05/19/2013 10:55 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2013

The Good Bishop -- A Biography by Phyllis Theroux

It's a simple equation -- you take a good writer and a good subject and you get a good book.

Such is the math for The Good Bishop by acclaimed writer and essayist Phyllis Theroux -- a commissioned oral history of the late Catholic Bishop Walter F. Sullivan that turned into a full-fledged biography once Theroux realized exactly what she was dealing with -- an extraordinary religious man.

Sullivan served for 29 years as bishop of the diocese of Richmond, Virginia and was known as a one of the "peace bishops" of the 1980s for his stance against war and the global nuclear threat. He also opened his churches to gays and lesbians, opposed the death penalty and was a progressive in urging the inclusion of women and minorities in church life as well as reaching out to Jewish and Protestant communities.

Such liberalism made his a controversial figure both within the Catholic hierarchy as well as the blue and red state of Virginia. This biography covers some of his more controversial stands and the book itself has had some difficulty getting coverage in the Catholic press and community.

Most compelling, however, is the well-documented posit that Walter Sullivan was just wonderful. A brilliant administrator to a large diocese as well a leading voice of Catholic thought, he was also gifted with the common touch of a caring and devoted pastor.

When he was first ordained he rejected a formal dinner and instead celebrated with a cookout with hot dogs and hamburgers and invited the entire community. He regularly visited prisons and counselled death row inmates and never lost his touch with those considered "the least among us." After his retirement and himself unwell he continued to conduct Mass at area nursing homes.

When he died in 2012 the Richmond Times-Dispatch (often at odds with the liberal Sullivan on the editorial page) published an appreciation that joined the community in "mourning a shepherd and a lamb."

Theroux writes of Sullivan's "instinct for brotherhood" and ends the book with this thought about the final moments of his funeral. "The bright emptiness emphasized what was no longer there."

A good biography delves into the darkness as well, and no review of the Catholic Church in the late 20th century could ignore the catastrophic sex scandals that have rocked the church in the last few decades.

Sullivan was better than some leaders, worse than others, and Theroux distinguishes herself both in taking Sullivan to task as well as trying to understand how such things could have taken place under his watch. "Therein lies the tragedy," she writes, "his imagination failed him.

I interviewed Theroux recently about The Good Bishop that launches this week.

Nancy Doyle Palmer: You came to know Bishop Sullivan late in his life yet certain similarities in your history and personalities made for a great alliance -- how would you describe your relationship?

Phyllis Theroux: There were numerous points of connection that made it easy for us to relate to each other. Both of us were raised in a pre-Vatican II Church culture. We were influenced for better and for worse -- by the same things -- the Baltimore Catechism, the the Latin Mass, a reverence for priests, and a great emphasis upon the importance of what the Church calls "the corporal works of mercy." Then, there was this odd coincidence of my having lived as a divorced Catholic mother a few blocks away from where Bishop Sullivan grew up -- as the only son of a divorced Catholic mother in a very Catholic part of Washington. Both of us felt the cool disapproval of the Catholics around us when we went from being socially acceptable to being part of a broken Christian home. Finally, on a temperamental level, we were very similar -- extroverts who tended to be personally sloppy. He said once that he should wear a bib when he eats. Both of us should, I replied.

NDP: You characterize the Bishop's naiveté concerning the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church as" a perfect storm of invincible ignorance." Can you elaborate on that?

PT: There was no getting around the fact that Bishop Sullivan was no more enlightened than all the other bishops who dealt with priests sexually abusing their parishioners' children. When I asked him about it, he admitted that he simply was unfamiliar with that world, and did not understand how any priest could molest a child. Intellectually, he accepted the fact that it had happened numerous times in the Richmond diocese while he was the presiding bishop. Emotionally, he was slow to realize that it was incurable. But when I thought about why such a courageous prelate could be such a mediocre man when it came to sexual abuse I began to understand it better He was raised in a time and culture where paedophilia was virtually unknown. He was educated in a church where sexuality was never discussed. As a priest, he was excluded from the one experience that could have sensitized him to the damage done to children - he had no children of his own. And yet, he was deeply conscious of being a father figure to his priests. Fathers protect their children, even when they do something wrong. And finally, it was Jason Berry who reminded me in an interview that one of the worst "deformities" of the ecclesiastical culture is the way in which they re-define a crime as a sin, which makes it a forgivable, as opposed to a prosecutable offense.

NDP: Talk about goodness -- what you call the Bishop's "instinct for brotherhood"

PT: My first career goal, when I was about nine years old, was to be a saint. It seemed like a wonderful life -- to be doing great good while getting great applause for doing it. Then reality intervened and I understood that there was more involved. When I began to spend time with Bishop Sullivan, I realized that I was in the presence of a man who really took Jesus seriously. He publicly embraced the unembraceable, made their causes his. He was a great friend of people in prison, said Mass for them in jail, was a regular visitor and correspondent, and testified relentlessly before the Virginia Assembly against the death penalty. He reached out to the gay population, saying special masses for them at the cathedral. He brought communion to dying AIDs patients. When one of his own priests told him he was dying of it, Sullivan asked him to move in with him. These were natural gestures for him, part of an inclusive personality but also of someone who understood the power of acting symbolically.

In the 1980s, at the same time that Ronald Reagan was seeking to amp up the arms race, Walter Sullivan went from being only marginally interested in the war and peace debate to becoming one of the American "peace bishops." He devoted enormous time and energy preaching against the incompatibility of Christianity and war, and nuclear weapons. Nor did he get stressed out by the agitation he created among Catholics. "This is what I think," he would say. "You have to form your own conclusions." He testified before Congress, appeared on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, was profiled in "Rolling Stone" by William Greider. His visibility brought persecution - primarily from within his own Church. A highly unusual and humiliating papal investigation was ordered after the Vatican received a barrage of anti-Sullivan letters complaining of his leadership. He never complained in public. Yet, the stress of that time undoubtedly led to his physical debilitation and eventual death from cancer. Saints suffer. Bishop Sullivan was no exception. But, outwardly, he appeared unperturbed.

NDP: Does the election of Pope Francis perhaps signal a return to Bishop Sullivan's kind of Catholicism?

PT: This new pope certainly seems like Bishop Sullivan's kind of pope: unpretentious, collegial, and determined to make the church the church of the poor and the dispossessed. That was Walter Sullivan's vision, to be a true church of succour and support to the least amongst us. Francis celebrated Holy Thursday in a Roman prison, washing the prisoners' feet. This is a pope who rode the bus to work! Somebody who knew Bishop Sullivan well commented after Francis' election, "I think Walter is upstairs working overtime."