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Interview
December 01, 2011
Bishop Robert Morlino discusses the union fight in Wisconsin, life issues, and the blessings and challenges of governing a diocese.

Bishop Robert Morlino, 64, has served as bishop of Madison, Wisconsin since 2003. He was born and reared in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, near Scranton.  He was an only child; his father was a civil engineer but died young due to a heart ailment.

Virtually everyone in Dunmore was Catholic, and Morlino knew many faithful priests and nuns while growing up. Hence, in his early years, he was immersed in what he describes as “a strong and wonderful Catholic culture.” He attended a Jesuit high school and was particularly impressed with the example of one priest, so he decided to enter the Jesuit community.

He was ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus in 1974, but left the community in 1981 and was incardinated as a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was ordained a bishop in 1999. He served as bishop of Helena, Montana before arriving in Madison.

Bishop Morlino has been outspoken in his defense of Church teaching on a variety of issues.  He recently spoke with CWR.

Why were you attracted to the priesthood?

Bishop Morlino: The town in which I was born was about 99 percent Catholic. All of us boys thought about becoming priests. When we were little, most of us “played Mass.”

In those days, we also had the example of wonderful priests and sisters. The priesthood was very appealing. From a young age, I thought it would be a real possibility for me. 

When many boys got to high school they backed away from that desire [for the priesthood] when they discovered girls. You begin to think about the possibility of marriage. But I never stopped thinking about being a priest. And I had the great blessing to go to a tremendous Jesuit high school in Scranton. There I was able to solidify the idea that the Lord was calling me. 

When I finished high school, I entered the Jesuits for the Maryland province. Once I entered, I never thought seriously about leaving. My family was very supportive of my vocation. When I was ordained a priest, my mother and grandmother were there. It was the day in their lives.

Tell me about the Diocese of Madison.

Bishop Morlino: It is home to many wonderful, faithful Christians. They are good folk, who love their neighbor and want to do what’s best. 

We have two distinct communities.  There is a rural area, which has many people of German descent who are solid believers. And there is Dane County, which includes the Wisconsin state capital and the University of Wisconsin-Madison; they work together to create a liberal, secularist culture. There is not a natural attraction between the ethos of Dane County and the Catholic Church.

How is the Dane County ethos at odds with the Church?

Bishop Morlino: If you read the local newspapers, it is unusual for the Church to be covered in a way that is unqualifiedly positive. True, there are some things about the Church that are not unqualifiedly positive. But when the papers tell the story about something that should simply be good news about the Church, they always attach some kind of cloud over it.

While individual people in Dane County can be wonderful to me and our priests, the culture itself is not friendly to our Catholic moral convictions, especially the ones that concern the Natural Law.

We had a difficult battle here, for example, to protect the traditional definition of marriage. Thank God, we won. The last legislature passed a law requiring us to provide contraceptive services as part of our health insurance. At this moment, we’re trying to get an exemption from that. I hope we’ll be successful. 

What were your thoughts about the protests by public sector unions against Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans earlier this year?

Bishop Morlino: The Catholic Church has always stood up for the legitimate rights of workers. But the issue of public sector unions versus private sector unions poses some genuine difficulties, which Pope John Paul addressed specifically in his encyclical Centesimus Annus.

We, the bishops of Wisconsin, wanted to remain neutral about the whole situation. We are concerned about workers’ rights, but the governor made some legitimate points. Catholics need to look at the whole teaching of the Catholic Church, and do their best to apply them to this complex situation. Workers’ rights have to be balanced with the common good.

Were there efforts to pull you into this conflict?

Bishop Morlino: Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee wrote a letter on the issue which stressed the Church’s support of workers’ rights. I wrote a letter in which I stressed the principles of fairness and the common good. I said that in this particular conflict between the unionists and the governor there was no simple solution. The media cast Archbishop Listecki as pro-unionist. I was cast as anti-unionist, which I certainly am not.

How is Madison doing on vocations to the priesthood and religious life?

Bishop Morlino: During the last calendar year, I ordained six priests. This summer, 10 entered the seminary, so we have a total of 26 seminarians still in formation. They are wonderful young men.

We have about 15 women in formation to become consecrated sisters. That’s also a great joy to me. The Lord has blessed us tremendously.

How have you been successful?

Bishop Morlino: The key is prayer and God’s grace. We’ve also made it clear what the identity of the priest is, and in what direction the Church is headed. We also offer them joy in the community of seminarians and the ready availability of getting to know the bishop. 

Why did you invite eight priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to your diocese to minister?

Bishop Morlino: A bishop’s first obligation in regards to the administration of his diocese is to provide sufficient priests for the people. We have a great shortage of priests and I’m always looking for good priests to help us out.

I was approached by priest of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest—I had never heard of them—about the possibility of coming to minister in Madison. I was enthused. They’re a new community founded in Spain by a wonderful, saintly man, Father Alfonzo Galvez. I’ve met with him several times. 

The community understands the continuity that is supposed to exist in the life of the Church. They’ll do whatever Vatican II asks them to do legitimately—we all know there are many misinterpretations of Vatican II afoot—but they also have an appreciation for our tradition, including the traditional Latin Mass. They do not seek the past, but appreciate it as we move dynamically forward. Some think they are a community that is tightly linked to the traditional Latin Mass. But it was unknown in their community until the indult allowing greater use of the Latin Mass came into effect.

They have been warmly received by many. There are certain people with strong agendas, such as those in Call to Action, who have made it difficult for them.

Speaking of Call to Action, in 2008 they placed a full-page open letter in the Wisconsin State Journal criticizing your leadership.

Bishop Morlino: I pray for people in Call to Action. I feel badly that they’re committed to what they’re doing as a good. It causes tremendous division within the Church. And to try to organize the people against the bishop who is doing nothing but what the Church is teaching is a harmful thing. It grieves me.

When you arrived in Madison, you wrote in a column in the Catholic Herald in which you described the community as having a “high level of comfort and virtually no public morality.” Can you expand upon this comment?

Bishop Morlino: It was an unfortunate choice of words on my part. I’ve had a lot of background in philosophy and theology, and it was a mistake for me to use the technical term “public morality” in the particular context in which I was speaking.

Philosophically, public morality means an agreed-upon set of moral principles in a local area and culture that serves as a starting point for the discussion of moral issues. The United States, for example, has no public morality. We don’t have a set of agreed-upon moral principles from which we, as a people, can draw conclusions. Moral reasoning is lost at sea. Different groups come up with different conclusions.

But saying Madison or the United States does not have a public morality does not mean that we’re Sodom and Gomorrah (though, in many ways, our culture does appear to be headed in that direction). It’s simply saying that relativism and secularism are so deeply embedded in our culture that there is no common moral ground from which we can begin to move toward a common conclusion.

We make arguments, but we are unable to dialogue with one another, because the arguments originate from different frameworks, from different presuppositions. When I say there is no public morality, I’m saying that there is a dictatorship of relativism. I’m not saying that people are bad morally. We are divided about what is right and what is wrong.

What issues in the public square most concern you?

Bishop Morlino: I’m concerned about life issues. The current presidential administration has fallen far short of what we would hope for in terms of the protection of life from conception to natural death. They’ve also fallen far short in terms of conscience protection, which is essential to our religious liberty. 

The recent rule that has come out of the Department of Health and Human Services, which states that provision must be made for contraception as a preventive health service in our insurance policies, is truly outrageous. As we say so often, pregnancy is not an illness. To speak about contraception as another health care issue, like having a chest x-ray, is quite outrageous. We have to stand up strongly against that.

I’m concerned about immigration. It’s an issue that has become overly emotionalized. We are capable of finding a way to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) while respecting the laws of the United States. It’s not up to bishops or priests to come up with a formulation of what that law would be; we need great Catholic legislators to do so.

Who are some Catholics you admire?

Bishop Morlino: There are many. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have met two great saints: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul. They show the greatness of what can be accomplished with one’s life. During one of my meetings with Pope John Paul, he said to me, “If the Pope is afraid, then the Church is afraid. And the Church must never be afraid.” That’s always very alive in my mind.

I’m grateful we have Pope Benedict, who is also unafraid. If you look at the life of Pope Benedict, and his youthfulness despite his advanced years, it is a tremendous source of inspiration and strength. When I get tired, I remind myself of all that Pope Benedict is doing, and he is 20 years older than me. So I say, “Why am I so tired? Let’s get going.”

I also admire many married couples I’ve met here in Madison. They have many children, and stand strongly in support of the Catholic faith. They joyfully make the tremendous sacrifices that responsible fatherhood and motherhood require.

I admire our seminarians, who are filled with zeal, joy, and hope. They’re chasing after holiness in a way that was not what I observed, frankly, when I was in the seminary in the 70s.

I am daily inspired and energized with hope as I see the living saints who are right under my nose here in Madison. It encourages me and makes me feel like doing all that the Lord has called me to do, whether or not it is pleasant. It has to be done, in the name of the Lord, in the name of the Kingdom. We’re part of a Church that doesn’t have the luxury of being a cruise ship. We’re more like a battleship, fighting against the forces of evil. 

What devotions do you recommend to Catholics to improve their spirituality?

Bishop Morlino: I strongly recommend adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It brings us tremendous graces. In our diocese, we have had one parish that has had perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for 15 years. The difference it makes to the spiritual life of the parish is incalculable. 

Secondly, I recommend the daily Rosary. People need to know the way in which our Blessed Mother leads them to her son. That’s the way to get to know her son as she knows him. She is all those beautiful titles we use for her in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Gate of Heaven. She is a privileged gateway to knowing Jesus as she knows him. Getting close to her always means getting closer to Jesus. 

We celibate priests especially need to be conscious of the Marian dimension of the Church, and to have Mary as a powerful intercessor and intimate friend. That can come about with the daily recitation of the Rosary with attention and devotion. I’ve seen it over and over again, and I’ve seen it in my own life. 

And, the intercession of Blessed John Paul is a particular gift to our own generation. It is wonderful to be able to pray to a saint that we knew in one way or another, even from a distance. His intercession for us before the Lord will be great in terms of just looking at the many blessings that he brought upon the whole world with God’s help during his life.

How has the Church changed during your lifetime?

Bishop Morlino: I notice that more Catholics are becoming unafraid to show forth their true identity. Many Catholics have grown much stronger in giving the kind of witness that the New Evangelization requires of us. There has been slow, but steady movement in that awareness and conviction about our true Catholic identity, in which we accept everything that is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

But, most importantly, we accept it because we know Jesus in a personal, life-changing way. He brings us to the attitude of mind and heart where we accept all that the Church teaches us. During my lifetime, the number of Catholics who take that approach has grown. They give witness to the world and are faithful missionaries in the New Evangelization.
 
About the Author
Jim Graves 

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
 

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