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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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CITIZEN DAVE

Citizen Dave: Bishop Morlino is failing Madison


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Bishop Robert Morlino is failing badly in his role as a community leader. If the Catholic Church had any sense, they would replace him with someone more in touch with the community he should be serving. Of course, they won't.

I don't say this as a church hater. I grew up in a more or less devout Catholic family, and I had twelve years of Catholic education through elementary and high school. My father's uncle was the priest in our parish. I even find myself in the odd role of defender of the faith when some non-Catholic goes off on the church. My feeling is that only those who have had their knuckles wrapped by Sister Mary Katherine get to dis the faith, I guess.

But I stopped being a practicing Catholic when I was twenty and, truth is, I stopped buying into any of it while at Thomas More High School. Ironically, the good education given to me by the Brothers of Mary taught me to think critically, and Catholicism just didn't hold up very well to critical thinking. If you aren't willing to accept the answer to every hard question as "it's a mystery," well, then it's pretty hard to remain a Catholic.

Moreover, even as a young kid I thought that the people who were the most outwardly religious were the least likeable people I knew. There was nothing -- intellectually or socially -- to hold me in the church.

On the other hand, unlike a lot of other fallen away Catholics, I wasn't especially angry at the church. It was just that the doctrines didn't make sense to me, and most of the demonstrably religious people I knew didn't provide examples of the kind of person I wanted to be.

So, my practice as an adult has not been to berate the Catholic Church, or to go looking for ways that it has scarred me, but to pretty much just let it go and let it be.

But with Bishop Morlino's latest action against the, innocuous at worst and laudable at best, acts of nuns under his jurisdiction it is clear to me that he is doing positive harm to this community.

It's not just his business or that of the church. Like it or not, the Catholic bishop has substantial resources both in dollars and manpower under his control, and he is one potentially powerful moral voice in the community. How he deploys those resources matters to everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

For example, when I was mayor, the bishop cut off funding for the Catholic Multicultural Center on the city's south side. The center does a lot of good work in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods and with communities -- especially the immigrant Hispanic community -- that benefit greatly from its services. For the bishop to cut it off was just one of the more egregious examples of his being out of touch with the community.

Thanks to that community -- including a lot of leadership and generosity from the congregation at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church and at the city level from Alder Steve King -- the center has survived anyway.

And that's just resources. The bishop also has a pulpit -- literally. He has a particularly significant voice in the community. He could be speaking out against poverty or rampant gun violence or lack of respect for workers or the unequal distribution of wealth or binge drinking on campus or domestic violence or racial profiling or even the pollution of our lakes, which he would define as God's creation.

But no, he chooses issues like abortion and stem cell research, and now he even picks a fight with nuns who have had the audacity to try to build bridges of understanding with other faiths. His point apparently is that unless you believe that the church is right about everything, you have no business speaking for it.

In a letter to the editor in this morning's State Journal, defending the bishop, Monsignor James Bartylla wrote that it was "necessary to protect the reputation of the church." Yeah, I'll say.

The issues the bishop chooses to take on are the same as those chosen by the conservative men who run the church as pope, cardinals and fellow bishops. If they chose to, they could be fighting for equality and peace and justice just as hard as they have chosen to fight for their conservative causes, and still fit within the same Catholic faith.

It is not that the bishop is being true to his Catholic faith; he's being true to the interpretation of a part of his Catholic faith that he chooses to emphasize because of his conservative ideology.

Rather than being a force for good in the Madison community, Bishop Morlino chooses to pull the community apart and distract its attention with wedge issues. His leadership drains civic energy over pointless battles. He could be rallying this relatively affluent and deeply engaged Madison Catholic community to take on all kinds of real problems and to do wonderful things in making progress on them.

Instead, he's squandering those resources.

So, the bishop's radically conservative agenda and his countless missteps aren't just a problem for the Catholic Church. They're a tragedy for the entire community.

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