15 September 1982
When the history of the past conciliar Church in the United States comes to be written, Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will be one of the few American bishops whose name will be remembered with honor. In some respects his position was even more difficult than that of Archbishop Lefebvre. Mgr. Lefebvre at least had the consolation of being surrounded by friends who wholeheartedly endorsed his defense of orthodoxy. Bishop Sullivan was virtually isolated within the hierarchy of the U.S.A., and was treated with ridicule by many of his fellow bishops. He also received considerable opposition, amounting at times to outright defiance by Liberal priests within his own diocese. It is more than probable that the stress he endured in fighting for orthodoxy contributed to his early death. The report which follows appeared in the 15 September 1982 Remnant.
Bishop Sullivan Laid to Rest
One of the few remaining American Catholic bishops who spoke out consistently on such topics as abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage, passed to his eternal reward on Saturday, 4 September. He was Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan, 63, of Baton Rouge, La.
The Bishop, whose death was apparently due to a cardiac arrest, will be remembered for, among other things, his singular role as the one bishop who, in 1981, voted against giving NCCB USCC1 backing to the Hatch Amendment on the question of abortion. His argument was that, where human life is involved, no compromise is morally permissible. "Plain logic," he stated at the time, "tells us [the Hatch Amendment] is a compromise, and... I don't think we have to accept a compromise."
He urged his fellow bishops to reject the Hatch proposal and back the Human Life Bill sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, which would grant personhood to children in utero.
In taking that stand, Bishop Sullivan was repeating his position as enunciated at the 1981 March for Life, a gathering held in Washington each Jan. 22nd to mark the anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Bishop Sullivan did not confine his pro life activities to the abortion issue. He also taught clearly that which the Catholic Church has traditionally held, namely, that artificial contraception is seriously sinful.
In October 1980, he noted that confusion had arisen over an intervention submitted to the Vatican Synod of Bishops on the subject of contraception. To clear up that confusion, Bishop Sullivan wrote, in part: "The [Church's] teaching is clear and enduring. It is this: that no active means may be used by the marriage partners, either before or after the conjugal act, to interfere with the course of the act."
It was Bishop Sullivan's firm adherence to the Church's teachings on morals which precipitated a conflict that drew national attention to Baton Rouge in 1979.
In February of that year, the Bishop refused to permit Charles Curran, a moral theologian who has dissented from Church teaching on many matters including contraception, fornication, and homosexual activity to speak at the diocesan facility at Louisiana State University (LSU).
For that move alone, the Bishop was widely criticized, and again in March 1979, when Bishop Sullivan dismissed the Claretian Father from the chaplaincy at LSU.
While many were critical of Bishop Sullivan, he attracted widespread support, also because of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary whose intercession he regularly invoked in public prayer and in pastoral letters.
He also insisted on emphasizing the centrality of the crucifixion in the Catholic Faith. In February 1981, he decreed that all church altars under his jurisdiction should have a "crucifix easily visible to the congregation... in the near vicinity of the Altar of Sacrifice."
In a pastoral letter, also issued in February 1981, he pointed out that ministries to the separated, divorced, divorced and remarried, and the widowed, must take into consideration the fact that those categories refer to people "in entirely different circumstances." "Though support groups should evidence compassion and understanding," he wrote, "they may not witness, explicitly or implicitly, that the living Church condones the marital lifestyle of those living in an invalid marriage. To do so would be to betray them," he wrote.
Bishop Sullivan was keenly interested in Catholic education. He demonstrated that interest by backing the construction of new Catholic schools even during a time when many such schools were closing. Two elementary Catholic schools opened during his tenure, while a new diocesan high school is currently on the drawing board.
He also evinced his concern for the spiritual welfare of children by insisting upon First Confession prior to First Holy Communion, a practice which has fallen into disuse in many quarters.
The funeral Mass was held 8 September in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Baton Rouge, with the retired Archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Carberry, as the principal celebrant, and hundreds of priests and laymen in attendance. R.I.P.
1. National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference.
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