Robert Morlino in office

Bishop Robert Morlino recently required priests to contact his office if they receive requests for the baptisms of children of same-sex parents. The decision has led to a national petition drive.

A small group of local Catholics say they will deliver petitions Thursday signed by more than 20,000 people -- Catholics and others, local and not -- asking Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino to clarify his position on baptizing the children of gay parents.

The petitions are scheduled to be delivered at 10:30 a.m. at St. Patrick's Church, 404 E. Main St. The national petition drive was organized by Faithful America, which describes itself as "an online community of Christians taking action for social justice." It is based in Oakland, California.

The move follows a request by Morlino's office -- first reported by the State Journal -- for priests to contact the diocesen headquarters if they receive requests for the baptisms of children of same-sex parents. The diocese would then work in consultation with each priest on the baptism. Each baptism needs to be evaluated individually, the diocese says.

The story went national, with some suggesting Morlino, an outspoken critic of same-sex relationships, will seek to curb baptisms he finds problematic. The diocese has sought to downplay the significance of the decision, suggesting it is merely a way to track an issue that has led to controversy in other dioceses.

Brent King, a spokesman for the Madison Catholic Diocese, has said he does not think the new process will result in fewer baptisms. "Where there is reasonable hope that the child will be brought up in the Catholic faith, that child will be baptized," he said. The diocese's full response to questions on the issue can be found here.

In a recent interview with the National Catholic Register, Morlino said the reference in the original memo to priests needing to seek "consultation and coordination" with his office on these baptisms was not an effort to centralize the process and that individual priestly discretion was not being diminished.

As for the petitions being delivered Thursday, King called it "a non-event" and said Morlino will not be present to receive the petitions.

"We've known about their efforts for the past couple of weeks," King said. "Not one person has called our office for any clarification, which we've offered through our public statements."

Aaron Viles, a spokesman for Faithful America, said his organization has not been swayed by the diocese's statements.

"If you look at the language they've used, they haven't unequivocally said, 'Of course we'll baptize all children of same-sex parents.' They hem and they haw. It rings false," he said in an interview.

Lois Fritz, 61, of Cambridge, one of the local Catholics planning to deliver the petitions Thursday, said she was moved to participate out of concern for children.

"We should not try to put up a roadblock on their way to heaven," she said.

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.