In the Spirit: In letter to pope, progressive Catholics list grievances with Madison diocese

In the Spirit: In letter to pope, progressive Catholics list grievances with Madison diocese

Bishop Robert Morlino and Pope Francis

Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, right, meets Pope Francis Oct. 9, 2013, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. A group of Madison-area progressive Catholics has written the pontiff to complain of Morlino's leadership.

A group of progressive Catholics, long frustrated with the leadership of Madison Bishop Robert Morlino and sensing an opening with the new pope, has put its complaints in writing.

In a letter to Pope Francis, the local group says it is very difficult in the Madison Catholic Diocese to be the kind of church the pontiff wants — one that works with the poor for justice, is sensitive to the needs of others, and welcomes everyone, especially those marginalized by society.

“The church you envision is not the church we are experiencing,” the letter states. “We experience not pastoral sensitivity, but judgment; we are marginalized, even excluded.”

The letter writers provided Morlino with a copy of the letter as a courtesy. Brent King, a spokesman for the diocese, said it contains “many false assertions.” By going public with their grievances, the letter writers will serve only to sow “deeper division and discord,” he said.

The letter was coordinated by members of two groups: the Madison-area chapter of Call to Action and Integrity/Dignity Madison.

Call to Action is a national organization of about 25,000 Catholics whose stated aim is to “transform” the church. Most members seek the ordination of female priests, the elimination of mandatory celibacy for priests, and a more welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Integrity/Dignity Madison is an ecumenical group founded 37 years ago to minister to LGBT people.

The letter was sent to the Vatican by certified mail in late April. It was never released to the press, though a copy of it recently was leaked to the State Journal by one of the 96 people who signed it. The person said he was frustrated that nothing has come of the letter and wants other Catholics to know of its existence.

Jim Green, a leader of the local Call to Action group, agreed to answer a few questions about the letter but wanted it made clear he was not the source of the leak and that the group’s leadership did not sanction the letter’s release.

Green said all of the signers identify as Catholic. This will be a point of contention with some, as critics of Call to Action say its members oppose so many of the church’s teachings that they should not call themselves Catholics.

During an average week, about 56,000 people attend Mass somewhere in the 11-county Madison Catholic Diocese. So those who signed the letter are a tiny slice.

Green acknowledged this and said it has always been a challenge to reach people in the pews who may be sympathetic to the group’s views because Morlino does not allow Call to Action to meet at any parishes in the diocese.

King said that’s because the group’s views on so many issues are antithetical to church doctrine and practice. Allowing Call to Action to meet on church property “can only cause confusion, or, far worse, serious scandal among the faithful,” he said.

Surprisingly, the letter never mentions Morlino by name. Green said the drafters did not feel it was necessary to do so. Regardless, all of the grievances listed in the letter have occurred since Morlino’s arrival in 2003. Most will be familiar to anyone who has followed the controversies around his tenure.

For instance, the letter notes that Morlino does not allow the feet of women to be washed during the annual Holy Thursday ritual, in contrast to the new pope’s approach. “In the diocese of Madison, this ritual of service has become a means of marginalizing women and an expression of clerical privilege,” the letter says.

Morlino has said he takes the traditionalist view of the ritual, which is that it is a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of the 12 men he was calling to the priesthood. Thus the male-only rule.

The supposed marginalization of women is a major theme in the letter, one King said is incorrect and offensive.

“Women and men are different. We respect and celebrate that,” he said. “(But) there is no unjust discrimination against women in participation or employment.”

The letter says diocesan priests “are now forbidden from presiding at Eucharist” for the Integrity/Dignity group. In the Roman Catholic church, the Holy Eucharist refers to the belief that Christ is contained, offered, and received in the form of bread and wine.

King said the letter’s claim makes no sense, as a Catholic priest would never be able to take part in an ecumenical Eucharist. “There is no such thing,” he said.

The letter lists efforts by local Catholics to contribute to social justice initiatives — efforts sometimes thwarted or made more difficult by the diocese, the letter writers claim. One such example, they say, is the statewide interfaith group called WISDOM, which is working to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population. Parishes in the Madison diocese are not allowed to join the organization, the letter says.

This is correct, King said. WISDOM and its associated groups work on a variety of social justice issues, not just prison reform, and priests and parishes “must remain beyond reproach” in the groups they formally join, he said.

However, the diocese has voiced no opinion as to whether individual Catholics can be involved in these organizations, and the five bishops in Wisconsin, of which Morlino is one, jointly support WISDOM’s main effort to reduce the state’s prison population, King said.

The Madison diocese is not alone in forbidding parishes from formally joining the group. The Green Bay diocese also does not allow parish membership in WISDOM, and the La Crosse diocese “discourages” it. Only the Milwaukee diocese forthrightly allows such parish memberships. (The fifth diocese, Superior, has not addressed the issue because there are not yet any WISDOM affiliates there.)

King said there “is something to take issue with in almost every paragraph” of the letter. But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the letter is its overall tone, which tries to suggest the diocese and the pope are somehow out of sync, he said. Morlino batted away that suggestion in a long interview in March.

King would not say whether Morlino has had any communication with Pope Francis about the letter.

Will supporters of Morlino now write their own letter to the pope? It could happen. Criticism of Morlino typically is met with a robust rebuttal from his fans.

In 2008, after the local Call to Action group purchased an ad in the State Journal (signed by 36 people) to complain about Morlino, more than 500 people signed an open letter to the community backing the bishop, which also was published as an ad in the newspaper. The ad evolved into a website supporting Morlino, where 1,069 people have now signed the letter.

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at or 608-252-6149.


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