On the Margins

The Good Bishopby Phyllis Theroux

Orbis Books. 160p $20

When retired Bishop Walter F. Sullivan died this past December, countless thousands mourned the loss of a beloved spiritual teacher who had presided over the Diocese of Richmond, Va., for 29 years. The Good Bishop is a fitting tribute to this man who fought for prison reform, opposed the death penalty, denounced nuclear proliferation and reached out to homosexuals. Sullivan constantly walked a tightrope between pushing the social Gospel and adhering to church doctrine. When Sullivan was installed as bishop of the Richmond Diocese in 1974, he celebrated with a picnic in a public park rather than the customary invitation-only dinner at a fancy hotel. He soon began visiting prisoners, including death row inmates. When executions were scheduled, Sullivan led candlelight vigils of protest. The author says Sullivan was “a rarity among bishops, few of whom ever visit the prisons in their diocese, much less death row.” The Richmond Diocese had 125,000 Catholics and 147 parishes. Sullivan wanted to stop at every one of them so he could “know his flock on a first-name basis.” He logged thousands of miles traveling around the state.


After a trip to Haiti he created a Haitian ministry. Eventually 66 parishes and schools in the Richmond diocese were linked to groups in the impoverished island nation.

Sullivan was often at odds with the Vatican. When he wrote an introduction to a scholarly book on the church and homosexuality, Rome directed him to remove it. He reluctantly complied. The bishop’s efforts at ecumenical dialogue and his welcoming of women into leadership positions also generated controversy. He favored the ordination of women as priests, but he eventually “fell silent on the subject” out of loyalty to Rome.

In 1975, Sullivan met with an Episcopal bishop to explore the possibility of bringing a Roman Catholic church and an Episcopal church together under one roof in Virginia Beach. The Vatican asked Sullivan not to go ahead with the plan “basically because it had never been done before.” But Sullivan persisted and today “the church is a small ecumenical showplace, the only one of its kind in the world.” The congregation worships together, but Catholics and Episcopalians take communion at separate altars.

When Sullivan’s aunt died, she left him $1 million, an inheritance that eventually grew to $2 million. Over time the bishop donated the entire sum to worthy projects throughout the diocese. He commissioned a Holocaust memorial, which was placed in front of the cathedral—the first Holocaust memorial located on the grounds of a Catholic church in the United States.

One could argue that Sullivan’s most controversial stand was his denunciation of war and nuclear proliferation. The author notes that Virginia is the most militarized state in the nation, with 27 military bases and 14,000 defense contractors. In addressing a largely military audience in Virginia Beach, the bishop once asked, “What are the values we wish to proclaim? Are these values rooted in the Gospel of Jesus or rooted in blind national self-interest disguised as patriotism?”

While Theroux’s admiration for the bishop is clear, she faults his response to the scandal of sexual abuse by priests, calling it “less than stellar.” Fifteen diocesan priests were accused of sexual abuse. From Theroux’s short summary of the cases, it is difficult to tell the extent of the bishop’s culpability. We have the impression that Sullivan, like many church leaders, failed to comprehend fully the moral rottenness of the sexual abuse scandal, even though he had warned priests that if they ever got involved in sexual abuse, “I’ll be visiting you in jail.”

Theroux originally set out to write a short oral history based mostly on the bishop’s recollections, but she soon concluded that Sullivan’s life was worth a book. One can agree with that conclusion, while also finding fault with the finished product, much of which reads like hagiography rather than an objective life story. We learn little about Sullivan’s inner life. Theroux characterizes her subject as a brave extrovert with unlimited energy for social justice, but what about his dreams, frustrations, emotions and disappointments?

The Good Bishop is a bit disorganized, skipping back and forth among subjects. Much of the text consists of accolades from dozens of people who knew Sullivan. Still, The Good Bishop gives worthy recognition to the life of a remarkable church leader who went out of his way to preach and practice the social Gospel.

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