On the Saturday of Art Fair on the Square about two weeks ago, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino strolled unrecognized around the state Capitol in street clothes for nearly an hour.
It was a rare moment of anonymity for a man whose mere name can send people into rapture or dismay.
He was in good spirits, joking about his portly physique and exhibiting a willingness to laugh at his sometimes polarizing reputation. At a booth of celebrity caricatures, he chuckled when his executive assistant, William Yallaly, cracked that a portrait of the bishop might have a target on it.
Morlino, 66, will mark 10 years Thursday as head of the Madison Catholic Diocese, a tenure that has brought big changes and no shortage of controversies.
Dozens more young men from area parishes are now studying to become priests, a stunning turnaround for which supporters and foes alike praise Morlino.
Latin Masses have made a strong comeback, as have other practices associated with the more conservative arm of the Roman Catholic Church, including no longer using girls as altar servers at a few parishes.
Opportunities for parishioners to more deeply understand their faith — and to exhibit that faith publicly — have flourished, from the creation of a diocesan institute for the study of church teachings to a local anti-abortion movement energized by Morlino’s hands-on involvement.
Average weekly Mass attendance at the diocese’s 117 parishes has fallen 24 percent during Morlino’s tenure, from 73,956 people in 2003 to 56,208 last year, according to figures provided by the diocese.
Some parishioners, especially women and gays, say they’ve felt forced out by Morlino’s rhetoric and actions, but diocesan officials say it would be unfair to blame the decrease on Morlino. The national church has been buffeted by a sex-abuse scandal, they note, and church-going in general is down across many denominations.
Indeed, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies reported last year that the number of Catholic adherents nationally dropped 5 percent in the prior decade, 11 percent in Wisconsin. On the other hand, researchers at Georgetown University who study Catholicism concluded there were “no statistically significant changes in weekly Mass attendance” nationally between 2000 and 2008.
In yet another way to analyze this, the number of “registered” Catholics in the diocese, a figure that captures anyone who has had some level of active participation in parish life in the last several years, is down just 2.5 percent since 2003, according to the diocese.
During an interview, Morlino expressed regret that some people have decamped for Protestant denominations, both nationally and in this diocese. Yet he said some of the departures probably were inevitable given that Catholic teaching increasingly is at odds with popular opinion on issues such as same-sex marriage and artificial contraception.
“In a way, people are being more true to themselves and saying, ‘I’m not Catholic,’” Morlino said. “That doesn’t make me happy, but in terms of the person’s own salvation, which is what I care about most, that is much better than pretending to be a Catholic.”
He said he agrees with the premise that the remaining Catholic Church is smaller but more “spiritually pure.”
When he arrived in Madison in 2003, Morlino privately told friends he wanted 30 men studying to be priests within a decade. There were six seminarians then; there are 34 now.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, with more than double the number of Catholics, has 28 seminarians. The Green Bay Catholic Diocese, also larger than Madison, has 23.
“Bishop Morlino has a gift for inspiring young Catholics to heroic service,” said Del Teeter of Waunakee, whose son, Andrew, is one of those seminarians.
The seminarians love Morlino like a father, Teeter said, and the bishop calls them his sons. That’s exactly the kind of relationship the Second Vatican Council said a bishop should have with his priests, Teeter said.
Morlino credits God, but clearly earthly strategies were at work, too. In a departure from past practice, Morlino appointed a full-time director of vocations to help men discern a calling.
At every confirmation ceremony, Morlino studies the pews for the handful of boys most deeply involved in Mass. He invites them to the front and playfully discusses the possibility of the priesthood. He gets their contact information, invites them to special group events, and stays involved in their lives.
Aiding Morlino in his seminarian goal is the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, a Spain-based group whose specific mission is to increase the number of young men entering the priesthood. Morlino began inviting priests from the traditionalist society to serve in the diocese in 2006, and there are eight here now.
Their presence has led to the most vociferous and sustained challenge by parishioners to Morlino’s leadership, replete with petitions and heated parish meetings. Fans say they’ve brought renewed reverence to Mass; detractors say they fixate on doctrine.
The priests alter the worship experience in significant ways, from no longer using lay people in the distribution of Communion to tapping only boys as altar servers. The latter is necessary, they say, to give boys as much time as possible to observe the work of priests.
This has led to periodic rumors that Morlino is planning to ban female altar servers diocese-wide. Not so, he said.
“I don’t think we necessarily need to exclude women (as altar servers),” he said. “I don’t think that.”
Church law allows each priest to decide the issue unless the diocese’s bishop decrees otherwise. Morlino said he’s comfortable leaving the decision to individual priests. However, he confirmed that he has instructed that only boys and seminarians be used as altar servers on the diocese’s weekly televised Mass for the homebound.
Several more priests from the Spain-based society will be joining the diocese soon, Morlino said.
In Sauk City, where the priests have served the longest, diocesan records show attendance has rebounded almost to the level before they arrived. But in Platteville, where the controversy is fresher, attendance is down 58 percent from 10 years ago, according to the diocese.
There are 113 active priests serving the diocese today, plus an additional 48 retired priests.
Many are big fans, including the Rev. Monte Robinson, 64, who leads churches in Mineral Point and Belmont. Robinson said Morlino makes his job easier by articulating Catholic doctrine clearly and firmly.
“I know an awful lot of people who respect him for what he’s doing, including myself,” he said. “He has a lot of support from the rural parishes.”
The Rev. David Greenfield, 59, who leads parishes north of Madison, including Pardeeville, praised Morlino for never compromising on church teachings.
“Bishop Morlino deeply loves the Church and her people, and if you really love someone — and good parents understand this — you don’t necessarily give them what they want, you give them what is good,” Greenfield said.
Other priests say morale has taken a hit among their ranks — another big change since Morlino’s arrival, they say. These priests feel Morlino doesn’t emphasize aiding the poor or other social justice issues enough, and they say he has a propensity to view opinions different from his own as signs of disobedience.
Some disheartened priests took the unusual step in 2007 of forming the Association of Madison Priests, an independent group intended to provide fraternity and a unified voice on issues on which they differ with Morlino.
There are 35 dues-paying members, plus an additional 15 who are involved but who do not want their names to become known through official membership, said the Rev. Bill Nolan, 60, a member of the group’s steering committee.
The group meets two or three times annually.
“Some people perceive us as a threat, like we’re out to get the bishop,” Nolan said. “We’re not, but we do want to have the opportunity for dialog with the bishop on issues and concerns that have an impact on us as priests in the diocese.”
He mentioned Morlino’s elimination of wine during Communion at most Masses as an instance when the association asked to sit down with Morlino. Nothing came of the request, Nolan said. Morlino’s ban on the washing of women’s feet during Holy Week is another issue on which the association would have liked input, he said.
Members feel the group benefits the diocese, Nolan said. “We support and nourish each other and provide a place for priests to talk comfortably about concerns they have,” he said.
Asked about the group, Morlino said, “If it helps them in terms of fellowship, they are free to do it.”
Morlino repeatedly has focused on the Church’s opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage — the latter with especially divisive intensity, critics say.
He’s said legalization of gay marriage will eventually spell “the end of democracy” and that the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage is happening because “Satan has a plan to destroy our country from within.”
Mary Kaye Radtke of Madison, a lifelong Catholic and a lesbian, said she no longer attends Mass in the diocese because of statements such as those. “I’m not feeling the bishop’s love,” she said.
Radtke said she was especially disheartened in 2011 when Morlino concluded it was no longer appropriate in diocesan parishes to sing “All Are Welcome,” a favorite Catholic hymn.
“Where’s the olive branch?” asked Radtke. “I choose Jesus as my judge, not Bishop Morlino.”
Kay Ringelstetter, a parishioner at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Sauk City, sees it much differently.
“He has the courage to speak out against the wrongs of society,” she said, adding that Morlino has “given me the courage to immerse myself in and cling to the truths of our Catholic faith.”
In choosing which topics to address publicly, Morlino said he considers the kind of teaching the community most needs.
“Madisonians do not need to be told very often to look out for the poor and the needy and the hungry and the homeless,” he said. “That’s in their blood, and I applaud them for it. It’s good for me to focus on things where they maybe aren’t so strong.”
Homosexual activity is one of those areas, he said, calling it “a behavior that can never be justified.”
Construction of a new Catholic student center at UW-Madison, now in the fundraising phase, is his “most urgent” priority, Morlino said. Replacing the arson-destroyed St. Raphael’s Cathedral also is a priority, though he said it’s very possible his role will be only laying the groundwork.
For the first time publicly, he mentioned a second option to rebuilding St. Raphael’s — moving a “beautiful church” that has closed elsewhere in the country to the site. While he’s open to “recycling” a church in this way, as he put it, nothing is actively moving forward on that front.
Morlino fully expects to be bishop here for nine more years, at which point he’ll reach the mandatory retirement age of 75. That lengthy of a tenure would surely disappoint critics, who hope he’ll be bumped up and out of here.
Not likely, said Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church” and a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
“If I had a dollar for every liberal Catholic who hoped their bishop would be removed through promotion, I would be rich,” Reese said. “There are simply not enough red hats or archbishoprics to go around. The odds are that he is going to be in Madison until he dies or reaches 75.”