In the media storm last month surrounding the one year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, one reflection seems to have not received much media attention outside its original source.
Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, gave a wide-ranging interview to The Wisconsin State-Journal newspaper in which he praised the new pontiff, but at the same time interpreted his statements in the most unusual light that I have yet seen. In news story summarizing the interview, the State-Journal noted:
“Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, a staunch traditionalist with a national reputation for vigorously opposing abortion and same-sex unions, said he and Pope Francis are in sync and that the new pontiff has made him a stronger culture warrior. . . .
“. . . Morlino cautioned that reporters and people with agendas have ‘outrageously misinterpreted’ some of the pontiff’s comments, and he said Pope Francis actually is causing him to speak out even more forcefully on the church’s opposition to abortion, artificial contraception, stem cell research and homosexual acts.”
While I can appreciate that the media have often misunderstood the pontiff’s statements, I think it is probably also a grave misunderstanding to think that Pope Francis’ statements are calling for bishops to speak out more forcefully on culture war topics. In the full text of the interview that the newspaper conducted, Morlino explained how the pope has made him a stronger culture warrrior:
“. . . in order to meet Christ, we have to stand up for the whole Christ. Standing up for the whole Christ — How do you do that? What are the aspects of Christ and of his work that need work in that vicinity or this region? That’s the judgment the bishop has to make. So I have to see kind of which aspects of the truth of Christ need work here, and when I see that, I kind of end up right back where I was. I have to speak up forcibly about these issues. But I have never failed to teach also about God’s mercy. Never. It’s one of my major themes. It always has been. But God’s mercy is always balanced with his judgment, and we have to think that through and work that out. It is unfortunate that some people, especially in your profession, have taken the occasion to widely misinterpret Francis, particularly with that statement, ‘Who am I to judge?’ I have had to explain away what the mass media have said about that far more times than I’d like to count.”
While some may have given Pope Francis’ statement an overly-broad interpretation of “Who am I to judge?”, I do not think that many Catholics, or non-Catholics for that matter, have taken it to mean what the bishop surmises they do. Morlino explains:
‘When Francis was telling us about that, he was talking about a particular bishop whom he had just given a job in the Vatican, and it was found out that in South America where this bishop had been, he had been charged with certain misconduct. So the question came to Francis, ‘How could you bring him in?’ And Francis said, ‘The man has admitted he did wrong, he is sorry, and he has changed his life through the grace of Jesus Christ. Who am I to judge him now?’ That is hardly a statement that somehow justifies homosexual behavior.”
I have spoken to hundreds of Catholics since the “Who am I to judge?” statement was made. I haven’t met one who thought the pope was condoning sexual activity between persons of the same gender.
Morlino also explained that he think’s the pope’s cultural background is one of the reasons that he has been more open to culture war topics than his predecessors:
“. . . it is my understanding that Argentina is a rather unique country in South America for a variety of reasons. They have a depth of culture and education beyond what a lot of other countries might have, and they have a very strong passion for a national spirit. They’re a nationalistic people. And I think the main thing I understand about Argentina that impinges on this is that there are not groups of Catholics whose purpose it is to dissent from the teaching of the church. There are a lot of people — Catholics and others — who are in desperate need. Pope Francis has an eye for them and he has a heart for them, and that was the bread and butter of his pastoral ministry in Argentina. So he wasn’t dealing so much, as I understand it, with doctrinal dissent, and of course that would make a big difference for how one does things in the United States versus how one would do things in Argentina. I think his approach is very much true to himself and true to his background and I couldn’t expect anything else.”
In the same interview, Morlino was asked about his decision to ban the use of the hymn “All Are Welcome” in Catholic churches in his diocese, and how that fit in with Francis’ constant admonition to keep the doors of the church open. He responded:
“This is something that is particularly difficult, because it’s clear Christ wanted the salvation of all people. So who is welcome? Those are welcome who want the truth of Christ, or who want to want it. We have groups in the church who don’t want it. Why would they even come? So for me to say that people who don’t want to want the truth of Christ are welcome, is to disrespect them. They don’t want that, so why would they. . . .
“This is something that is particularly difficult, because it’s clear Christ wanted the salvation of all people. So who is welcome? Those are welcome who want the truth of Christ, or who want to want it. We have groups in the church who don’t want it. Why would they even come? So for me to say that people who don’t want to want the truth of Christ are welcome, is to disrespect them. They don’t want that, so why would they.
” ‘All are welcome’ can become a synonym for diversity, meaning let’s have same-sex unions, let’s have a contraceptive culture, let’s have abortions. ‘It’s a big tent’ is another code word for lots of things. ‘Big tent’ usually means, in fact, weakening conviction, and we can’t do that. So there is a battle going on in the United States that I don’t believe is going on in Argentina.”
From the quotes above, Bishop Morlino seems to operate out of a very defensive position, as if constantly under attack. If he would dialogue with Catholics in his diocese about issues of concern to them, I think he would learn that their “dissent” is really assent to the teachings of the Gospel and the principles of Catholic values.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry