Emeritus bishop discusses NYT op-ed

This article appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

Francis Anthony Quinn, bishop emeritus of Sacramento, Calif., who celebrated his 94th birthday Sept. 11, had an op-ed published in the New York Times.  Quinn focused on three significant issues facing the church:  mandatory celibacy, making the Eucharist available to divorced, remarried Catholics without an annulment, and women priests. 

Quinn was ordained to the priesthood in 1946.  He earned a doctorate in education from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972.  He was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1978, and appointed as bishop of Sacramento in 1979.  He served as ordinary from 1980 to 1994.


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Pastoral, kind by nature and possessing an excellent sense of humor, Quinn was at the forefront of encouraging the laity to assume roles of leadership in the church. He actively supported the creation of an AIDS hospice. He spoke out on issues of nuclear disarmament, immigration reform, homelessness and the like.  After retirement, he moved to Tuscon, Ariz,, to minister to the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’dham tribes.  In 2007, he returned to Sacramento.

In 2014, Quinn self-published Behind Closed Doors:  Conflicts in Today’s Church (Xlibris), a 450-page “creative memoir,” a fictional account involving several characters, but tells the story of actual lives of real women, men, priests and bishops and modern day conflicts in the church.

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Quinn spoke to NCR by telephone from his retirement home about his New York Times op-ed.

NCR:  What prompted you to write the op-ed for The New York Times?

Quinn:  Actually, a friend of mine had the idea several months ago and I told him that I didn’t want to do it, but he kept after me and I finally decided to do it.

What is it about these three topics – mandatory celibacy, making the Eucharist available to divorce and remarried couples without an annulment, and allowing women to become priests – that prompt you to write about them now?

The three topics were identified during several conversations with my friend and with The New York Times.

Do you conceive of optional celibacy as a panacea or is it something else for the priesthood and the life of the church?

I suggest we consider married men, in mature marriages and who are of good character.

For many lay people, it’s confusing that in 1982 there was a “pastoral provision” adopted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope John Paul II that allowed married Anglican clergy to enter the Roman Catholic church, but views on optional celibacy and a married clergy are viewed as something entirely different.  How does that work?

I don’t know how lay people would understand this reality.  To my knowledge, it seems like these Anglican clergy are serving well [in the Roman Catholic church].  We see that permanent deacons have proved to be good at ministry as well.

The so-called “culture warrior Catholics” seem comfortable using the distribution of the Eucharist as a tool for conflict by denying certain groups of people from receiving Communion.  What is your vision of making the Eucharist available to all Catholics, especially those in so-called irregular marriages, those divorced, remarried and without an annulment?

I don’t believe the Eucharist should be used as a punishment.  I personally feel – and it’s a feeling – that if you know the circumstances of the divorce, this poor man or woman, was in an impossible situation, they should get a divorce.  What you try to do in confession is bring the person along, that the circumstances were such that they need the healing and nourishment of the Eucharist in their disturbed state.  I understand the church’s doctrine on preparation for receiving the Eucharist, but there are exceptional circumstances for receiving the Eucharist.  This involves the internal forum [Pope emeritus Benedict gave a 2010 talk on the internal forum which can be found here.]

With the internal forum, the priest cannot talk about it, but what a priest does in confession, stays in confession, but [permitting divorced, remarried Catholics without an annulment] can be done.  It is the legitimate prerogative of the priest to work out and that God would understand.

Pope Francis has been clear that the divorced, remarried Catholics without an annulment are not excommunicated from the church, a point he made very clear when he recommended changes to the annulment process. We cannot put people through brutal experiences of waiting years for an annulment.

For many years now, even discussing the topic of women priests in the Catholic church has been prohibited and it is seemingly foreclosed as an option.  Given this context, what makes you willing to even raise the topic for consideration by Pope Francis and other church leaders?

That’s the big problem.  We had popes within the past ten years who said the topic was off-the-table, that it is not possible because of what Scripture says.  Is it possible?  Could it be that someday the Holy Spirit inspires the teaching of the church to interpret Scripture differently and to change doctrine through a different interpretation?  The church needs to protect and interpret Scripture.  It’s a dynamic process as doctrine does change and develop.  It’s not a static thing.

What in your view is the most compelling aspect of the Catholic faith that continues to impress young people and perhaps keeps them connected to their birth religion?

I think we live in a time with an emphasis on science, that science has all the answers.  We live in a time with an emphasis on “individual rights.”  Natural law and the rights of the human family, those are rights of the collective whole.  Individual rights seem to be overriding today. 

We see time and again that young people enthusiastically support gay and lesbian Catholic school teachers and administrators who are unilaterally terminated when they choose to marry their partners.  Are not these young people filled with the Holy Spirit?

If a young person sees a person who is gay or lesbian, if that person wants to be gay or lesbian, then a young person might say that it’s OK.  The church is still trying to understand this. I hope for the day when science and faith – because there is one truth, that they find God’s truth about this.  If possible, these two [science and faith] can converge.  What is “homosexuality”?  Does it exist at birth or is it a choice?  Religion is might be able to acknowledge all people.  We just need to pray for that day to come.

The data proves out that young people are drifting away from organized religion.  Yet, we also see that young people are drawn towards helping the poor and really embracing the church’s Catholic social teaching.  Is the church’s tradition of Catholic social teaching an entry point to keeping teens and college students connected to their Catholic faith?

We haven’t emphasized this enough.  Catholic social teaching is a core teaching of the Gospel.  Young people by nature are inclined to help those in need.  We just haven’t emphasized this enough.  Rituals and ceremonies do not appeal to young people.  They might hang a rosary on the rear view mirror of their car but not pray the rosary. Yet they naturally turn toward the Christian religion which is love.

You recommend to Pope Francis that he call a new ecumenical council, a “Vatican III,” in order to address these and other topics.

I use the term “Vatican III” since that would have meaning for people in our lifetime.  Such an ecumenical council could be called the “Ecumenical Council of Paris, of London or of St. Louis.”  The important thing is that such a council needs to be under the unifying guidance of Peter, of Pope Francis, who will give bishops a lot more ability to state what they thing.  Pope Francis would be more inclusive in calling for an ecumenical council.

What kinds of responses to you anticipate receiving from publishing your views in this op-ed?

It will cause some disturbance among the more traditional Catholics.  I am not a theologian or canon lawyer, but a pastor with experience to make these suggestions.  I try to make a case or argument and convince others and come up with a solution.  Those who know me will no give me any static.  I’m not worried about it.  And bishops try to be respectful of fellow bishops.

Will the fact that you are a retired bishop detract from the import of your views?

If a person starts out [reading the op-ed] and is neutral, they won’t mind that I’m retired.  They will understand that being retired allows me to speak freely.

If Pope Francis were to give you a telephone call, what would you say to Pope Francis in that conversation?

It would be like when he called me after he was elected to ask if he could use my first name!  I said to the pope in response, “What’s in it for me?”

If the pope reads the op-ed, I think he would say that he appreciates my comments and that he sees that I support him and meant every word.

Stepping back from the op-ed itself, since you are in your twilight years, when you reflect on your life as a priest and as a bishop, what are the highlights for you?

Being named a bishop astonished me.  I have been happy in the priesthood and even during the twelve years in the seminary.  It was a really placid, easy life.  Lay people have been very collaborative in my ministry.  I’ve never had a sorry day in my life as a priest and bishop.  Of course, I had crushes on girls in the 8th grade before I entered the seminary, and later as an adult, but God’s been good to me in that I have been happy as a priest and bishop.

What are your hopes for the church in the years ahead?

I believe the church will go in Pope Francis’ direction.  He gives us the idea of affection, transparency and inclusiveness.  That’s reaching out, making adjustments at times and making our religion open, intellectual and relevant.  It’s about forgiveness and love.  This might bring other Christian churches along.  I pray for Pope Francis and hope nothing happens to him.

Congratulations on celebrating your 94th birthday on Sept. 11.

Thank you.  My brother says that there where two tragedies on Sept. 11, the terrible terrorists attacks on the United States and my birth!

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to the NCR and lead writer for the newspaper’s Mission Management column.]

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