His Excellency, Bishop Robert F. Vasa, is the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California. Prior to coming to Santa Rosa in January 2010, he was the bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, for ten years. Bishop Vasa recently required the 200 teachers in the diocesan schools to sign an addendum to their contracts, titled “Bearing Witness”. This addendum acknowledges that they are called “to a life of holiness” and that “this call is the more compelling for me since I have been entrusted, in my vocation as a teacher/administrator in a Catholic school, with the formation of souls.” It also states, “I am especially cognizant of the fact that modern errors — including but not limited to matters that gravely offend human dignity and the common good such as contraception, abortion, homosexual ‘marriage’ and euthanasia — while broadly accepted in society, are not consistent with the clear teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Bishop Vasa spoke last week with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the controversy over his directive, the proper goals of Catholic education, the serious misunderstandings that exist about “conscience”, and some of the biggest challenges facing the Church in the United States.
CWR: You had a similar situation when you were the bishop of the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, where you asked all those involved in catechesis—
Bishop Vasa: —in ecclesial ministries of one kind or another.
CWR: —to sign. How similar are the two situations?
Bishop Vasa: It was the same general principle, but it is different here because it involves people who work for me in a contractual relationship because I am their employer.
CWR: And the situation in Oregon involved people who were sometimes volunteers and such.
Bishop Vasa: Right.
CWR: You know the lay of the land and you surely expected some negative reaction. Did the reaction live up to your expectations?
Bishop Vasa: Actually, I was surprised, because I think the reaction in Bend [where the chancery office for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, is located] was much more heated and much more critical than it has been here, which has been a surprise to me. I had anticipated a stronger initial reaction here. There’s been mixed reactions: some very positive and some obviously very negative. Some of the negative responses have to do with the specific content of what I’m asking teachers and administrators to acknowledge, and some has to do with the method that has been employed in asking them to acknowledge this. People have said, “You should not have done that because these teachings aren’t important”, or, “You should not have done that because you should have put people over policy”, or, “You should not have done that because these are good folks.” So the reasons for not doing it are all across the board. But I’m getting messages and e-mails from all over the United States saying, “Thank you for doing this. We really do need to uphold the clergy of the Catholic Church and the teachings of our Catholic institutions.”
CWR: The comments left on various online news articles are very much one side or another, as would be expected. But what you’ve done is something that many serious, orthodox Catholics are looking for. Keeping in mind that every bishop faces a different situation, why is that more bishops haven’t pursued a similar approach?
Bishop Vasa: My sense is that it is presumed. And in many places that presumption is probably valid, because there has been formation and training throughout the years with those who are involved in ecclesial ministries that makes these kind of things evidently clear. But we live in California, so when we say, “Follow the teachings of the Catholic Church”, the parenthesis that many people put on that is “in accord with my own, individualized conscience”. Well, that really takes every ounce of substance out of the contract.
If you and I are entering into a contract, and you said, “Here is the clear wording of the contract”, and you sign it, but then I say: “I understand the words of the contract, however, I am signing it with the understanding that my interpretation of every portion of it is the only valid interpretation, and it is with that understanding that I am signing it.” What, then, is the nature of the contract between you and me? There really isn’t a contract, because a contract requires a meeting of the minds. If I see language in the contract that I don’t understand, then I have an obligation to say, “Well, what does that mean?” And then I am free to discuss the meaning of the terms of that contract and I can perhaps negotiate some of them, but perhaps some of them are not negotiable. So this is simply a clarification of the language that is already used and was in the contract that Catholic school teachers have signed.
CWR: Doesn’t this get back to a fundamental issue that has been at the heart of many challenging situations here in the United States, which is that of “conscience”, which has become something of an escape clause for many people?
Bishop Vasa: Sure, the misunderstanding and the misapplication of the term “conscience” rest at the heart of this, and it is a global misrepresentation, not only among some of the administrators and teachers in our schools, but also among parents of children in our schools. Some see this contract as an infringement upon the freedom of the “conscience rights” of teachers. So there is that misrepresentation. Interestingly, though I am asking people to include an addendum from the Catechism of the Catholic Church—which they object to—one of the objections they raise is “freedom of conscience”, and they go back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and paragraph 1784, and cite that paragraph as a defense of their refusal to abide by this. They are rejecting the clear teachings of the Catechism [about contraception, abortion, marriage, etc.] and then are using the teachings of that paragraph of the Catechism to justify their objections! [Laughs] It’s almost as if the whole of the Catechism turns immediately into cotton candy in the face of that one paragraph.
CWR: The logic is obviously problematic, because if a hundred people were to say, “My conscience is the highest arbiter of truth when it comes to issues X, Y, and Z”, then there is no real, objective truth. Truth is then understood to be the belief that my conscience is the highest good.
Bishop Vasa: Yes, there is a sense in which people say, “I will listen solely to myself; I don’t have an obligation to listen to anybody else.” The issue of conscience is a huge one, and it needs to be addressed. There is a great quote from Cardinal Newman that I really like. He wrote: “When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way.” (“Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”, sec. 5)
CWR: Newman’s writings about conscience are often misused and taken wildly out of context, aren’t they?
Bishop Vasa: Exactly. But this one is hard to take out of context.
CWR: This issue of conscience clearly touches on many other areas of Church life, such as the hot topic of whether or not to give communion to politicians or others who have publicly supported abortion.
Bishop Vasa: Really anyone who is knowingly involved in a public and scandalous rejection of Church teaching.
CWR: Speaking of Catholic education, what are the biggest challenges in Catholic education—not so much higher education, but in parochial schools?
Bishop Vasa: There is a challenge in coming to a clearer recognition and declaration of what is the purpose—the “Why?”—of our schools. Why are we here? What is our purpose? And since there are many schools out there competing with one another for things such as grants and gifts, “educational excellence” becomes the major banner. And it’s not a bad banner, but it becomes the one that trumps everything else. So we want educational excellence, but how do we get to the central goal of wanting faith excellence? And Catholicism excellence? And that is not in contradiction to educational excellence. We have the means and mechanisms to do an excellent job on academics and education. Why can we not exert significant additional energies on the spiritual, catechetical, doctrinal, moral formation of youth in this context? Why can we not have Catholicism excellence, with the banner right there on the same level as educational excellence? We’ve sort of lost our purpose. And what I told the Catholic high schools last year at graduation was that there are a number of measures of the success of a Catholic school. We can look at how many students go on the college, how many receive scholarships, how many receive various communal awards—those are all wonderful measures, if you will, of the abilities of a school.
But is that a good measure for us as Catholics to use in looking at a Catholic school, asking “Is this Catholic school being effective”? What is the criteria? Perhaps the criteria could be how many vocations to the priesthood and the religious life have come out of this religious institution in the last twenty years? How many students leave from here and devote two or three years of their lives to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or some other evangelizing mission? That is a very good thing. I’ve seen Catholic colleges that post how many graduates are now priests and religious sisters. That to me is a measure of the success of a Catholic institution. Not the only measure, but an important measure.
CWR: It brings to mind the saying, which is funny and yet not funny at all, “If you want your children to lose their Catholic faith, send them to a Catholic school.”
Bishop Vasa: I want parents to have a passionate concern for the spiritual, dogmatic, moral formation of their youth, and I’m presuming that is why parents send their children to a Catholic school. And since I operate with that presumption, that imposes a responsibility upon me to make sure that the Catholic formation in that school is consistent with what the Catechism and the Holy Father proclaim to be the teachings of the Church. A failure to do that is an abdication of my responsibility.
CWR: One of the major themes of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate was that faith and reason are not only compatible, they must go together. They come from the same source, the Author of Truth. Now the Church faces the unusual situation of a papal resignation—
Bishop Vasa: A couple of folks have suggested that I follow Benedict’s lead!
CWR: [Laughs] When you heard the news of the resignation, what was your reaction?
Bishop Vasa: When I first heard of it, my reaction—and I’ve mentioned this in a couple of homilies and some presentations—was to think back to 2005, when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. I was mildly shocked that it happened; I was surprised. I was also a little saddened and very joyful. A little saddened because here was a man at the age of 78 looking for the next Holy Father so he could retire and go to his books and his writing, which he clearly and dearly loves. So I was a little saddened, but I was also edified by his obedience. And then when I heard of his resignation, I had the same emotions: a little shocked and surprised, sad, and also very happy for him that now he has this opportunity to take this very well deserved, last stage of his pilgrimage on earth in tranquility. Obviously, I was so edified through the whole of his papacy by his beautiful efforts and the work that he has done—in his encyclicals, in his three books on Jesus of Nazareth, and so forth.
CWR: Do you think we will look back some day and see that he did far more in eight years than would be reasonably expected from a man in his late seventies?
Bishop Vasa: I think many expected him to be a sort of gentle place holder. But he hit the ground running and did an enormous amount during a very difficult time in the Church.
CWR: Any thoughts on the conclave?
Bishop Vasa: I’ve actually read very little about it; I’ve stayed away from the blogs. I did read a very good article by Cardinal George, and I found it interesting. You know, I will pray for, follow, and be attentive and reverentially faithful to whoever is elected.
CWR: What are, especially here in the United States, the most pressing issues that are facing the Church that need to be addressed in the coming years?
Bishop Vasa: I think it is something we discussed earlier, which is this issue of conscience. The false understanding of conscience is so deeply imbedded in the American psyche and has taken on a life of its own. That really needs to be very strongly clarified in a way that eliminates these loopholes that some theologians and others are quick to find. Pope John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor, did precisely that. But it needs to be understood better, more broadly and deeply, made front and center, so that when I make a statement like I have, it doesn’t look like I’m being this recalcitrant, backward, archaic bishop who doesn’t understand anything about Vatican II, the sense of the faithful, the sensus fidei, or conscience. And of course this is something that Pope Benedict talked about in addressing the issue of relativism, which really is an issue of conscience.
And then the issue of properly understanding ecclesiology, which has been really problematic in this country from its founding. There is this sense that the cardinals are like mini-popes, and so people don’t really recognize that the bishop really does have full authority in his diocese. The bishop is not subject to the USCCB. And then clarification of the role of the laity, the clergy, and the bishops in a coherent way, so it is easier for Catholics to navigate the waters of American culture.