1970 until 2003, Sullivan was an anomaly in a conservative state. He fought the death penalty as well as abortion. In a state that is filled with military facilities, he opposed nuclear weapons and the wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. He backed outreach to gays, African-Americans and Jews and included women in more Catholic Church services.

He even made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

The Washington native who grew up in Chevy Chase came of age during the years of great upheaval during the civil rights movement, feminism and anti-war protests. He was a disciple of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II movement of the 1960s, which attempted to make the huge institution more oriented towards people and less towards its strict hierarchy.

Sullivan attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and as ordained a priest in Richmond in 1953. He celebrated his elevation to bishop with a hot dog cookout attended by 1,500. The man drove 30,000 miles a year to visit parishioners in Eastern and Central Virginia as the Church went through a large expansion brought on by people moving in from other states and countries. Among those he welcomed were Hispanics who came to the Old Dominion in search of work. The approach is the polar opposite of hard right politicians like Prince William County’s Corey A. Stewart who have tried to stir hate by painting Latino workers as illegal security threats.

There was plenty of push back against Sullivan. His critiques of the military brought harsh reaction in a state that has the second largest defense sector in the country. Other religious leaders during his heyday included hard right, fundamentalist Protestants Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who were at other end of the political spectrum. Editorial writers at the conservative Richmond newspapers bashed him regularly, prompting his many followers to buy advertising pages to defend him.

Unfortunately, it is the Catholic Church itself that is helping destroy Sullivan’s legacy. His successor, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo, has followed more traditional Vatican trends. He has scaled back female participation in Church matters, is far less supportive of gays and has issued decrees that speakers at parishes have to be cleared by him.

But Sullivan’s memory lives on. One priest, who worked directly with Sullivan in the late 1970s, once asked him why he had a decal of the American flag on his car bumper. Sullivan replied: “We have to take our symbols back.”

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32 responses to “In Memory of A Remarkable Bishop”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Gosh, Peter, why do judge just even priests and bishops by their politics!!!

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Virginia political trivia …

    It appears that the three most recent governors of Virginia will all be Roman Catholic. Tim Kaine is a rather well known for his Catholic missionary work in Honduras. McDonnell attended Bishop Ireton High school in Alexandria, Virginia and then Notre Dame. Most biographies list his religion as Roman Catholic although I wonder if his time at Regent University may have changed his religious outlook. Terry McAu;iffe attended Bishop Ludden High school in New York before matriculating to Catholic University. Ken Cuccinelli is a graduate of Gonzaga High School – a Jesuit inspired school in Washington, DC.

    Not only were all four of these men apparently raised Catholic they all either attended Catholic schools or did Catholic missionary work.

    This could certainly be coincidence. 11% of Virginians are Catholic. So, as I calculate it, the odds of something which occurs 11% of the time occurring three times in a row is about 1/10th of 1% or 1 in a thousand. Rare but not unbelievable.

    However, I wonder about the Catholic indoctrination of serving others as a part of the religion. Kaine certainly felt the pull as he went off as a missionary. Gonzaga’s motto is “Men for Others”.

    Two of the last three Maryland governors have also been Catholic including the current governor – Martin O’Malley – another graduate of Gonzaga High School.

    Who knows, maybe the parochial / Jesuit education is breeding a sense of public purpose in the student. Or, maybe it’s just a coincidence.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      You raise a very interesting point.

      My suspicion is that their Catholic educations had a great deal to do their adult lives, including their hyper active involvement “in the arena”.

      And it would also tend to show that their Catholic education manifested itself throughout the political spectrum. Which, of course, is a very good thing. Because otherwise the Church (any church) is flying in disguise.

  3. I thought Catholics were supposed to keep their beliefs out of the political arena. Where are Americans United for Separation of Church and State? Oh, doesn’t apply if they are in accordance with those of the Democrats. We need one set of rules. Either it is acceptable for people to mesh their religious beliefs with their politics or it’s not.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      NO – I SAID JUST THE OPPOSITE- namely that “their Catholic education manifested itself throughout the political spectrum.”

      SO here Catholic educations produced people of all political views, including a high percentage of people with the passion of those views to step into the Arena. Which is exactly what an excellent education does.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I don’t see a damned thing wrong with clergy having political views. I think I am big enough to handle it. If they tell me whom to vote for from the pulpit whom to vote for, I split or dismiss them.

    The danger is disassociating themselves from recognizing what’s going on around them by pretending to be in a purely ethereal world (unless they are cloistered or something).

    Some Catholic priests in Europe knew all about Hitler’s Final Solution but either said nothing or encouraged it.

    If it had been for black ministers in the South (and many black lawyers) you might still have Jim Crow.

    (Note: to Groveton, did you hear that Mel Brooks is making a comedy about all-boy Jesuit schools? The title: “Men for Others. Men in Tights.”)

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      “I don’t see a damned thing wrong with clergy having political views. I think I am big enough to handle it. If they tell me whom to vote for from the pulpit whom to vote for, I split or dismiss them.”

      I agree.

  5. I totally agree with TMT both both political parties. The worst thing to happen to politics in American is when the religions got embedded and advocate for their own narrow values.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I agree, Larry.

  6. Peter, what happens when the Catholic clergy go after abortion? They are told to keep their religious views out of politics. I can live with the rules either way. But then it also applies to black churches, mosques, temples, etc. Let’s have one set of rules that apply to everyone.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The catholic clergy always goes after abortion. Nothing secret .

  8. Peter, my point is the liberals of America argue the Catholic clergy should stay out of abortion issues, but are happy to quote them on spending more money on social programs. Ditto for black protestant clergy on promoting social spending, but they also caught hell for opposing gay marriage in many instances. This is content-based. That’s wrong. Neither side should use the clergy when their views are correct politically, but tell them to stay out when they are not.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I Ditto that.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Geez how about virginian’s episopalians for similar reasons?

  10. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “Geez how about virginian’s episopalians for similar reasons?”

    They don’t count. They collectively have no views grounded in faith.

  11. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Reed i am talking about the gay thing and the split in the episcopal church between leftand right

  12. Peter, you are dodging my question. Do you you believe in the “heads-I-win; tails-you-lose” position of many liberals on the role of clergy/religion in politics?

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I really do not understand your question. It sounds so simplistic. Who says this is the position of “many liberals?” You? Evidence?

  14. Me neither and perhaps not paying close enough attention but it’s the right that over and over tries to introduce religious values into govt. The left is accused over and over of being anti-religion, secular , etc.

  15. I distrust all religion in politics. I distrust the conservative religious teachings on abortion, gay rights and creationism in schools. I distrust liberal religious teachings on the redistribution of wealth.

    Far-right teachings on creationism are so far beyond the pale that I don’t even waste time discrediting them. Of far greater import are religious liberal teachings that justify a redistribution of wealth. Liberal Catholic and Mainline Protestant theologians in the United States advance what I call a “social reformer” version of Jesus who, remarkably enough, affirms their own social reformer views. The view of a social-reformer Jesus, as opposed to the historical Jesus, is based upon a misreading of his sayings, particularly the Beatitudes — blessed are the poor, the weak, the humble, etc., and his’ exhortations to followers to give their wealth to the poor.

    Jesus did indeed preach giving away wealth to the poor, but he did not preach the redistribution of wealth generally. Hanging onto material wealth made no sense if you believe, like he did, that God would imminently establish his heavenly kingdom on earth. “Give away your wealth and follow me,” he said.

    What Jesus did NOT preach was redistribution of wealth through the state. He did NOT say, let’s increase taxes so Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas (the Jewish king of Galilee) and/or the Jewish priests of the great Temple in Jerusalem can use the money to feed and cloth the poor. Feeding and clothing the poor was a *personal* responsibility, not a social or political one.

    To my mind, the liberal religious influence on political discourse is more malign than the conservative religious influence. Creationism is so ignorant that it discredits itself; the doctrine will never appeal to more than a small minority. Cultural conservatives are losing the debate over gay rights. Their influence today extends only to the complex of issues relating to abortion, a not insignificant issue but not the most pressing one facing our society. But the liberal social-reformer ethic reigns supreme. It provides the ethical underpinning of the entire welfare/redistributionist state. Its impact is pervasive, deeply rooted and dangerous.

    Insofar as Sullivan, like Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, championed the social-reformer-Jesus tradition, he contributed to the ruination of the nation. I wish no man ill, but I cannot mourn his passing.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Now that is one Hell of Post – God Bless you, Bacon!!!!!!

    2. Boy is THAT a STRETCH! I can NAME the specific religious organizations on the right that support legislation to further their values.

      Can you NAME the religious organizations on the LEFT?

      I doubt it.

  16. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    Sullivan and Spong contributed to the “ruination of the nation?” In what sense? Supporting gays and opposing Jim Crow?

    A “misreading” of Christ’s sayings? Explanation?

    This is truly a pile, Jim.

  17. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Also Jim,
    Can you explain why Sullivan contributed to the “ruination of the nation” by opposing the war in Vietnam which was a total waste of human lives and money, not to mention a huge budgetary drain which is one of your favorite topics?
    I’m still trying to grasp your comment. Was Sullivan really for redistributing the wealth? Was that related to questioning Virginia’s defense establishment and industry? Did he back some kind of socialist control of property? Or did he just fight for people who happened to be poor? Is one only supposed to fight for the rich?
    I’d be curious to hear your answers.

  18. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Lastly Jim,
    You come off like some kind of amoral Ayn Rand fanatic that there is no good to social good and then you shift gears into sounding like some kind of 1960s Greek colonel.
    If one knows you in person, one realizes that despite all the veneer you probably have more of a social conscience than anyone.
    What a fraud!

    1. Peter, like most liberals, you seem unable to see a difference between private charity, voluntarily given, and the involuntary redistribution of wealth executed by the state.

  19. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You are right. I don”t understand the differences. Maybe you could send me a PowerPoint show, or maybe just the highlights.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      “Peter, like most liberals, you seem unable to see a difference between private charity, voluntarily given, and the involuntary redistribution of wealth executed by the state.”

      “Jim, You are right. I don”t understand the differences. Maybe you could send me a PowerPoint show, or maybe just the highlights.”

      This exchange is profound.

  20. I’m still waiting to hear what left wing religious groups support left wing causes. What is the left-wing equivalent of the evangelicals?

  21. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    My point is that Mr. Bacon hasn’t exactly connected Bishop Sullivan to mandatory government seizures of wealth and its transfer to the poor. I’d like to see some real examples rather than vague platitudes.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Peter, I cannot speak as to the Bishop. I knew not the man, nor do I have the facts.

      But Jim’s analysis of the issues generally are not “vague platitudes.” Rather they crystallize important issue in a way that I find very powerful.

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