Remembering Bishop Sullivan’s LGBT Ministry

Bishop Joseph Sullivan

Bishop Joseph Sullivan

There have been a number of good obituaries for the recent passing of retired Brooklyn Diocese Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan.  The New York  Times’ account is probably the most complete.  All of the tributes I read understandably focused on Bishop Sullivan’s lifetime of work defending the poor and powerless as a Catholic Charities administrator on both local and national levels.  None, however, mentioned the fact that Bishop Sullivan, in his “retirement,” became a powerful and effective advocate for LGBT people in both church and society.

Bishop Sullivan began his ministry as all good ministry begins: he listened.  In the early 2000’s he regularly met with a group of LGBT Catholics and family members in Brooklyn, listening to their stories of marginalization and faith.  Moved by this experience, he began to help a number of parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, to develop LGBT outreach ministries.  He supported those ministries powerfully, often speaking with pastors to let them know that they had his support if people objected to these programs.  He would often visit parishes to speak with parishioners who were not necessarily convinced that LGBT outreach was a good thing to do.

At the U.S. Bishops’ Conference meeting in November 2006, Bishop Sullivan spoke on the floor against the draft of the bishops’ document, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.”  He called, instead, for a more compassionate pastoral approach than the document reflected.  Unfortunately, he was in the minority, and his suggestion did not prevail.

In 2007,  Bishop Sullivan was one of two bishops (the other was Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska) to speak at New Ways Ministry’s Sixth National Symposium on Homosexuality and Catholicism in Minneapolis, Minnesota.   He did so, even though the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had asked him not to be part of the program.  He traveled to the symposium by air,  even though the entire Northeast was crippled by a terrible snow storm.  Throughout the weekend, he was available to chat, and mostly listen, to many LGBT people, family members and pastoral ministers.

In 2011, in the midst of New York State’s debate on enacting marriage equality legislation, Bishop Sullivan published an op-ed in support of LGBT equality in The Buffalo News.  It was a compassionate essay, encouraging acceptance and understanding.  Though it is impossible to say that this essay had any influence on the debate, it is curious that only about a week after it appeared, a Republican state senator from Buffalo, who is Catholic, announced that he was switching his position and supporting marriage equality.  His was a critical deciding vote in the close contest.

In that op-ed, Bishop Sullivan stated:

“. . . Catholics are among those who increasingly are reaching out pastorally to the LGBT community. A recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Catholics believe that job discrimination against gay and lesbian people should be outlawed. By almost 2 to 1, Catholics believe that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt children.

“The views of Catholics about the LGBT community have been evolving for years. Catholic teachings compel us to work toward the elimination of unjust structures and to treat people with dignity, regardless of their state in life or their beliefs. My own understanding of this community has also evolved over the course of four decades of ministry.

“Given that Catholics represent approximately one-quarter of the U. S. population, the changing attitudes of Catholics toward greater degrees of LGBT equality most likely will be a significant influence in the public square. Across the country there are increasing numbers of parishes that welcome LGBT parishioners and their families to active participation in the church. Catholic colleges and universities are in dialogue with their LGBT students, and Catholic retreat houses provide retreats specifically for LGBT Catholics.

“Catholics and other religious people who support LGBT rights do so because of their experience of engagement with members of the LGBT community. They are not rebels in their churches, but people who have taken spiritual messages of inclusiveness and welcoming to heart. They are taking the church’s teaching on social justice and applying it to pastoral practice in engaging the LGBT community.”

Bishop Sullivan’s support for LGBT issues had an earlier incarnation, too.  In 1985 he was in charge of Catholic Charities in the Brooklyn Diocese, which comprises about half of New York City.  At that time, in the New York Archdiocese (the other half of the city), Archbishop John O’Connor was threatening to withdraw $60 million in contracts that his diocese had with New York City to run child care facilities.   The reason for this threat was that Mayor Ed Koch had just issued Executive Order 50, which forbade agencies that had contracts with the city to discriminate in hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.  Cardinal O’Connor did not want to go along with this anti-discrimination law.

In the midst of the furor, which made headlines daily in New York, Bishop Sullivan, issued a statement that said that Catholic Charities in the Brooklyn Diocese had no problem with following Executive Order 50 because it promoted the good of non-discrimination.  Though in a much less powerful position than Cardinal O’Connor, he did not back down from opposing him in public on this issue of justice.

dotCommonweal blogger Paul Moses had this to say about Bishop Sullivan:

“In a better church, Brooklyn’s retired auxiliary bishop Joseph Sullivan would have headed a large diocese. He certainly had the ability and the track record, but it was not to be – no doubt because he was viewed as too liberal.

“Nonetheless, he made enormous contributions to the church and to his city, and they will be remembered.”

I think that “in a better church,” we would have more bishops like Bishop Sullivan, who was not afraid to take a minority position in the defense of justice.

Catholics who support LGBT equality and justice now have a new saint to whom we can pray.  May he rest in peace.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

9 replies
  1. duckman44625
    duckman44625 says:

    There truly is a difference between being a “Bishop” and being a “Shepherd”…they are synonymous. The title “bishop” is conveyed by the Vatican on the basis of service to the institutional Church…following protocols, rules, not “rocking the boat” by questioning. The “shepherd” is one who is appointed directly by the Holy Spirit…not necessarily distinguished by Title, special recognition. He/she is one who like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, removes His outer clothing so as to not hinder the work of service to the poor, homeless, the outcasts. Where there is need for giving comfort, dealing with difficulties and heart wrenching situations, he/she does not shy away. He/she is “shepherd” by virtue of Baptism/Confirmation, being gifted by the Holy Spirit, to serve ALL God’s children. Bishop Sullivan is one such shepherd. His legacy will live on not in public memorials, accolades, but in the hearts of the LGBT children of God and most importantly, in the ranks of those who heeded the Holy Spirit’s voice to serve and heal. God speed you Bishop Sullivan…and thank you for my gay brothers and sisters and myself.

  2. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    It is only because I knew clergy like Bishop Sullivan at the University of Notre Dame that I am still a practicing Catholic. In life, each of us faces significant moral dilemmas, personal failings, and complex situations that require us to dig deep and to pray with humility and openness. Sometimes we seek council. When a shepherd of faith is there to gently lead, discuss, and to love us through our life struggles, something truly profound and holy occurs. This kind of ministry is where Jesus lives. The church doctrine is tough on the faithful. Principles of respecting life, holding yourself accountable, being available to drop everything to be there for one another–these things can pose some serious impositions while we try to do our jobs, be good parents, spouses, sons and daughters, and friends to one another. The doctrine requires us to have the discipline to do what is right–to follow our consciences in the service of Christ. And we are told in no uncertain terms that love is the highest principle. Love. So, really, the life lived in faith comes down to this: What is the most loving act in each situation? Many times, the most loving act is inconvenient. It challenges us to stop and be fully present for another. It is often not what we had planned! But when we submit and respond in love, something happens that is so nourishing and fulfilling for all involved. Christ becomes manifest. For me, lifelong conscience formation has been the cycle of facing a dilemma or spiritual question/crisis, facing my own sinful nature, seeking guidance through prayer and openness, and sometimes seeking council. This is the path of all Catholics. This is the process where hearts and minds are informed through the grace of the Holy Spirit and by the ministry of loving shepherds like Bishop Sullivan. This is the process that deepens empathy, love and a fire for justice. Of course someone like Bishop Sullivan supported LGBT children of God just as he supported all the faithful. He knew that his life was for love and only love. This is what we all must know, and once we know, we must act. Bishop Sulliivan said,”My own understanding of this community has also evolved over the course of four decades of ministry.” Because he made himself available and present to the LGBT community, it became apparent what he must do. Bishops and priests are also required to have lifelong conscience formation! Even when the institutional church refuses to act, we must be resolute in following our consciences. That is what we are required to do. It is ironic that to follow conscience, we sometimes must oppose the rules and regulations of the hierarchy. But love is like that. It is sometimes not compatible with rigid hierarchical systems.

  3. Babs
    Babs says:

    Ironically, there is a new biography about Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, Bishop of Richmond and his ongoing struggle to serve the people and clergy through Vatican II. It is called “The Good Bishop” by Phyllis Theroux. Review on Amazon:

    ” An inspiring portrait of a bishop renowned for his qualities as a pastor, a leader, and a human being.
    Walter F. Sullivan retired in 2003 after twenty-nine years as bishop of the Richmond, Virginia diocese. As one of the great generation of bishops appointed by Pope Paul VI, he was famous for his pastoral leadership and his prophetic role as a champion of peace and social justice. Guiding his flock through the tumultuous post-Vatican II years, he brought a human touch to his role, reaching across boundaries to foster a spirit of ecumenism, encouraging the gifts of the laity, and reaching out to prisoners and those on the margins.”

    It appears that we have been blessed with two Bishop Sullivan’s who were Shepherds.

  4. Deacon Don Zirkel
    Deacon Don Zirkel says:

    I remember more than one conversation at which others were referred to as “bishop last name” and he was simply “Joe Sullivan.” He was often a voice for the voiceless. His vision, insights and honesty encouraged the Brooklyn Tablet (and Frank DeBernardo and I who worked together on its staff) to follow his example in our private and professional lives. I am elated at the opportunity to add this testimony to Joe Sullivan’s legacy.


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