Archbishop Robert Carlson, 72, has served as Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, since 2009. He is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1970. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop for that archdiocese in 1984, and served as Bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota from 1994 to 2005 and Saginaw, Michigan from 2004 to 2009.
Archbishop Carlson is the oldest of five children and the only boy; two of his sisters died in their youth. He describes his family and upbringing as “normal”: faithfully going to Sunday Mass, praying the rosary and attending Catholic schools. He attended a high school staffed by Christian Brothers.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis includes the city of St. Louis and the 10 surrounding counties in the eastern side of the State of Missouri. It is home to 516,000 Catholics, and 199 parishes and other sites used for Catholic worship. It is served by 331 diocesan priests and 286 religious priests.
Archbishop Carlson recently spoke with CWR about his vocation and influences, Catholic education, and challenges facing both the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the universal Church.
CWR: What made you decide to go to the seminary?
Archbishop Robert Carlson: I would say it is the effect of the parish priest on my family. In the 7th grade, I was called home when one of my sisters died. I remember seeing my mother crying, and our pastor sitting on the couch consoling her. It had a major impact on me. I had planned to be a doctor, but I wound up going to the seminary instead.
CWR: What was seminary life like in the 1960s?
Archbishop Carlson: When I started out in the seminary, if you left campus, you were kicked out. By the time I left, if you spent all your time on campus, something was wrong. It was the era of Vatican II, and there were a lot of changes going on in the Church.
CWR: Who are some Catholics that you admire?
When my grandmother was seven months pregnant with my mother, her husband died of pneumonia. It was the 1920s, before penicillin was available. She lost her house and was in a bad way. Her sister, my Aunt Molly, called off her wedding and dedicated her life to helping my grandmother.
Aunt Molly was a very generous woman, a saint, in my opinion. She was a devout Catholic and Third Order Dominican. I saw something in her I wanted to have.
There was a priest I lived with in Sioux Falls – Fr. John. He’s deceased now. He was a man of prayer. Even after he’d retired, he would go to the hospital and visit every Catholic there. He was a great priest; a priest’s priest. He’s deceased now. He was very important to me. I still celebrate Mass with a chalice he used.
And, I admire Pope St. John Paul II. He, too, was a man of prayer. He believed in freedom of religion, and battled for years with the communists. I met him on a number of occasions. Once, for example, when I was an auxiliary bishop for Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I recall him saying of me: “He’s a very young bishop. He has many years of suffering ahead.”
CWR: Besides the basic statistics, tell me about the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Archbishop Carlson: I think there are two things that stand out most. Among the larger 61 dioceses, defined as those having 300,000 or more Catholics, we have the best priest-to-people average. Second, although we are 41st in size among American dioceses, when it comes to kids who attend Catholic schools, we’re 8th in the nation.
Catholic schools are important when it comes to vocations. Ninety-four percent of our priests went to Catholic grade schools, and 92 percent to Catholic high schools. And, most of our seminarians for St. Louis come from St. Louis. That’s not the case in some dioceses. We’re very blessed to have 54 seminarians for the archdiocese, and I think we’ll see that number increase next year.
The roots of the faith are very deep here. We have 85 religious communities, and 27 Catholic high schools, of which about half are diocesan. It’s a big question here in St. Louis when you talk to people: what high school did you go to?
CWR: What were some of your priorities for the archdiocese when you arrived in 2009?
Archbishop Carlson: Catholic education has always been my first priority. We gave $9.2 million for scholarships last year for poor children to attend Catholic schools. We’re in the middle of a huge drive, Beyond Sunday, to raise $100 million for our Catholic schools so we can offer more scholarships for children to attend Catholic school, including those in the middle class.
A second priority of mine is evangelization. We were one of the first dioceses, for example, to bring in [Catholic speaker and author] Matthew Kelly to train evangelization teams for our parishes. We welcomed Catholics Come Home [which produces television commercials inviting Catholics back to church], which we estimate brought 37,000 people back to the Faith.
I’m reading a book now about the Great Commission ["Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Matthew 28:19-20]. We’re all called to be missionary disciples. It’s not enough to be in church every Sunday, or even every day. We have to share the Good News of the Faith.
CWR: Around five million attended Catholic schools in the early 1960s, vs. about two million today. Why has this decline occurred, despite the growing numbers of Catholics?
Archbishop Carlson: I think cost is a big issue. That’s why we started our Beyond Sunday campaign to help our middle class as well as our poor families to afford a Catholic education. Catholic schools employ more lay people vs. religious in past years, and lay people require larger salaries.
Also, people are having fewer children. We have 10 percent fewer children than we did 10 years ago.
CWR: You’re frequently quoted in the secular media. What difficulties have you had working with the secular press?
Archbishop Carlson: The secular media presents “bumper sticker” stories; you have to speak in a way to give them a good sound bite. But the issues affecting the Catholic Church can be complex. That’s when the secular media doesn’t do a good job. They can be great with simple statistics, but if you get into a deeper discussion of, for example, how we might strengthen our Catholic schools, that’s when you can run into difficulty.
Because of that, the Catholic media is very important. In our archdiocese, we have our newspaper, the St. Louis Review. We also have our magazine, St. Louis Catholic, which is sent out to each of our Catholic homes. These are important vehicles for getting out Catholic teaching and telling people what we believe.
CWR: You said last year that the Girl Scouts were “becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values.” Can you elaborate?
Archbishop Carlson: Over the years, scouting has been a very valuable resource, teaching leadership skills and values to our youth. I was involved in the Boy Scouts myself in my home parish growing up and as a seminarian.
But as our culture becomes increasingly secular, we have to look to see if the scouting organizations are going down that same path. Youth are one of our greatest resources, and it is my responsibility as a pastoral leader that children know their Faith.
We don’t charter the Girl Scouts, and we had some problems with them in areas related to sexual morality. Some of what they were teaching was ambiguous, and in areas such as birth control and abortion, incorrect. After raising this issue a year ago, things seem to be going better now.
We do charter the Boy Scouts, so we have more control over what they’re doing.
CWR: The City of St. Louis has passed BB203 to add “reproductive health decisions” to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance concerning housing and employment. You called this a “horrible piece of legislation.” Can you explain?
Archbishop Carlson: It turns St. Louis into an abortion-sanctuary city. So if a person opposed to abortion owns rental property that an abortion provider wishes to rent, he is required to allow him to rent it. Or, if someone is providing medical insurance to employees but doesn’t want to include abortion coverage, he must still do it. It violates religious freedom.
While there are some protections for the archdiocese, we’re concerned about its effect on our people. We’re hopeful that some action at the state level will turn things around. We’re also planning to file a lawsuit in federal court.
CWR: What are your thoughts on Amoris Laetitia and the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried?
Archbishop Carlson: You have to start with Pope Francis. He’s a Jesuit. He is talking about accompanying people as you try to get them to live in conformity with the teachings of the Church. I remember when I was working in a parish, and a couple “living together” came to see me. I didn’t attack them on this issue during our first meeting. Instead we read the Scriptures and prayed together and then addressed their situation in subsequent meetings.
There are some people, however, who feel that in Amoris Laetitia it is hard to figure out what Pope Francis is saying. So, I think there does have to be more clarification.
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