New Pastures : Diocese's First Auxiliary Bishop Is Settling Into His Assignment

Times Staff Writer

The Most Rev. John T. Steinbock, auxiliary bishop of Orange and featured guest at the annual diocesan press luncheon Thursday, was still the object of some good-natured ribbing from his superior, Bishop William R. Johnson, about his appearance last week at a charity fashion show where he modeled flashy slacks made of patchwork madras.

Normally, Steinbock confided to table mates at a South Coast Village restaurant, dressing in brown is as jazzy as his wardrobe gets. But in order to help raise $25,000 for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Santa Ana, the auxiliary bishop was prevailed upon to dispense with his more traditional ensemble of clerical black and take part in the Gentlemen's Haberdashery Fashion Extravaganza at the Newport Marriott Hotel.

The Newport Beach runway, Steinbock was quick to acknowledge, is quite a far cry from the Skid Row neighborhood where the Spanish-speaking Steinbock, 47, last served at St. Vibiana's Cathedral, and the various East Los Angeles parishes before that.

"I was very happy in East Los Angeles and on Skid Row," Steinbock said of his previous assignments. "Since the seminary I have always wanted to serve among the poor."

The bishop, a tall, thin, angular man, said he was surprised to find that certain areas of his new diocese which includes all of Orange County were not so different from his old one.

Steinbock said he "was not aware of the poverty that was found in pockets of Orange County," or of the large number of undocumented workers. "In Orange County I see a lot of the same needs as I saw on Skid Row."

Skid Row 'Needed Christ'

With the needs of the poor growing exponentially over the last 15 years and the material resources of the church unable to keep pace, Steinbock said, "the great need on Skid Row is for God . . . . They needed Christ--that was their most important need."

That same need exists "in affluent places as well," he said, because material well-being doesn't do people much good if they are poor in spirit.

"Individualism," Steinbock said, has led to "the use and abuse of others" for personal gratification, abetted by "a sense of consumerism and materialism" that often results in "seeing people as objects."

Steinbock's appointment as Orange County's first auxiliary bishop was seen as an acknowledgement of the growth of the county's Catholic population, which is the second largest in California, as well as of the large number of Latino parishoners. According to the Official Catholic Directory, there are 413,393 Catholics in the county, but the Diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry estimates that the county contains an additional 200,000 "unregistered" Latino Catholics. The total, if correct, would mean that about one of every four residents of Orange County is Catholic.

For the Latino community, the bishop said, the major priorities are housing, employment and "the basic necessities of life."

As vicar general, Steinbock says, his primary responsibilities, apart from being a "a priest in prayer," are to represent Bishop Johnson at various functions around the county and to oversee administration of the diocese. "Above all," he said, "I believe I'm a pastoral priest."

Steinbock said he was impressed that "there are so many agencies here in Orange County reaching out to the poor." He mentioned that, for example, the St. Vincent de Paul Society had collected 2.7 million pounds of food in the last fiscal year and that this year was hoping to collect 6 million pounds.

'Reaching Out to Poor'

"The plight of the poor and the homeless has to be kept in the forefront of people's minds," Steinbock told guests at the annual Bishop's Orange County Press Luncheon, with the church "reaching out to the poor, the handicapped, the elderly."

After seven months on the job, Steinbock says he is "still going through the learning process."

Steinbock, who served as president of the Los Angeles Priests Senate in 1979 and 1980, said he supported the positions of the U.S. Conference of Bishops on a wide range of so-called social issues, which he said represented a "consistency of ethics" based on the "sanctity of human life."

On nuclear weapons, Steinbock said, "we're not going to build peace by getting more weapons. . . . We already have enough nuclear weapons. The church has to speak out on moral issues, and nuclear war is a moral issue."

Abortion, he said simply, "is the taking of an innocent life" and that "there is no division within the church at all" on that subject. Steinbock defended the disciplinary actions taken against nuns who raised questions about the interpretation of church doctrine on the subject, saying they were "using their office to confuse people's minds."

Death Penalty Opposed

Steinbock also opposes the death penalty, because "there should be a more humane way of handling a person convicted of murder." However, he added, after working in the Skid Row area where murders and assaults on the steps of St. Vibiana once averaged one a month, and watching violent people slipping through the cracks of the criminal justice system, "I can see why people can be strong for the death penalty."

Without taking a position in favor of providing "sanctuary" to Central American refugees, Steinbock said he has come in contact with a large number of people who have fled from El Salvador to the United States and that "we have to respond to people where they are" in confronting the issue. "They say that there is definite danger for their lives if they return to El Salvador," he said. "I wouldn't expect anyone to go back to a situation like that."

Steinbock said he was not concerned about voicing such positions in a county with a reputation for conservatism. "The obligation of the church is to teach, to bring about what the Lord Jesus Christ teaches," he said. "It has to keep speaking about those issues."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World