December 20, 1998, Sunday


Island's New Bishop: a Stalwart of the Faith

By THOMAS G. LEDERER ( Biography ) 1534 words

JAMES T. McHUGH, bishop of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., will not assume his new post as coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre until February, and will not fully take over from the retiring John R. McGann until the end of next year. But for many of the 1.3 million Roman Catholics in the Long Island diocese, Bishop McHugh's reputation as a moral theologian and anti-abortion crusader has preceded the Dec. 7 announcement that he would be their next leader.

Once described in a New Jersey newspaper as ''short, stocky, and blunt as a butter knife,'' Bishop McHugh, 66, has a reputation as a warrior. He has stood up to teachers' unions trying to organize his parochial schools and to attorneys going out of their way to encourage possible victims of sexual abuse by priests to come forward. But he has left his deepest mark in the arena of anti-abortion politics.

During two decades on the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., where he served as director of the Family Life Bureau and the Office of Pro-Life Activities, Bishop McHugh played a major role in launching the church's legal and political opposition to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and argued the Catholic line on reproductive policy as a Vatican delegate to three United Nations conferences on population.

In 1990, after taking over in Camden, he pressured James Florio, then Governor of New Jersey, to resign from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, in light of Mr. Florio's pro-abortion views. The bishop also attracted national attention when he openly criticized Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee for suggesting that the church might look with more compassion on women who undergo abortions in extenuating circumstances.

Conversations with a handful of people with close ties to the church left no indication that the selection of a prelate with a record like Bishop McHugh's was intended as a message to his new diocese, or implied any criticism of Bishop McGann.

''I suspect there are some mixed feelings out there,'' a pastor from a church outside the diocese said. ''I'm sure there are some priests dancing in the streets while others are busy covering their tracks.'' He said that when the leanings of a new church leader are as obvious as Bishop McHugh's, there are always going to be people who will embrace his arrival and others who will be uncomfortable.

The pastor, who insisted that he not be identified, and other insiders who have been critical of the church in the past said that the appointment was the product of a selection process that judges candidates more on their views on abortion, morality, and the female priesthood than on ability to lead a particular diocese.

A theologian who asked not to be identified called the appointment ''another triumph for the Good Old Boys club.''

But Bishop McHugh's leanings are not uniformly conservative. His views on human rights and social justice are decidedly more liberal than his position on abortion. He expresses concerns about oppressive welfare reform and supports the ideal that the haves must look after the have-nots.

''The bishop as a proclaimer of faith, in addition to being pro-life and anti-abortion, is also pro-justice, and must vocally support the equitable treatment of all people of God,'' Bishop McHugh said in an interview last weekend. ''In recent years, America has become too utilitarian, and welfare reform during the Clinton Administration has been distasteful. Our church social teachings suggest we can do better than that.''

To be sure, nothing in Bishop McHugh's forcefully enunciated opinions goes beyond church doctrine. His views mirror those found in the 1995 papal encyclical ''Evangelum Vitae,'' Pope John Paul II's firm condemnation of what he described as our present-day ''culture of death.''

''Our heightened concern about the sanctity of human life has broadened our awareness of threats to human life,'' Bishop McHugh said in response to a question about capital punishment at the news conference at which the appointment was announced.

Little has been made public about the selection process that is bringing Bishop McHugh to Long Island. At the introductory news conference, Bishop McGann expressed respect and admiration for Bishop McHugh but said he had submitted other names to the Vatican as personal choices for his successor.

Bishop McHugh's influential friends include Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston and John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, and several people with close ties to the church said Cardinal O'Connor's fingerprints are on the Rockville Centre appointment. While all bishops report directly to the Pope, Cardinal O'Connor nonetheless exerts considerable influence as leader of New York State's eight dioceses. He also sits on the Congregation for Bishops, the group that makes recommendations for European and Western Hemisphere episcopal appointments directly to the Pope.

Bishop McHugh has been mentioned on various occasions as a possible successor to Cardinal O'Connor, but no one contacted for comment suggested that the Rockville Centre posting made this scenario either more or less likely.

If Bishop McHugh's new appointment is not intended to position him to succeed Cardinal O'Connor, he is at least taking over a larger diocese. There are 420,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Camden but more than three times that many on Long Island. The Rockville Centre diocese, which includes all of Nassau and Suffolk counties, has 577 priests, 1,488 nuns and 12,500 lay employees in 134 parishes, 4 hospitals, 12 high schools, 63 elementary schools and one seminary.

Asked why he thought he had been appointed, Bishop McHugh said that he was speculating as much as anyone else, but that perhaps the reason was ''its hospital system or the diocese's close proximity to New York City; but the primary priority was to find someone who had previously run a diocese who has dealt with the various problems common to all dioceses.''

In the interview, Bishop McHugh said that his 10 years as a bishop and 20 years with the national office have given him a global perspective on Catholic trends and challenges. But he said his vision for the Long Island diocese would emphasize local concerns like religious education, health care and evangelization.

''Although Catholicism is very much a centralized religion, these areas of focus must be addressed on a local basis,'' he said. ''Each diocese has its own characteristics and needs, and each parish has its own distinctions. Much of the work involved in a diocesan vision must be accomplished at the parish level.''

As a coadjutor, Bishop McHugh will collaborate with Bishop McGann and his two auxiliary bishops, John C. Dunne and Emil A. Wcela, on diocesan matters. As successor, his authority and influence in the diocese will be second only to that of Bishop McGann.

Bishop McGann has suffered from aplastic anemia, but the diocesan press office said that, contrary to some reports, the appointment of a coadjutor was related to Bishop's McGann's mandatory retirement when he turns 75 on Dec. 2, not to failing health.

''He's as healthy has he's been in several years, and on vacations, I have a tough time keeping up with him,'' said Msgr. Joseph Colligan of Centerport, a close friend and golf partner.

In recent years, Long Island's diocesan school system has been reorganized and its network of Catholic hospitals has been restructured, notably with a move to acquire two hospitals, Massapequa General and Mid-Island in Bethpage. Bishop McHugh defended the Catholic hospitals from critics who point out that Catholic medical ethics will deprive patients at these hospitals of services such as abortion and contraception.

''The Church has a long association with hospitals and just because this involvement is now being viewed within the context of other mergers and takeovers does not mean we are now suddenly going to jettison our tradition,'' he said in the interview. ''Issues have been raised about abortion and euthanasia but they have not been practical stumbling blocks. With no sense of embarrassment we come with our faith, which is a major reason for our successful track record of stable, competent hospitals and health care systems.''

Bishop McHugh also defends church policy against women as priests or a married clergy. A more appropriate response to the shortage of priests, he said, would be to find new ways to increase vocations to the priesthood.

Still, he insisted that ''women should be equal players and must continue to be integrated into every phase of day-to-day church life, especially at the parish level.''

A daily jogger and a occasional cyclist, Bishop McHugh said he exercises ''not just for the waistline but also to clear out the cobwebs. I am looking forward to exploring what I hear are some beautiful Long Island roads.''

Editor's Note: Bishop James McHugh died in December of 2000 after serving less than two years in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

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