Bishop John E. McCarthy, who served in Houston and Austin, Texas, and provided national leadership for the church in its work to address systemic poverty, died Aug. 18 at his home in Austin surrounded by his family. He was 88.
Born in Houston, he attended Catholic elementary school and high school, and the University of St. Thomas, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1956.
On May 26, 1956, he was ordained at St. Mary Cathedral Basilica in Galveston.
His ministry in the church started at St. Pius Parish in Pasadena, where he inaugurated a social ministry program at the parish. He relished telling how he would give a box of groceries to parishioners and ask them to hand deliver them to a needy family, thereby gifting the giver with a better understanding of the causes and ramifications of poverty.
He quoted James 2:24 “by our works you will know us” often during his career, which included parish assignments in Houston, before he was named in 1966 as executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Spanish-speaking Catholics based in San Antonio.
In 1945 the U.S. bishops had established the committee to provide for the religious, social, economic, educational and cultural advancement of Mexican-Americans. In 1964 it merged with the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Migrant Workers. One of the committee’s most notable actions under then-Father McCarthy’s tenure was support of farmworkers in improving their situation.
During a two-year stint in Washington at the U.S. bishops’ conference headquarters, he served a year as assistant director of the conference’s Social Action Department, and then director of the Division for Poverty Programs at the conference.
He was one of the founders of what is now called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. bishops’ major domestic anti-poverty effort. In the midst of a nation coming to grips with racism and systemic poverty, CCHD provided a means for local communities to fund self-help programs.