Cardinal James Hickey

Forthright Archbishop of Washington
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The Independent Online

Theological conservatism can go with social activism and Cardinal James Hickey, who headed the Catholic Church in the United States' capital for two decades until his retirement in 2000, was no less forthright in defence of traditional Catholic teaching than he was in advocating the rights of the disadvantaged, whether in the US or in the world's poorer countries.

James Aloysius Hickey, priest: born Midland, Michigan 11 October 1920; ordained priest 1946; Auxiliary bishop of Saginaw 1967-69; Rector, North American College, Rome 1969-74; Bishop of Cleveland 1974-80; Archbishop of Washington 1980-2000; named a Cardinal 1988; died Washington, DC 24 October 2004.

Theological conservatism can go with social activism and Cardinal James Hickey, who headed the Catholic Church in the United States' capital for two decades until his retirement in 2000, was no less forthright in defence of traditional Catholic teaching than he was in advocating the rights of the disadvantaged, whether in the US or in the world's poorer countries.

Named Archbishop of Washington by Pope John Paul II in July 1980, Hickey arrived in the capital from Cleveland already well known for his activism. Just before his appointment, he went to El Salvador for the funeral of his friend Archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal critic of the Salvadoran government who was assassinated by agents of the right-wing government while saying Mass.

The funeral itself radicalised Hickey. He was one of 30 foreign bishops who were forced to dive for the ground in their vestments as a firebomb went off and shooting erupted which left 40 dead.

Of four American nuns killed in El Salvador later that year, two had been commissioned by Hickey in his Cleveland diocese. He kept their photographs on the wall of his private chapel for the rest of his life. The Carter administration suspended $5m in military aid to El Salvador after their killing.

Tall, thin and soft-spoken, Hickey was not as prominent as some other US Catholic leaders, especially Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. But he was influential behind the scenes, both within the Church and among Washington's political leaders. As well as travelling to trouble spots in Central America, he testified before Congress and joined church delegations to the White House. He opposed US military aid to the El Salvador government and to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. He was a vocal critic of the gun lobby. He also urged the nation's bishops to be firmer in advocating nuclear disarmament.

Despite differences with the Reagan administration he eagerly supported the US government decision, controversial among many, to establish formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1984.

As Archbishop of Washington, he promoted the rights of immigrants and the poor. He expanded Catholic schools, set up healthcare and legal aid networks, established 16 parishes and highlighted ministry among Hispanics. A theological conservative, he was vocal in upholding church teachings on abortion, birth control, priestly celibacy, homosexuality and other issues. Hickey played a key part from 1982 in the Vatican's investigation of one of his more progressive colleagues, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle.

From the early 1980s, Hickey sought to stifle the ministry to homosexual Catholics of a local nun, Jeannine Gramick, and priest, Fr Robert Nugent, over what he regarded as their ambiguous position on church teachings that homosexual activity is sinful. The Vatican later ordered the pair to halt their ministries. As Chancellor of the Catholic University of America, Hickey removed the moral theologian Fr Charles Curran from his professorship in 1987 for his views on birth control, divorce, homosexuality and church authority. Curran went to court, complaining that his academic freedom had been violated, but lost his fight for reinstatement.

In 1989, Hickey, a lifelong advocate of racial amity, suspended Fr George Stallings, a black priest who had accused the archdiocese of racism and set up his own African-American congregation, the Imani Temple. The archdiocese denied the accusation, but said the church could not condone "a free-standing entity" independent of Rome. When Stallings persisted he was excommunicated.

But, when a priest in his archdiocese contracted Aids (from which he died in 1987), Hickey encouraged him to disclose his illness to demonstrate that compassion for Aids patients was as much a part of church teaching as its rejection of homosexual relations. Hickey said he never asked the priest how he contracted Aids. The archdiocese also opened a hospice for Aids patients during his tenure.

As the priestly sex abuse scandals spiralled in the late 1980s, exacerbated by denial and evasiveness on the part of some US bishops, Cardinal Hickey dealt forthrightly with the problem, establishing a review board and a policy not to return abusive priests to the ministry.

Born into a Catholic family, even as a child Hickey wanted to be a priest. He entered a Catholic seminary in Grand Rapids at 13, and after graduating in 1938 enrolled in Sacred Heart Seminary College in Detroit, where he studied philosophy. After further studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, he was ordained in June 1946. He served as a curate in Saginaw, which included ministering to migrant sugar-beet workers, before taking further studies in Rome. He earned a doctorate in canon law from the Lateran University in 1950 and a doctorate in moral theology at the Angelicum University in 1951.

He then became secretary to Saginaw's bishop, accompanying him to sessions of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, before being appointed Assistant Bishop of Saginaw in 1967. From 1969 to 1974 he was Rector of the North American College in Rome. He returned to the US to become Bishop of Cleveland. He was appointed a Cardinal in June 1988, the year he led a retreat for the Pope and his household.

Hickey was nothing if not practical in putting the Gospel into practice. "We serve the homeless," he once said, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. If we don't care for the sick, educate the young, care for the homeless, then we cannot call ourselves the church of Jesus Christ.

James Aloysius Hickey, priest: born Midland, Michigan 11 October 1920; ordained priest 1946; Auxiliary bishop of Saginaw 1967-69; Rector, North American College, Rome 1969-74; Bishop of Cleveland 1974-80; Archbishop of Washington 1980-2000; named a Cardinal 1988; died Washington, DC 24 October 2004.

Felix Corley

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