Madison Bishop Interprets Pope Francis' Welcome

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

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


0 replies
  1. pjnugent
    pjnugent says:

    We have to remember that this is the guy who is (or at least was) on the Board of the School of the Americas, the crowd that trained the military who shot Oscar Romero and the San Salvador Jesuits and 10s of thousands of others.

  2. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    I’m really tired of ignorant, celibate and sometimes closeted homosexual clergy giving their misinformed opinions filled with stupidity. I also am tired of people “interpreting” Francis’ message. He said what he said. Who am to judge. There ya go. If you need an interpreter for that, I don’t know. You should someone who specializes in learning disabilities or reading problems. I also am tired of the Pope not taking action on these Bishops who are marginalizing people. That is my rant for today. God bless ya’ll. 🙂

  3. Greg Hackley
    Greg Hackley says:

    And one might STILL wonder why Devon and I attend the Episcopal Church here in Asheville instead of our home Catholic church??? It is so obvious that the American bishops are desperately out of touch with modern society.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      As soon as Pope Francis came on the scene, and made his very different and more welcoming and inclusive vision of the Church quite clear, I predicted: “Watch the hard-core Traditionalists throw a hissy-fit tantrum, and try to create a virtual schism within the Church”. My prediction is now coming true. If it’s any comfort to you Greg, the Anglican and Episcopal Churches hold demonstrably valid lineage, through the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht, whose bishops have participated in the consecration of key Anglican bishops since the late 19th Century. The Anglicans and Episcopalians are a wonderful option, and their leadership is (for the most part) far less twisted than the likes of Bishop Morlino. Jesus doesn’t mind what Church you pray and worship in, as long as your prayer and worship are sincere. I think more and more furious Catholics, like the parents whose kids were sexually harangued by that rogue nun in North Carolina, are beginning to realize this

  4. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    I remember when my kids were toddlers, I said certain things over and over: “I love YOU, but I can’t let you hurt (fill in the blank).” “I love you, but I can’t let you hit. Hitting hurts. Do you want to apologize (I never forced them to apologize, though). “I love YOU, but I cannot let you say, ‘dumb.’ That word hurts (fill in the blank’s) feelings.” I so wish that Pope Francis would let the strident but hurtful bishops, priests, nuns, and even some parish members know that we love THEM, but we cannot let them hurt (by word or deed) our LGBT brothers and sisters in the name of the Catholic church. I want Pope Francis to tell all who represent the church that love is our way, dignity is our way, never jailing, firing, belittling, judging, or marginalizing. This whole theme that all are welcome, but not really…Bishop Morlino saying that those are welcome “who want the truth of Christ” as Bishop Morlino defines it, well, that is judging. When Cardinal Dolan refused to let gay people in his church after saying that they must “wash their hands before entering,” well, that is judging. I recently saw a great documentary where a Harvard education professor introduced the concept into preschool that there should be a rule: “You can’t say you can’t play.” In other words, everyone in the class is accepted, and can play. It seems that these preschool concepts could help our church. First, do not hurt others with words or deeds. Build empathy by saying, “I can’t let you judge. Judging hurts.” And of course, “You can’t say you can’t play” says it all. Everyone should be welcome at the table of the Lord. Everyone. Even Fr. Morlino.

  5. Jim Green
    Jim Green says:

    Bishop Morlino vs Pope Francis

    Pope Francis wants “genuine” pastors as Bishops.
    Someone who knows how to embraces the hearts and minds of his people. The bishop of Madison would never have
    Been selected were it up to Francis, or the people of this diocese.

    This bishop is the last person who should be interpreting
    The words of Francis. In his 10 years here in Madison, he has single handedly been responsible for more people leaving the Catholic Church (that is the Institutional church) than anyone I know.

    Pope Francis has consistently said he wants to end clericalism and all the trappings of that culture. The local
    Bishop is incapable of dialogue. He claims to own the
    Truth in every situation. I have not seen an Ecumenical
    Bone in his body. He is known to be condescending to women and his treatment of GLBT people is abysmal.

    He does not want we the people to respond in our own truth
    As requested by Pope Francis in a recent survey which was
    To be made available to all the people of God who identify
    As Catholic. Bishop Morlino has also said that “we” have misinterpreted the documents of Vatican II, and would deny
    Us our personal “freedom of Conscience”.

    Do we need Bishop Morlino to interpret for us what Pope
    Francis is saying to all the people? I think not.

    Jim Green – Middleton, WI


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