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Pope Francis' comments amount to sound Christian counsel about being “ministers of Jesus’ love and mercy,” said Bishop Robert Morlino. But he said the pope’s comments on homosexuality and contraception were being distorted by the press.

Say what you will about Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino — the man has clearly got a good head on his shoulders.

It’s got to require some mental strength to turn the seemingly liberal, nontraditional message coming out of the new pope into further endorsement of one’s own doctrinaire and conservative approach to Catholicism. I guess the question of whether all that energy is being inspired by the Holy Spirit is one no Madison Catholic can answer for sure.

It’s not as if the points Morlino made in a recent State Journal interview are implausible once you’ve waded through all the contortions he goes through to make them.

The media and those with political agendas have misinterpreted Pope Francis’ statements relating to hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion, Morlino argues, and if we just understood Catholic teachings, we’d see that the pope’s not backing away from the church’s doctrines.

Further, different places need different types of ministers, Morlino says. He suggests that Catholics in notoriously liberal Madison might require a little more rule-bound finger-wagging, while in Francis’ home country of Argentina, there’s little opposition within the church to traditional Catholic teachings and so a minister there can afford to play the nice guy.

Well, maybe.

Morlino’s right that for all Francis’ talk about gays (“who am I to judge?”) and moving beyond the church’s focus on matters of sexuality, he hasn’t changed any church doctrine.

And yet, his talk is important because it hints at “more forgiving” interpretations of church teachings and possible changes to those teachings in the future, according to Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire professor of sociology who studies the church.

Francis’ approach signals an interest in dealing with the reality of the modern-day Catholic’s experience, she said, while Morlino continues to talk in “culture war terms.”

Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, also pointed out that Argentina, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, legalized gay marriage in 2010. A poll released last year showed just under half of the adult population supports it. This is a country were Catholicism is enshrined in the constitution and abortion is mostly illegal. But, Reese said, “it is also estimated that 40 percent of pregnancies end in abortion.”

“When (Morlino) says that Argentina does not have dissenting Catholics, he appears to be ignorant of the situation in Argentina,” he said.

It could be that Morlino doesn’t feel the need to be diplomatic when telling Madison Catholics what they need to hear (if not necessarily what they want to hear).

“If you don’t respect people enough to tell them the truth, well then, you couldn’t be pastoral,” he told the State Journal.

No doubt it was the truth that Jesus claimed would “make you free.” Or it could be that there’s nothing particularly holy in twisting an important person’s words so as to bring them into alignment with one’s world view.

That’s what’s known as “spin,” and humans are very good at it. It’s also something God probably tries to avoid.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.