Hard to believe, but it's already been six months since the aforementioned scribe found himself in one of the US church's hidden hotspots: Madison, Wisconsin. To say that the place blew me away on multiple levels doesn't scratch the surface; as with so many others, the MadCity experience lives with me and keeps me encouraged everyday. You see, in the heart of what's been termed the "People's Republic" for its prominence as a bastion of hard-core secularity, quite a vibrant community is emerging -- one that's young, alive, awake, open and warm in spirit, and large both in number and heart.
And the fruits are considerable: in recent years, the number of seminarians in the diocese of 280,000 has spiked to 30, on a beautiful spring Friday (the first of the year there) just as many twenty-somethings were holding the fort in downtown's lone adoration chapel, and the campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin -- where weekend Mass attendance goes long into the thousands -- has spilled over into the two downtown parishes, which have experienced a concurrent uptick in energy and responded with an outreach and engagement of the top-flight kind.
Presiding over it all is Bishop Robert Morlino, who recently sat for an extended interview (transcript) with one of the city's mainstream broadsheets.
After four years of driving over iced lakes in Montana as bishop of Helena, the Scranton-born onetime Jesuit who began his teaching years on Philly's Hawk Hill landed on the Madison Isthmus in 2003; asked why he thought he was sent to a town known for its tough crowd, the bishop mused that it might've come about "because the Lord has given me the grace not to be afraid."
A moral theologian by training and accomplished chef in his spare time, Morlino's fearlessness extends to the heart of the public square; when his ability to mix it up "quite often" was noted, he shot back with "Oh no, it's been a while.... Have I been in a controversy the last six months?" (He hasn't.) "[T]he culture is not conducive so much to the flourishing of an institution whose engine — the church's engine — is driven by obedience," he said later. "The engine that drove Christ was obedience to the Father, and the engine that drives the Catholic Church is obedience to Christ. Churches are an obedience-driven communion. So when you're in a culture that's not so warmed up to obedience, then you have your problems. But you just embrace those problems and go on with joy. And that's what I do."
Among other things joyously on-deck for the strong-speaking bishop and his ecclesiastical boomtown: a "worthy" new St Raphael Cathedral to replace the 19th-century structure destroyed in a 2005 fire, and a '62 Mass to be celebrated by Morlino on Laetare Sunday. Rocco from Whispers
Morlino: None whatsoever, to be honest with you. I had no intention of creating a stir. I really believe honestly that the stir was created when at least certain Catholics had the perception that some priests were not teaching clearly about marriage. And I would say that's what created the stir. I was not in any way anxious to take a more serious measure, at all. Since St. John the Baptist laid down his life to defend the marriage bond, I really thought that for Catholics this would be an obvious thing to do, to defend the marriage bond. And in defending the marriage bond, I never meant to be against anyone, and I still don't. But in certain places in the United States, like Dane County, which I love, if you seek to defend marriage, you are almost immediately portrayed as being against somebody, and I'm not against anyone. But marriage is one of the most basic truths of reason and of faith and I can't in any way back away from its defense because without authentic marriage, our society is really on a downhill plummet that could be of major proportion, because everything regarding the formation and education of children depends on authentic marriage. If children are not authentically formed and educated, then what are we letting ourselves in for with regard to the future. So I really didn't see myself as creating the stir, I saw circumstances around me as creating the stir — circumstances to which I had to respond and I had no choice about what the response would be because the teaching of the Holy father and the teaching of the bishops of Wisconsin had already been made very clear, even in writing. So I didn't see really that I had a choice to create a stir or not. The stir was out there. I had to respond to it, and I did, and I would do the same thing again.
I suppose I would put it this way: Pope Benedict just wrote to us bishops a letter not too long ago about the permission for the traditional Latin mass. He said, 'I know some of you bishops have agonized year after year about whether or not to permit this,' and I've been one of those. I was the only bishop in Wisconsin who did not permit the traditional Latin mass for what I thought were good reasons. And the Pope wrote and said, 'I want to relieve you of the responsibility of all of that prudential pondering, so I'm making the decision.' He saw that as a service, and I accepted it as a service. I was the only bishop in Wisconsin not to permit the traditional Latin mass, and now, in obedience, I will be the first bishop in Wisconsin to celebrate the traditional Latin mass. I really looked upon this as relieving certain priests of the responsibility to defend marriage if they felt that somehow there was going to be a certain discomfort about this at some level or another.
WSJ: So there were priests not following the Catholic doctrine on marriage?
Morlino: I heard there were four priests who were not supporting our defense — meaning the Pope's and the bishops' of Wisconsin — our defense of the marriage amendment to defend the definition of marriage. I didn't want to investigate priests. I give priests the benefit of the doubt. But I thought, the best thing for me to do was to take this upon myself instead of investigating priests. I've gone over that decision many times, and I would do the same thing even at this moment. I also have had confirmation that marriage should be defended in this way from my own superiors. You know, it's never pleasant to be taking it in the press day after day, but if that's the price you have to pay to defend the truth, then I'll be more than willing to pay it.
WSJ: You do find yourself in the middle of controversies quite often.
Morlino: Oh no, it's been a while. (laughing). Have I been in a controversy the last six months? I don't think so, particularly.
WSJ: What about the Western Hemisphere Institute advisory board — you now serve as its chairman. (Editor's note: Critics say the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, in Fort Benning, Ga., trains Latin American soldiers who go on to commit human rights atrocities.)
Morlino: Oh, well, that's ongoing. I was encouraged to do that by the archbishop of the military diocese who has complete confidence in that school. You know, I do what I'm asked to do. I know for a fact there is no evidence to connect what the school teaches with any kind of atrocities. There are graduates of the school who have committed atrocities. There are Harvard graduates from Latin America who have become dictators in Latin America and committed atrocities. No one has suggested that Harvard should close down. The connection between what is taught at this school and what people did — there is no evidence that supports any connection. I mean I know that. I've asked very hard questions of the State Department to investigate specific cases, and there's nothing there. Now why certain people can't let this go in the clear absence of evidence making the connection is really beyond me. But as I've said publicly, I went into the seminary during the Vietnam War, so I was exempted from the draft. And when I was asked to serve in this capacity at WHINSEC, I chose to serve my country because I had never done that before. And I would do that again, too.
WSJ: How long does your term last on the board?
Morlino: I've served for two years, and I've been appointed for another two years. You can't serve anymore than two consecutive terms, so it will end. But again, I don't have any regrets about that. I do regret that people don't understand. I have to understand that I have to answer up to things before God myself in my own conscience, and that's life.
WSJ: 2008 is a presidential election year. What role do you see yourself playing in election issues.
Morlino: I want to — and I will — speak out on issues. I'm not going to reject candidates or endorse candidates specifically, but I have to remind myself and Catholics about the issues that are pertinent and the priority of those issues. The whole range of life issues are very important to us as Catholics, from pro-life to poverty to justice to peace, but there is a priority for us, and that priority is determined by when the most helpless are killed or otherwise oppressed. We have to defend those most unable to help themselves first. That's the priority, and then we go down the whole list, and the farther down the list we go, the more room there is for prudential judgment and disagreement. But when we talk about those most unable to defend themselves in our society, there's no room for difference, not from the point of view of human reason, because if any human being is at the mercy or domination of other human beings, then, in principal, all can be at the mercy. And those most at the mercy of other human beings and at the mercy of unjust domination are the unborn, there's no questions about that, and those frozen embryos. I mean, they are absolutely the most helpless. And therefore, the top priority is to defend them. And then, as you go down the line, people are more and more able to defend themselves. And we still care about defending those who are harmed or oppressed in any way, but those who are most helpless have to be our top priority for our defense. So I'll be saying that. I'm not going to mention candidates and I'm certainly not going to try to mention them without mentioning them. I just have to stick to the issues, and I always have tried to do that. Now certain candidates sometimes come out and say things and I then I have to clarify an issue and then they say, 'Well, the bishop is against so-and-so or the bishop is for so-and-so.' Well that's a conclusion that they draw. But I leave it to them to draw the conclusions. It doesn't matter which candidate the bishop is for or against. What matters is that they see what the issues are and they decide who they're for or against. I don't have to answer up to God for who they are for or against. But we do have to answer up to God for how we vote in accord with our Catholic convictions. I only have to answer up for what I teach and how I vote. I don't have to answer for how they vote. I have to talk about the issues, they have to make the application. But I can be portrayed as anything. Some Catholic took me to the state Elections Board over this, and the Election Board dismissed it without much consideration. To think that I don't have the right to teach the Catholic faith in the Catholic Church — what kind of a democracy would that be? (Editor's note: The issue for some church members was not whether Bishop Morlino had the right to sermonize about Catholic doctrine to his parishioners, but whether the diocese could distribute fliers related to political issues to the broader community without disclosing how much money it had spent on the materials.) I felt bad that had to happen. I felt bad that a Catholic had to, in a public way, be brought into opposition with myself as the teacher of the faith.
WSJ: That happened with a small number of Catholics who walked out of Mass, and some have left the church. Is that the price you pay for being forceful?
Morlino: It's not really the price I pay. It's the price they pay. I agonize when anybody has to do that, but faith in Christ is faith in the teaching of the church. When I teach the teaching of the church, I'm not teaching anything except what the Pope and the bishops with me teach. I never give people my own opinion or some personal theology. I give them what the pope and the bishops with him teach. That's what I give people. If they walk away, I feel badly. Jesus said to the crowds in the Scriptures — and I'm not any perfect example of Jesus. I certainly have my own weaknesses and my own sins — but he said unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. And St. John says that when he said that, many walked away from him. There are certain things we have to do in defending basic things that will be the occasion for people to walk away and that always hurts me very deeply. But I see the truth as the cause of their walking away, not myself. And I have never spoken the truth in a mean-spirited way, so that someone would say, 'The bishop was mean to me.' I've spoken it in the most loving and gentle way I can speak it — but clearly. Because if it's not clear, it's a waste of breath.
WSJ: Do you ever worry that your words are too harsh?
Morlino: Oh sure, I worry about a lot of things. But I certainly would never deliberately be harsh. I would deliberately be strong. I think there's a real difference there. Being harsh is like being mean. I've often said to myself, I don't know why any priest would ever be mean. And I don't know why I would ever be mean. If I wanted the freedom to be mean, I wouldn't have become a priest. The one thing I find hardest to believe is that sometimes — and I'm talking universally, not about the diocese in Madison — sometimes priests are mean. I would never in any way decide to be mean or mean-spirited. But I have to be strong at times, and clear, because otherwise you're simply not taken seriously. I have to speak in a way that people realize that I'm serious, but not in a way that's mean. Sometimes if you speak strongly people perceive that to be mean. I can't lose too much sleep over that kind of thing, I have to speak strongly and I have to speak clearly and I will.
WSJ: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you love Dane County.
Morlino: I do.
WSJ: Madison cannot be an easy flock to manage. Do you ever ask yourself, 'Why me?'
Morlino: Oh, all the time, all the time. But not in the sense of any resentment. When I ask that question, I kind of come up with an answer. Because there are so many people in the diocese of Madison and in Dane County, in particular, in the political and university community who do want to deal with things at a serious level of reason, and that's how I want to deal with things. I don't want to force Catholic faith on anybody. If someone comes up to me and says, 'I'm a Catholic,' then I'll say, 'If you're a Catholic, then this is what you should believe.' But if somebody is not Catholic or they are doubtfully a Catholic, then I want to see where reason leads us. Doesn't reason lead us to the existence of God? And then I can spell that out, how I think that works. And then I can say, 'Follow that argument and show me where I'm wrong.' Doesn't reason lead us to conclude that every human being has absolute dignity? Then I can give that argument and say, 'Show me where I'm wrong.' Doesn't reason lead us to a definition of authentic marriage? Doesn't reason lead us to the conclusion that violence is irrational? I think Madison is a good place to have that kind of dialogue, and I enjoy having it very much. But the culture is not conducive so much to the flourishing of an institution whose engine — the church's engine — is driven by obedience. Jesus was obedient unto death, death on the cross. Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. He became obedient in order to heal Adam's disobedience. We have all of this 'I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.' The engine that drove Christ was obedience to the Father, and the engine that drives the Catholic Church is obedience to Christ. Churches are an obedience-driven communion. So when you're in a culture that's not so warmed up to obedience, then you have your problems. But you just embrace those problems and go on with joy. And that's what I do.
WSJ: In February of 2004, about six months after arriving here, you said Madison appears to have "a high comfort level with virtually no public morality." Has anything improved in that area?
Morlino: That was a much misunderstood statement. I really did use the wrong word. Public morality is a technical term in philosophy. What it means is that people have common starting points for their moral reasonings. They have common ground, common presuppositions, like axioms in geometry. I don't think it's very controversial to say that in Madison there are no common starting points. That's all I meant to say. And people responded by saying, 'We try to have decent schools. Our streets are clean.' I didn't think that they were ugly, evil people or something like that. When I saw how that was reported, I thought, I should have never have used the term public morality because that's a technical, philosophical term, and I couldn't expect people at large to understand what I meant. It was in the context of casino gambling. All of this argumentation was going on in the press but nobody was starting from the same starting point. So the arguments were never going head to head. They were never really getting anywhere because the starting points, the presuppositions, were all diverse. That's all I meant to say.
WSJ: So you were not saying that Madison is more immoral than other places?
Morlino: No not at all. I meant to say that like many other places, there is no common ground in terms of starting points for moral reasoning. I was just observing it. I wasn't even jumping into that. I never took a stand on that myself. But I was watching in the papers the arguments that were being lodged and all of them had diverse starting points and when the starting points are diverse you can't make progress in reasoning. In order to make progress through reasoning, you've got to have the same starting points, and then on the basis of those starting points, someone can be proven wrong and the other one can be proven right. This is a problem in the American culture, and it's a problem in Western Europe, too, not just in Madison, particularly. I love living here. I love being Downtown. I love the people I've met — the people who agree with me and the people who disagree with me. I love them all, and I try to do my best to communicate with them all reasonably. And I love it in that sense.
WSJ: It seems like you would have a larger population of people who disagree with you here than almost anywhere in the country.
Morlino: Well, you would have as many.
WSJ: Madison has the headquarters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a large secular population, a large population of gays and lesbians. Why do you think you were assigned here?
Morlino: Maybe because the Lord has given me the grace not to be afraid of all of that. Jesus said many times to the apostles, 'Be not afraid.' I think people have probably observed that I'm not afraid. But I'm not mean-spirited about it at all. I'm kind of happy about it all. I'm happy to be here. I've been called here in specific obedience to the Holy Father. I couldn't be happier than when I'm obeying him. These decisions are not made lightly about which bishop is assigned where. It's not that the Holy Father spends 20 hours pondering each appointment of a bishop — I'm not giving myself that kind of credit. But the Holy Father's advisors really dig into what is needed and what gifts a person has, how the gifts match the needs. They really delve into that for years. But then the Holy Father makes the final decision, and if I'm obedient to Him, then I'm as happy as a clam no matter where I am. That's how it works. We're obedience driven.
WSJ: In June, you announced your decision to rebuild St. Raphael's Cathedral on its Downtown site following an arson fire. How is the planning going?
Morlino: I'm going to get the results of a feasibility study, I hope, before Christmas, and that will tell us how much money we can hope to raise. I'm hoping that our Catholic community and the wider Downtown community cares about having a worthy cathedral in Madison. Once I see what we can reasonably raise, then we'll come up with some drawings, but I don't want to jump the gun. I don't want to be the bishop who placed Catholics of the diocese in an almost hopeless debt or something like that. I don't want to go about it that way. I want to do what we can reasonably do, and I want it to be a worthy cathedral. I just have to leave that in God's hands.
WSJ: Do you have a more precise cost estimate yet?
Morlino: No, we won't until I see what we can reasonably raise now. That will clue me in to the kind of hopes I can reasonably have.
WSJ: How far out are we from building the cathedral?
Morlino: I don't know. We're certainly not going to break ground in a year. We're farther out than that.
WSJ: How challenging do you think the fundraising will be?
Morlino: That remains to be seen. That's what we're trying to learn this month in talking with hundreds and hundreds of people in a very systematic way. Maybe before Christmas I can answer that for you. I don't think it's ever easy. I mean, this is never easy.
WSJ: In a recent homily, you said speaking out to protect the environment should be a part of every Catholic's pro-life agenda. Why is it important that Catholics be green?
Morlino: Because of the words of Scripture: From the beauty of all created things, their author, by analogy, is seen. The argument to the existence of God from reason frequently depends upon the beauty of creation. If we allow creation to become disfigured, we are doing in our own argument for the existence of God. So to protect the beauty of creation is to protect our argument on the basis of reason for the existence of God.
WSJ: How do you try to be a good environmentalist?
Morlino: I have all of these recycling (bins), one is different than the other. And I never take long showers. I take very brief showers for that reason. I try not to be wasteful of things.
WSJ: There's a national debate about whether there's truly a shortage of priests or whether it's an issue of distributing priests more efficiently. What is your view?
Morlino: The priests are not distributed as efficiently as they could be. We're just finishing a process to try to do better with that. But there is a shortage. I think the shortage is very temporary, maybe 10 to 15 years. The numbers are growing just about everywhere, at least everywhere where the bishop is really engaged in the promotion of vocations to the priesthood, the numbers are rising. So I think in 15 years we won't have such a shortage. But for now, we do have a shortage and part of it is a distribution problem and part of it the multiplication of Masses. People have gotten used to having Mass more or less at their convenience. If we had fewer Masses, the priest shortage would be alleviated. But in order to have fewer Masses, people are going to have to accept the inconvenience that would come with fewer Masses. And that kind of change in people's lives is always tough, and I know that it is.
WSJ: How will we see the shortage play out in this diocese?
Morlino: We're seeing it play out as parishes link and merge and that's what's going to be going on for the next 10-plus years. There are going to be more and more linkages and more mergers, and there are going to be fewer Masses as a temporary addressing of this problem. We've got to really see what we're doing with our buildings. In some places we need some new, larger buildings so that we can accommodate more people and have fewer Masses. And there were some lovely smaller buildings that are only serving a small number of families and we've got to determine how we can, in a loving way, address that.
WSJ: On a personal note, you lost a lot of weight and began exercising regularly after you had a heart problem in 2004. How is your health?
Morlino: I just had a major heart examination about two weeks ago. The cardiologist tells me that the artificial valve is functioning very well, and the heart function is very good.
WSJ: And the exercising?
Morlino: Every day. I have a cross-trainer next to my bed. When I'm here, I get on it the first thing in the morning. If I'm away, I take a good walk.
WSJ: Do you listen to an iPod?
Morlino: No, I'm technologically challenged. I probably couldn't work it. I kind of relax when I'm on the cross-trainer. If I had to deal with technology, it would probably be stressful.
WSJ: Bishop, thank you for your time.