Phoenix Roman Catholic Bishop James S. Rausch, 52, former executive of the United States Catholic hierarchy and a leading figure among progressive bishops of the American church, died yesterday at a Phoenix hospital following a heart attack.
Bishop Rausch was on his way to Sidona, Ariz., for a day's holiday when he was stricken. He was pronounced dead on arrival at John C. Lincoln Hospital. Only the second prelate to head the relatively young Phoenix diocese, Bishop Rausch had been in that post for four years.
During his five-year tenure as general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, from 1972 to 1977, Bishop Rausch played a major role in putting the influence of his church behind a variety of social justice issues.
He became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, testifying before congressional committees on topics as varied as world hunger, human and civil rights, the Panama Canal, housing and health care, as well as the more traditionally Catholic issues such as parochial school aid and abortion.
He did not hesitate to use his position to protest injustices in this country and elsewhere. Bishop Rausch firmly established the role of his church as an institution deeply involved in political and social concerns far beyond the traditional religious issues.
Bishop Rausch was a close friend of fellow-Minnesotan, former vice president Walter F. Mondale. Mondale, now practicing law in Washington, issued a statement yesterday calling Bishop Rausch "an eloquent and influential voice for social justice and religious values in American life. . . . His death is a tragic loss for his church and his country, both of which he served with utmost devotion."
While Bishop Rausch's liberal stance in both religious and secular affairs drew criticism from some segments of church, his accomplishments and his outlook found favor with Archbishop Jean Jadot, who was the papal representative in this country until last year. His assignment in 1977 to the Diocese of Phoenix was viewed as Vatican approval of his ministry.
Bishop Rausch plunged into the affairs of the sun-scorched diocese with the same energy and drive that he had earlier applied to his national administrative post. His concern continued to be for the disadvantaged and the hurting. He sometimes said mass in orange groves to bring the church to migratory workers who feared arrest as aliens if they went into the city.
His first Easter as Bishop of Phoenix, he traveled half way across the diocese to say mass for an organization of separated and divorced Catholics.
While dutifully faithful to the doctrines of his church, Bishop Rausch privately agonized over the suffering caused by such things as church prohibitions against remarriage after divorce and the continued refusal to ordain women to the priesthood.
Bishop Rausch was born in Albany, Minn. Sept. 4, 1928, educated in Catholic schools in Minnesota and Indiana, and ordained to the priesthood in St. Cloud, Minn., on June 2, 1956. He served in his native state as a priest and teacher. He did graduate work in economics at the University of Minnesota, received a masters degree in education from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, and earned a PhD in pastoral psychology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
In 1970, he became assistant general secretary of the United States Catholic Conference, the service arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1972, he was named head of both the USCC and NCCB, succeeding Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin, who had been appointed Archbishop of Cincinnati.
He was made a bishop the following year. It was characteristic of his style that instead of the traditional formal dinner marking his consecration to the episcopacy, Bishop Rausch instead celebrated with an ethnic festival in his home diocese of St. Cloud.