Bishop Robert Morlino on controversy: “…only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”

The Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin, who has been under fire from various homosexual activist groups and media outlets, stresses that anyone 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.”

Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis., venerates relics of St. Maria Goretti at St. Maria Goretti Church in Madison Oct. 16, 2015. (CNS photo/Kevin Wondrash, Catholic Herald)

An online petition at 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.

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About Jim Graves 228 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.


    • Amen to the Bishops measured responses and his desire for his critics to know and try to understand the context of his remarks and the response the teaching Church has for the general public. Read the Scriptures and know what “Faithful” means and what “Charity’ and “Hope” mean to the disciplined Catholic choosing to live for Christ.

  1. The interviewer might have asked whether pope who am I to judge with his mercy offensive and his calling priests and bishops animals has helped or hindered his efforts to maintain integrity in the diocese. He probably wouldn’t have answered directly, but…

    And, of course there is always the possibility that holding a public canonization (i.e. new church funeral celebration) for a manifest and obstinate public sinner would foster conversion of others in the same situation… when lollipops start growing on trees and unicorns are domesticated.

  2. Perhaps I am more confused than ever as to the church’s pastoral position on homosexuality. I have believed that Gays are born Gay. The Bachmanns who operate a “clinic” in Minneapolis with the slogan “Pray the Gay away” must think Gays can be “converted” and that they “chose” the lifestyle. As was the case in Hitler’s Germany, there are countrys today who will put a Gay to death simply for their sexual orientation. There is not much choice here. Bishop Morlino says they are “children of God”. A further explanation is needed.

    • The Catechism offers a summary of the Church’s teachings about homosexuality:

      2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

      2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

      2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

      More detail can be found in the CDF’s 1986 Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:

    • It is impossible to detect any logical connection between any two of the assertions you make. I don’t believe for an instant that anybody, anywhere, anytime, has run a clinic with the slogan, “Pray the Gay Away.” At no point do you define any of the terms you use. It is impossible to detect any meaning in your word salad.

    • There is not definitive evidence of people being born “gay”. It does happen in nature
      things such as hemafrodites, however, this is extremely rare. What seems more common is
      that people with same sex attraction, are people that had sexual abuse as children, and or
      bad relationship with their father or mother. If there would be proof, that they have naturally more hormones or chromosomes or anything, in people with same sex attraction it would be all publicized and make known.

  3. People need to understand that what the Bishop stated is the normal practice of the Roman Catholic Church. His statements regarding funerals for those living publicly in grave sin is nothing new. Catholics who have same sex attraction know the teachings of the Church. They choose to enter into grave sin publicly and they have to know the ramifications of this. They shouldn’t be worried about the funeral, they should be worried about eternity.

  4. Sorry to disagree with para 2357 of the Catechism, but the psychological genesis of same sex attraction has been pretty well established, but perhaps does not apply to each and every case. It is also established that specific psychotherapies with a highly motivated person can be successful. The effectiveness of such therapy has been terribly maligned in the media, and as you may know, is even against California state law!

    • Except that 1) any psychological component to being gay or lesbian has not been established and 2) no proponent, or groups of proponents, of so called “reparative therapy” have ever succeeded in pulling together a sufficient sample of alleged long-term “success” stories to conduct any sort of serious peer-reviewed study showing that it works. To the contrary, state legislatures have outlawed such treatments based on the overwhelming conclusive proof that such treatments are extremely harmful.

    • No politician should tell scientist or doctors what to do.
      Science is a process. Treatments get better with time. Any sort of treatment.
      Politics would have said to HIV mothers no to have kids, or pregnant women
      with cancer to not to have kids, but science has proven now, that those children
      have hope.

  5. The bishop’s defense of “I would have said it differently” had he known the letter would be made public seems troubling to me. Either he believes in his convictions and says what he means to everyone or he presents a different face to the public than he does among his priests. I wish I could understand better why he would think that wording something differently, in public, would mitigate the ultimate intent of his letter to his priests. I would also like to know if he sent a similar letter covering decedants who were open about using artificial birth control, having had sex outside of marriage, having engaged in masturbation, having been known for being gluttonous or vain or any number of other prohibitive behavior or whether he singled out gays and lesbians. Sadly, the latter seems to be the case.

  6. Bishop Morlino is absolutely correct. His pastoral outreach is characterized by the respect offered by the truth. Were he to respond otherwise he would be doing a disservice to all involved. That would be “outrageous and shameful,” “heartless,” “cruel” and “unchristian in the extreme.” We are adults called to attend to the word of Jesus Christ, at once merciful and just — a two edged sword.
    God uphold Bishop Morlino! God reward him! Abundantly.

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