Bishop Robert Vasa has served as bishop of Baker, Oregon since 2000. On January 24, the Vatican announced that he will serve as coadjutor bishop for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California. Bishop Vasa will assist the current head of the diocese, Bishop Daniel Walsh, and then succeed him as bishop once Walsh reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2012.
Bishop Vasa, age 59, has been outspoken in his defense of Catholic doctrine and moral teachings, particularly related to the life issues. He made news recently when he declared that a bishop’s authority in his own diocese supersedes that of the national bishops’ conference, stating, “It is easy to forget that the conference is the vehicle to assist bishops in cooperating with each other and not a separate regulatory commission.” He added, “there may also be an unfortunate tendency on the part of bishops to abdicate to the conference a portion of their episcopal role and duty.”
Bishop Vasa has also voiced concerns over the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and has insisted that Catholics who teach or hold leadership roles in his diocese take an oath to express their loyalty to Church teaching. He also ended diocesan sponsorship of St. Charles Medical Center-Bend over its refusal to support Church teaching on health-related issues.
Bishop Vasa spoke with CWR about these and other topics, prior to his assignment in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. The full interview appears in the February issue of CWR.
You have said that you would not give Holy Communion to a Catholic politician who supports legal abortion. Other bishops do not hold this view. Why do you believe as you do?
Bishop Vasa: It has to do with communion with the Lord. As someone I know said quite well recently, is this what the Lord wants you to do as a Catholic politician? If it isn’t, then you need to be honest and consistent about that and say you cannot claim a unity with the Church—a communion with the Church, a communion with Christ—when your beliefs, behaviors, and actions, particularly in terms of your pro-abortion stand, speak in absolute contradiction to that communion.
Denying Communion to such a politician is not something I would just casually do, though. I would first meet with that individual, offer them a warning, and tell them that their soul was in danger.
Bishop Vasa: While I trust the bishops on the committee itself, I have many concerns nationally about how we as the Catholic Church interact with elements of our society that do not share our values. It is one thing to interact with those who do not share our values, but it is quite another to financially support agencies, individuals, or agendas which are absolutely, diametrically opposed to our principles and values.
Unfortunately, there are multi-layered corporations seeking funding that might have 90 percent of their activities perfectly in accord with the teaching of the Church, and they’re working in many areas and on issues for which the Church has a passion. Unfortunately, those same corporations may have a spin-off group that they fund which supports, say, population control, artificial contraception, and abortion. This would, in my mind, disqualify them from any support.
The question is how much of a link must exist between organizations seeking Campaign for Human Development funding and activities that as Catholics we find objectionable before we as a Church say, “No, I’m sorry, you are linked with immoral practices and we will not fund you.”
At some point, we must decide that their complicity with evil is too great, and we will not support them. Some people’s consciences may find some minor complicity acceptable, but for me, I believe that there are better places where our money can go.
You ask those in your diocese who teach the faith or distribute Holy Communion to make an Affirmation of Personal Faith. What is this, and why did you adopt this policy?
Bisop Vasa: This came about after we adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children. I support the Charter and its efforts to protect children from emotional and physical abuse; there is certainly no greater crime. But it dawned on me that if we don’t do something likewise to protect children from spiritual harm, then we’re not really minding the flock as we should.
Our policy requires us to do criminal background checks on everyone who has any contact with children. So also, I wanted anyone who taught the faith or who is held up as a public witness for the faith—such as lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, cantors, and catechists—to attest to the fact that they affirm and believe the basic teachings of the Church as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes declaring such things as: I believe in God, the virgin birth, the existence of purgatory, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. I also accept the Church’s moral teachings, such as the evil and sinfulness of contraception, homosexual activity, and adulterous behavior.
It’s a Creed, yet it adds what I consider to be those important moral issues some Catholics seem to have the impression they can openly and publicly dissent from without any kind of consequence.
Why did the Diocese of Baker end its sponsorship of St. Charles Medical Center-Bend?
Bishop Vasa: Fifteen years or more ago, the city of Bend issued a civic bond to fund the hospital. This gave the impression that it was a community rather than Catholic hospital. The hospital was turned over to a lay board, and there were not suitable protections of the inherent Catholicity of the organization. The board operated without direct episcopal oversight; despite being bishop of the diocese, I did not have any legal authority to intervene in the actions of the hospital.
The lay board followed the religious and ethical directives of their choosing, not necessarily in accordance with Catholic teaching, and did not understand that this was a condition for maintaining their Catholic identity. I believed it was a condition. We went back and forth for years, until there was no possibility for the meeting of the minds. I also discovered that sterilizations were being performed at the hospital in opposition to Catholic teaching, and they had no intention of discontinuing this practice.
I thought, here is another issue regarding adherence to Catholic teaching which led me to adopt the Affirmation of Personal Faith. How can I continue official sponsorship of a hospital which is acting on a belief system that is contrary to the Catholic faith? I cannot.
How can we bring back a renewal of Catholic life in the United States?
Bishop Vasa: The renewal is already happening, but slowly. Young families and young adults in particular have sensed and experienced the emptiness of the promises of the world. They sense almost instinctively that there has to be something more.
Society looks at the human person, and it operates in regard to the human person with a philosophical base and foundation that is hollow and shallow. It treats us as a biochemical entity which is merely capable of pleasure and enjoyment.
But human beings are capable of so much more. We are spiritual beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We have a deeper component, a spiritual and supernatural component that is unsettled. As St. Augustine would say, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Even though there has been a great attempt in society to alleviate that restlessness, it has been unsuccessful. And, that restlessness is rising up. People are asking, is that all there is?
The Church is the place where we say, “No, that is not all there is.” You are much more. You are created in the image and likeness of God. In baptism, you become a child of God. You are beloved of God, and you have been saved by the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. He lives with you today. He calls you to recognize your dignity and to live that dignity to the fullest. That’s a message that the world cannot offer and for which the world is hungry.
I always encourage Catholics to look forward and upward. I tell them not to be frustrated by a seeming lack of success, whether it be in the pro-life area, or in a desire for a stronger manifestation of Catholicism in political life, the health care world or other elements of our society. Such frustration is a sign that we want the success for ourselves.
What we are called to do, as Mother Teresa said, is be faithful. If we are faithful, then we are successful. That’s really the bottom line.
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
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