The Miracle of Madtown

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

When Pope Francis told an Italian Jesuit journal that the church "cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods" and that "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," it seemed the culture war was all but declared over.

But not in Madison, Wisconsin. In fact, Bishop Robert Morlino insists Pope Francis has helped to make him a stronger culture warrior. "The media are deliberately trying to derail the truth about Pope Francis," he tells me before Christmas in his Madison office, "and that's truly unfortunate because the people are not able to break through to the real Pope Francis."

The real Pope Francis an Evangelizer-in-Chief who wants to "get people to look anew into the face of Jesus. In order to do that, [Pope Francis] has to jar people out of their comfortable places" -- even the Bishop and his spot as one of the Church's top provocateurs.

When the good Bishop wakes up in the morning, he enters immediately into prayer "very aware that we're in a culture war. I want the Lord to stir up the gifts of the Holy Spirit to fight the culture war." But Pope Francis has encouraged Morlino to first "calmly and peacefully look Jesus in the eye and see what He'll say. It makes a substantial difference for me."

Never one to mince words, that difference is readily apparent. Morlino laments that too often "no one is held to account for anything by name and by offense -- we've got to name things for what they truly are instead of using diplomatic circumlocutions!" There's nothing indirect about Morlino's assertion that the Obama administration has "made itself the enemy of the Natural Law," even though he admits that this kind of open criticism is better suited for the laity. When Bishops throw their mitres into the political ring, "it has to be clear then that they are offering their prudential judgment" and not a binding teaching. "But I know that calling this administration to account for more than offenses against religious liberty is necessary," Morlino says, "because the only hope we have for common ground is the Natural Law."

Morlino looks no further than his own flock for further hope. Congressman Paul Ryan "is the one of the best at carrying out lay mission as a Catholic politician," Ryan's Bishop says, and would be "very supportive" if the former Republican Vice Presidential nominee decided to run for President in 2016.

Just as with Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco or Thomas Paprocki in Springfield, Morlino believes that he was called to shepherd Madison because of its "exaggerated secularism." His shepherding has so far not been without use of his staff.

In 2006, Morlino met with two Spanish priests asking to serve in his diocese. They were sent by Society of Jesus Christ the Priest founder Fr. Alfonso Gálvez to explore the Midwest after a stint in the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. Gálvez, now into his eighties, founded the Society with a mission to promote priestly vocations among young men. Gálvez's Society, a rather small operation with about 25 priests, is not for the casual Catholic. In his Notes on the Spirituality of the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, Gálvez panned 1960s Catholicism and its seminary reform, which took "unexpected courses" because the Church "found herself invaded by liberal Protestant theology and by various currents of Marxist ideology."

It was music to Morlino's ears. "They teach the teaching of the Catholic Church unadulterated. There's no delusion. They serve it up straight," Morlino says with a smile on his face. But he wasn't always smiling.

Parishioners in small-town Platteville bristled when priests banned female altar servers and steamed when they were no longer welcome as Eucharistic ministers. Some took to writing letters or leafleting cars in the church parking lot; others left in protest. By Morlino's lights, they are what St. Benedict called "murmurers." Platteville parishioners weren't expecting that, nor did they expect their bishop to threaten them with an interdict, a Canonical punishment.

But after those who "feed on making trouble in a parish" realize that "they cannot destroy a parish community," Morlino shrugs, "they usually will go elsewhere." Many initially did. Parishes with Society priests saw dips in membership, but attendance is coming back, the diocese reports. "The murmuring has subsided," Morlino says cautiously.

Could this be evidence of the so-called "Pope Francis effect"? National polls indicate that there has been no clear change in attendance, Morlino mentions, despite some "anecdotal evidence of people coming back." With that, the Bishop can't help but return to his sharp critique of the press: "the problem is the media are giving them a false story of what they're going to see when they take another look, but what the Holy Spirit can do through the successor of Peter is one miracle after another."

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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