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Taking on Bishop Morlino
Robert Morlino claims to represent the true church of Jesus Christ. Some local Catholics aren't buying it
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Jim Beyers is a lifelong Catholic and proud of it. He loves his church and what he feels it stands for - "justice and service to others." He's been active in many parish ministries and was the CEO of a Catholic hospital for 13 years.

But there is one thing that Beyers, like some other local Catholics, does not like about his church: its leader, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino.

"I started feeling uncomfortable about Morlino pretty much from day one," says Beyers, a resident of Madison's far southwest side and member of the local chapter of Call to Action, which has crossed swords with the bishop. "He's big on obedience. He doesn't think that laypersons should have any say. Morale is very low among the priests. He's a tyrant with them. Some of them are scared to death of him."

When historians of the Catholic Church look back at the early 21st century, they may identify Madison as an important battleground. The fight here is between laypeople and the church's hierarchy; at stake, arguably, is the soul of the church.

The laypeople, including about 40 local members of Call to Action, are upset about a leadership regime they see as entrenched, dogmatic, unduly hierarchical. The local church, led by Morlino, feels it's following God's truth and the proper path of Catholicism - and it's willing to lose those parishioners who disagree.

The Madison diocese spans 11 counties and claims 270,000 members of its flock. But Beyers says a number of people have left the local Catholic church in recent years, some because of their objection to Morlino and the conservative priests he's installed.

"People my age," says the 71-year-old Beyers, "are referred to sometimes as Vatican II people." This gathering of bishops and cardinals from around the world, between 1962 and 1965, led to sweeping changes in church policy and practice, most aimed at making it more inclusive. As Beyers puts it, Vatican II "opened the window to let fresh air in" by giving laity an important role in running the church. But some within the church "have been trying to slam it shut ever since."

Beyers thinks Morlino, who has been steeped in controversy since his arrival in Madison in 2003, is clearly in this camp. And he thinks the bishop should be replaced. "This is my church," says Beyers. "They're definitely not going to drive me out of it. I grew up in it, I'm comfortable in it, but the hierarchy lives in a bubble."

Madison resident Jim Green, a Catholic brother for eight years in the Divine Word Missionary, was in Rome during the last two years of Vatican II. For the past 40 years he's lived with his life partner, Bill Diederich. Both are Roman Catholics and members of Dignity USA, a Catholic support group for LGBTs and their allies.

"When I speak of the church, I don't think of the institution, the pyramid with the laity at the bottom and the pope at the top," says Green, 71, a member of Call to Action. The documents that came out of Vatican II, he notes, spoke of a circular system with the laity's role as important as those of the priests, the bishops and the pope. It's a system in which everyone has a voice.

That's not the kind of system Bishop Morlino has fostered in Madison, as even his defenders admit. Diocese communications director Brent King, who fielded questions from Isthmus on the bishop's behalf, portrays him as a courageous defender of the true church.

"When we talk about the church, the revealed truth is what matters, and he, as our teacher, teaches it," says King. "Often strife has to do with these teachings."

Morlino has brought plenty of strife, which Green laments: "It's a sad day when the sheep are afraid of the shepherd. They run the church like a cult, and in the meantime Jesus weeps for his people and the Earth."

Authoritarian streak

Robert Morlino, 63, a native of Scranton, Penn., was ordained in 1974. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy, master's degrees in philosophy and theology and a doctorate in moral theology, from various institutions.

Morlino was stationed in Kalamazoo, Mich., before being named the bishop of Helena, Mont., in 1999. After four years there he came to Madison, replacing William Bullock.

Within months of his arrival, Morlino wrote a column in the Catholic Herald ripping Madison as a community that has "a high comfort level with virtually no public morality."

Meanwhile, Morlino has raised questions about the soundness of his own moral compass by serving on and chairing the Board of Visitors of the Georgia-based Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. The school, run by the U.S. Army, trains military officers from Latin America, many of whom have been implicated in human rights abuses, including the murder of nuns and priests.

Morlino has also suggested that disobedience to church doctrine in such areas as birth control is somehow responsible for sexual abuse by priests. And he reflexively lashed out at critics of the church's official inaction on abuse cases.

In November 2006, Morlino ordered all of the priests in his diocese to play a recorded message in place of the homily, in which he condemned a proposed gay marriage amendment (as well as capital punishment and embryonic stem-cell research). In his letter to priests, Morlino warned of "serious consequences" for anyone who dissented from his stance.

"I must make it very clear that any verbal or nonverbal expression of disagreement with this teaching on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience," he wrote. When the message was played, dozens of parishioners in a number of churches walked out of Mass or stood with their backs to the altar.

In recent years, Morlino has brought in priests from the strict Society of Jesus Christ the Priest to Mazomanie, Sauk City and other small communities. This caused a furor when they forbade girls from serving at the altar and, according to Green, led to a sharp decline in membership at St. Aloysius in Sauk City. Priests from the same order were brought in recently to Platteville, causing another outcry.

Morlino has also been accused of demanding confidential information from a survey he commissioned regarding the feasibility of a major campaign to erect a new cathedral in place of the burned St. Raphael's - and then refusing to pay for the survey when Phoenix Fundraising Counsel, the firm that conducted it, rejected his demands.

The bishop, said the company, asked for the names and comments of priests who had been interviewed, especially those who had expressed concerns or registered complaints about Bishop Morlino. The bishop had earlier promised survey participants that "all responses will be considered confidential," to ensure that everyone can "feel free to comment without fear of repercussion" - in itself, an odd concern to raise.

King, the diocese's spokesman, won't discuss the bishop's controversial actions. But he does argue that Morlino is deeply committed to high moral principles.

"All humans were born with the same dignity," says King. "That means something about the unborn child. That's why we make these strong statements and they're very controversial."

King himself is being prepared for his upcoming marriage by a priest from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest. "I can testify," he says, "that they do everything with love, for Jesus and the people. They're happy and holy priests, and many people who didn't like them at first now love them."

Who would Jesus fire?

Perhaps the greatest source of discontent over Morlino has to do with his treatment of others in the church.

In September 2008, Morlino fired Charles Philyaw, the full-time director of music liturgy at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Verona, because he was living an openly gay life. Philyaw was given two weeks' notice. In March 2009, Ruth Kolpack, a pastoral associate in Beloit's St. Thomas the Apostle Parish since 1983, was also fired following a 10-minute meeting with the bishop.

In a letter to parishioners, Kolpack said she was fired for refusing to recant her master's thesis, which called for using more gender-neutral language in references to divinity.

"When I met with Bishop Morlino yesterday, he concluded, based on my master's thesis, that my teachings about Jesus are off base," Kolpack wrote. "Yet, he also admitted that he had not read the document in its entirety, but only 'bits and pieces.'"

In response to backlash over Kolpack's treatment, the diocese issued a statement saying that all church members must obey "what the sacred pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith." Any teachings that are contrary to church doctrine, said the statement, "are at worst seriously scandalous, and at best very inappropriate."

Beyers, in an op-ed piece in Isthmus last year, said Kolpack's firing established Morlino's credentials as a tyrant.

"Bishop Morlino's tenure in Madison has been marked by confrontation, not cooperation," he wrote. "His relationship with the priests and faithful has not been one of 'servant to the servants of God' but one of dictator."

In June 2009, Morlino decreed the closure of the Catholic Multicultural Center, a south-side center serving poor, mostly minority people. The move, done for fiscal reasons, angered some Madison Catholics, who organized and raised funds to reopen it.

The decision still rankles some local Catholics, especially given Morlino's support for a multimillion-dollar renovation of St. Paul's University Catholic Center, including apartments for students who agree to take courses in religious studies.

"Does the bishop not know that the most beautiful church will remain empty if the faith it stands for is bereft of human compassion?" wrote Joe Kirshling in an online post. "Shame on Bishop Robert Morlino for turning a blind fiscal eye to God's most sacred message. Face-lifting churches to lure young minds at the expense of helping the poor demonstrates the mistaken priorities of the diocese."

Madison resident Marian Fredal, a physical therapist and lifelong Catholic, also feels that Morlino is leading the local diocese away from the true message of Jesus Christ. She remains a member of the church but now gives her contributions to the Multicultural Center and not the diocese.

"My hope," she says, "is for a change of heart where Morlino could listen to the people, but he thinks he does, so it's hard to have hope about him."

The role of the laity

Beyers, a member of St. Maria Goretti Parish, is a retired health-care administrator. His last job was as the president of the Monroe Clinic. One of his concerns is the way money is handled by the diocese.

In a document titled "The Top Ten Reasons Why Robert Morlino Should Not Be (Anybody's) Bishop," Beyers blasts the bishop for purportedly traveling in a first-class cabin on a flight to Milwaukee during the time he closed the Multicultural Center. He also says Morlino "flew 14 seminarians to Australia during the time when it was obvious that there were financial problems" that led in part to the closing of the Multicultural Center.

Beyers, who alleges that the audited financial reports for the chancery reflect only a part of the real spending, says he's been stymied in his efforts to get a more complete accounting. He says he met with John Philipp, the diocese's chief financial officer, but received no answers to questions about why the "miscellaneous" line item for the chancery went up by more than $600,000 in 2008 from the year before.

In an email to Isthmus, Philipp gave this reply: "As with any other institution, public or private, there are often unforeseen expenses which do not fit neatly into established categories, but which need to be accounted for in the Statement of Activities.... As is the case for 'Miscellaneous Expenses' incurred and recognized in 2008, those expenses were covered by financial assets that did not come from donations, or the parish assessment, or the annual appeal - the contributions asked of our generous Catholic people. At this time, this is as detailed as I can be in discussing this particular line item."

Responds Beyers, "Mr. Philipp's reply is a marvel of non-responsiveness. The Madison diocese is not a private corporation accountable to stockholders. It is an organization of the Catholic Church that has an obligation to serve the Catholic laity and to be accountable to them. Those Catholics have a right to information concerning diocesan expenditures."

In 2008, Call to Action paid $3,500 for a full-page open letter (PDF) to Morlino in the Wisconsin State Journal, faulting him for ignoring the input of clergy and laypeople and harming the morale of priests. The diocese's response: Morlino is sorry that "certain groups, who claim to be Catholic, would assume postures which clearly are not in accord with the teachings of the church."

For Catholics like Green, such comments are like fingernails on chalkboard. As he sees it, Vatican II - still official church doctrine - clearly established that Catholics have the right to express dissent in regard to decisions made by church authorities. Indeed, he sees Morlino as part of an internal conservative backlash against this doctrine.

After Vatican II, says Green, the bishops and cardinals came back to the U.S., where they met in Detroit in 1976. "They got cold feet. They were afraid of losing their authority and power." And this, he says, has prompted the appointment of conservative and authoritarian bishops with little regard for the wishes of the people in a given diocese.

Spokesman King agrees there are "more and more calls for the laity to help spread the word about Jesus." However, he says, the hierarchic church was brought to the world by Jesus, who chose 12 apostles.

By his lights, Vatican II spelled out how the laity can help in evangelizing the world. But the church, King says, is like the family: "While they're supportive of each other, the mother's role is always different from the father's."

And dignity for all

Green and his partner Diederich now worship at Holy Wisdom Monastery, which is no longer Catholic. It's a place where, he says, "everybody is welcome. We've congregated with others who feel the same: Those who are married a second time without receiving annulment, priests who decided to marry, couples with a partner who was abused by priests. We don't have to look over our shoulders and wonder who'll report us."

Call to Action members have met with Morlino but no longer seek active dialogue. Instead, explains Green, they would like to have access to the parishes to give people "the good news about their rights.

"We have only to look at Jesus, who often criticized the religious leaders of his time," he says. "Where is the passion here for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the poor and hurting? Where is the concern for those who have been slaughtered in our country's preemptive wars?"

Green also resents that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church, even though many of them are, to his mind, more qualified than ordained priests.

"Jesus was given birth by a woman, yet a woman is not allowed to give Jesus to the people," he says. This makes no sense, he feels, especially nowadays, when the church suffers from a lack of priests.

Spokesman King says the bishop "always has an open door to every priest. They're asked to bring any issue to him for discussion. It's easy to say that he's a tyrant, but knowing how gentle he is, I can say it is false."

Morlino, says King, "stands for principle and the truth, and he won't compromise. Those who disagree are very vocal, but that won't change the way he operates."

While there are various things the local hierarchy is willing to discuss, King says, "there are many dogmas that are not open for interpretation and are not going to change. People need to decide whether they believe in them or not. If they can't, I'm sorry, the Catholic faith and church are not going to change. If you want to call yourself a Catholic you need to conform to the teachings."

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