Wineke: Bishop Morlino failed in one big goal

Wineke: Bishop Morlino failed in one big goal

Bishop Robert Morlino, who led the Madison Catholic Diocese for 15 years until his death Saturday, came to Madison with several big goals.

He listed those in an interview with me – I worked for the Wisconsin State Journal at the time – the day he arrived from Helena, Montana.

He wanted to reorient the church toward a body of Christians that was “more faithful” than it had been, even if that effort resulted in fewer people choosing to be Catholic. He wanted to recruit more young men to the priesthood. And, he said, he wanted to make the church a respected participant in the dialogue of the public square.

His success in the first goal is open to question. There is a not minuscule number of Catholics who long for the days of the Latin Mass, the moral authority of the priesthood and the formal dignity of the pre-Vatican II church. Morlino did what he could to restore these rituals.

He was far more successful in recruiting seminarians. He encouraged them. He visited them in their seminaries and he enjoyed their company.

In his third goal, restoring the church’s role in public discourse, he was amazingly unsuccessful.

It’s not that he didn’t try. He moved his personal residence from the grounds of Holy Name Seminary to a downtown rectory, even having a large balcony built on the residence so he could overlook the Capitol. He readily participated in public debate. He took very controversial positions on public policy, defending Gov. Scott Walker’s actions to destroy public employee unions, condemning attempts to legalize same-sex marriage and even refusing Catholic funeral rites to married gays and lesbians.

But I never saw much evidence that the leaders in business and government actually paid much attention to him.

I think that’s because Morlino never really understood Madison and really never understood his diocese.

He came here in 2003. A year later, he wrote in his diocesan newspaper that “Madison has a high comfort level with virtually no public morality.”

Now, one defining characteristic of Madison is that if we can find a way to take offense, we will. In this case we could and we did. We, as a city, immediately assumed that the bishop was calling us “immoral.”

He didn’t really mean that…quite. It’s just that he thought abortion and homosexual relations were immoral and most of Madison didn’t.

The problem is that you don’t build dialogue by issuing pronouncements. Morlino liked to issue pronouncements. He would send out taped announcements to his churches, telling the priests to play them without comment. He insisted his opponents debate him on his own intellectual terms. He had a disturbing habit of reassigning, or even retiring, priests who disagreed with him, and then explaining he did so because he was concerned about the priest’s health.

In the end, I think the bishop’s greatest failing was that he misunderstood the role of bishop in today’s culture. He thought the title bestowed influence. But that’s no longer true, if ever it was. It’s not true of bishops. It’s not true of priests, and it most certainly isn’t true of pastors of other denominations or faiths.

Influence comes from being able to empathize with and take seriously the existential concerns of the people one supposedly leads. Bishop Morlino took seriously the legalistic teachings of his church, but I’m not sure he did so well with the actual humans who are that church.

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