For Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, misconceptions and negativity are dominating the reaction to his diocese’s private message to priests about funeral rites for people in a same-sex union. The reaction includes a well-publicized internet petition asking Pope Francis to remove him from office.
“The observations and reactions that have been made simply do not account for the total context,” Bishop Morlino said in his Oct. 30 column. “And what has grown from there is a flurry of opportunity for people to jump to every sort of negative conclusion and to air those negative judgements freely and widely. All of this has occurred very much absent the reality of the situation.”
His column for the Madison diocese’s Catholic Herald newspaper was titled “Church invites all to encounter Jesus Christ”. The bishop said news coverage of an internal message to priests have confirmed some people in their long-held judgements, but have left others “sad and scratching your heads.” “In truth, I find myself in that latter group,” he said.
Bishop Morlino said he prayed and reflected on the controversy and thought there were “misconceptions at the most basic level.” The Church loves everyone and invites them to encounter Jesus Christ, he said, adding: “so long as we live and breathe we are being called by the Risen Lord to know Him, to follow Him, and to be changed by Him.”
The Diocese of Madison was more critical of the negative reaction. “It is lamentable that some who have willfully and flippantly spread gossip, rumor, and sadly even calumny, in recent days on this subject, have done so without asking the diocese for any clarification whatsoever,” the diocese said Oct. 24. “Likewise, those who place at risk the ability of the bishop to communicate with his priests confidentially do a grave harm to the Church and perform, indeed, what Sacred Scripture calls ‘a work of darkness’.”
Vicar general Msgr. James Bartylla, in the message to priests, addressed funeral rites for a person in a same-sex union. The communication concerned various topics like whether the deceased or his or her partner was a promoter of the gay lifestyle and whether the deceased gave signs of repentance.
The memo discussed ways to avoid causing scandal and confusion to the faithful, which could lead others into sin or confuse or weaken people regarding Catholic teachings, and reflected existing canon law. One way to avoid scandal would be to avoid giving a partner a prominent role in a church rite or service, the memo said.
Local media and the Associated Press have reported on an online petition at Change.org that has attracted more than 6,600 signatures calling on Pope Francis to remove Bishop Morlino. The petition may be signed from anyone in the world, not simply those in the Madison diocese. It was addressed to Pope Francis as well as apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, but the petition misspelled “apostolic.” Others addressed in the petition were Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis; Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland; and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.
CNA sought comment from the apostolic nunciature and several canon law experts but did not receive a response by deadline.
The petition claimed the instruction encouraged priests to “invasively inquire” about a deceased’s lifestyle and about whether he or she had repented prior to death. It claimed that the bishop is “an open and practicing bigot whose attitudes and opinions about the LGBTQI members of his Diocese (and our beloved families) are nothing short of inhumane.” It also claimed he has a “corrosive and corrupt influence over the diocese” in ways like trying to influence voters.
Characterizing the statement as “threats to priests,” it charged that these amount to “a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.”
Amelia Royko Maurer, a self-described human rights advocate from Madison, Wis., launched the petition. In a message at the petition site, Maurer charged the bishop and his vicar general have a “hateful, bigoted agenda,” harmful to those who identify as LGBTI, that “does not belong anywhere much less here in Madison. She said she grew up attending several Catholic parishes in the diocese and currently had family at several parishes. It was not clear whether she was still a practicing Catholic.
The Madison diocese that the message to priests was not an official policy, but it conforms to the thinking of Bishop Morlino. It was delivered in a weekly email to priests from the diocese’s vicar general, in response to pastoral questions from priests themselves. It aimed to address these questions in “a confidential setting.”
No policy could adequately cover any case, the diocese said, and pastors are responsible for addressing particular situations of their people “whom they ideally know well and whom they have accompanied, even until their death.” Priests are advised to think through the questions “thoroughly and prudently.”
Bishop Morlino said that the rites and sacraments of the Church have been given by Christ “to be dispensed liberally by the Church upon all those who seek to live that life of discipleship.” “Ideally, the expression of a desire to follow Jesus does not occur at the last moment of life, but is lived joyfully each day,” he said. “But even for those who make the slightest turn to follow Him with their very last breath, Jesus Christ and His Church welcome them with tremendous rejoicing.”
Those who have the impression the Church is closed to them should speak to a priest and learn the truth, “and the truth will set you free,” the bishop said. He said that individuals who attempt to follow Christ while experiencing same-sex desires are “laboring under a tremendously heavy cross.” He stressed all Christians’ duty to support them.
He encouraged those who want to know Christ to use “every means that the Church offers and to which you are disposed.” He encouraged them to speak to their local priest or if they feel they cannot, to ask God to help them.
Father James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America Magazine, was critical of Bishop Morlino’s vicar general in an Oct. 23 Facebook post, claiming Catholic teaching is almost always applied selectively in such cases and would not be applied to a heterosexual who is in an irregular situation, such as an illicit union.
Also critical of the vicar general was New Ways Ministry, a group whose claim to be Catholic was rejected by the U.S. bishops in 2010. The group has taken funding from wealthy groups like the Arcus Foundation that aim to change religious groups that do not support LGBT causes. New Ways Ministry linked to Fr. Martin’s post.
The last major advocacy campaign seeking the removal of a U.S. bishop took place in early 2015. San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone was targeted by a public relations campaign due to a controversy over a Catholic K-8 school and its connected parish, Star of the Sea. Alumni, schoolchildren’s parents and other allies objected to several policies, including priests’ decision to have only boys, and not girls, as altar servers.
“Everyone is praying that the Pope will remove the San Francisco Archbishop and these priests,” Sam Singer, the head of the San Francisco-based Singer Associates, Inc., had said in a February 2015 Google Plus post. That campaign then fed into controversies surrounding the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s proposed morality clauses in its handbook for teachers at its Catholic high schools. Archbishop Cordileone still heads the Archdiocese of San Francisco.