An online petition at Change.org is asking Pope Francis to remove Bishop Robert C. Morlino, 70, from his position as Bishop of Madison, alleging that in his ministry since he came to Wisconsin in 2003 “has put bigotry and hatred front and center.” DignityUSA’s executive director, Marianne Duddy-Burke, is unhappy with the bishop as well, stating that the diocesan practices relating to funerals for those who were involved in homosexual civil unions are “outrageous and shameful,” “heartless,” “cruel” and “unchristian in the extreme.”
The controversy relates to a private statement to priests by Madison’s vicar general, Fr. James Bartylla, leaked to the Pray Tell blog in October. In it, Fr. Bartylla advises diocesan priests to exercise prudence when approached by the family of a deceased person who had been involved in a same-sex union requesting a Catholic funeral lest such a service cause “scandal and confusion.”
Fr. Bartylla asks, “Did the deceased express repentance before death?” and “Would a short Scripture service graveside or in a funeral home suffice?” He also notes that the surviving “partner” should not be given a public or prominent role in the funeral, nor should the partner’s name be included in a funeral homily or related printed materials.
Bishop Morlino spoke recently to CWR about the controversy.
CWR: Have your priests contacted the Diocese of Madison for direction on funerals for those involved in same-sex unions?
Bishop Morlino: Yes, regularly.
CWR: Do you agree with the comments offered by Fr. Bartylla?
Bishop Morlino: Yes, but I want to stress that these comments were offered in a context not intended for a more general group of people. We have a Saturday mailing for priests that has always been considered to be confidential among the clergy. These remarks were intended in a “short hand” way for priests, but not for everyone. Someone leaked it to the Pray Tell blog.
CWR: The post seemed quite balanced and measured, and in accord with canon law and Church teaching. Were you surprised with the hostile response you’ve received in regard to it?
Bishop Morlino: No, as it was never meant for the general public, and things were expressed in a way I never would have to the general public. Whoever leaked it caused a lot of unnecessary pain. Once it was leaked, I would have expected a response such as this.
CWR: You responded, in November, with a column that states such attacks were based on “misconceptions at the most basic level.” Can you expand on what those misconceptions are?
Bishop Morlino: The misconception was related to the way I would speak to the general public about this issue. If I were speaking to the general public, I would stress that a person with same-sex attraction is a child of God, that God died for him or her, that such a person has a heavy cross to carry and our job is to help them carry it, not to kick them when they’re down.
What I’ve said about the leak is that people tuned into a long conversation about the topic at a very inconvenient point. To understand the whole conversation, this was not the place to enter it.
CWR: A petition was started to remove you. Are you aware of any such petitions that have been effective in removing a bishop?
Bishop Morlino: I’m not aware of any such petition amounting to much of anything. I never would encourage people to be involved with petitions of this nature, either pro or con. It’s not the way we do business in the Church, and it makes the Church look political.
CWR: How has this affected you personally?
Bishop Morlino: When I get up in the morning, I thank God for the gift of life. Whatever happens to me is willed or permitted by Him. So, I have my safe space in God’s hands every day.
It hasn’t affected me at an emotional level or knocked me off my stride. But what does concern me is that many people who don’t know me have gotten a false impression of me, so that when our diocese does outreach, we don’t reach first base. So, our ministry to persons with same-sex attraction has been severely hindered, which is troublesome. The ministry of the Church gets hurt; it’s not a matter of my feelings.
CWR: You’ve complained about the media coverage relating to this topic. What stories have you seen that particularly concern you?
Bishop Morlino: It is the media coverage that has most aggravated me, as these stories do not make it clear that this was a leak not intended for the public. No one mentioned this, nor is it mentioned what I said about Christ dying for every single person and helping persons with same-sex attraction bear their burden.
The zenith of the nonsense was a local story featuring five people who came to Holy Redeemer Church to “nail” [with painter’s tape] theses to the door of Madison’s Holy Redeemer Church [reminiscent of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church; the “theses” complained about the bishop’s treatment of homosexuals] when no one else was there except a media crew, giving attention to what five people did on a church door [see “Group protests Madison Bishop at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church”]. In the big picture, this is not news, but a story people wanted to make into news. But it’s been par for the course for our media coverage.
CWR: On November 30, you asked your people for prayers to defeat evil in the world. Was it related to this issue?
Bishop Morlino: Not so much. I’ve been thinking of doing it for a long time, but what prompted it was the recent Texas church shooting, which included the killing of babies at close range in cold blood. To shoot a baby at close range is an activity of the devil.
CWR: It is worth mentioning that the Diocese of Madison offers resources for persons with same-sex attraction, such as referrals to the Courage apostolate and Eden Invitation.
Bishop Morlino: Yes, they’re there for people who need this kind of help.
But I also need to say that I can’t change the truth, and it never helps someone if I try. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once said, only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.
CWR: What support would you like to have from the laity?
Bishop Morlino: I would ask them to familiarize themselves with the whole story. On the Diocese of Madison Facebook page we have a link to an interview I recently did with Raymond Arroyo on his program “The World Over”.
CWR: Any other thoughts?
Bishop Morlino: Yes. People need to go back again and again and again what St. Ignatius said in his Spiritual Exercises; we must give the benefit of the doubt to people unless there is evidence to do otherwise [paragraph 22, “…every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.”] People have not been giving us the benefit of the doubt, but instead have been giving things the worst possible interpretation. It’s done all the time in politics, and as bishops are public figures, bishops can be treated like politicians.
CWR: What good news from the Diocese of Madison would you like to share?
Bishop Morlino: We ordained three men to the priesthood this year. And, please God, we’ll ordain five more next year. We also have been getting many applications for the seminary for the fall.
Our new St. Paul University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin—Madison is open and serving students. It’s a wonderful thing. We also had a very successful capital drive for our seminarian education. Our people are very generous and we’re grateful.