Pope Benedict XVI greets Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa, Calif., during an April 21, 2012, meeting with bishops from California, Nevada, Hawaii and Utah on their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
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
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.
had a similar situation when you were the bishop of the Diocese of
Baker, Oregon, where you asked all those involved in catechesis
in ecclesial ministries of one kind or another.
to sign. How similar are the two situations?
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.
situation in Oregon involved people who were sometimes volunteers and
You know the lay of
the land and you surely expected some negative reaction. Did the
reaction live up to your expectations?
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."
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?
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
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.
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
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
toone 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
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.
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.
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)
writings about conscience are often misused and taken wildly out of
context, aren't they?
Exactly. But this one is
hard to take out of context.
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.
who is knowingly involved in a public and scandalous rejection of Church
Speaking of Catholic education, what are the
biggest challenges in Catholic educationnot so much higher education,
but in parochial schools?
There is a challenge
in coming to a clearer recognition and declaration of what is the
purposethe "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
awardsthose 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
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."
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
and the Holy Father proclaim to be the teachings of the
Church. A failure to do that is an abdication of my responsibility.
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
A couple of folks have suggested that I follow Benedict's
[Laughs] When you heard the news of the
resignation, what was your reaction?
first heard of it, my reactionand I've mentioned this in a couple of
homilies and some presentationswas 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 donein his encyclicals, in
his three books on Jesus of Nazareth, and so forth.
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
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.
Any thoughts on the conclave?
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.
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
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.
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.