This is what I like to hear!
Some walk, most stay for Mass message
November 5, 2006
The decision was not a difficult one for Frank McMahon, although he said it was one he thought he would never have to make.
As a prerecorded message from Bishop Robert Morlino began playing during Saturday's Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Madison, McMahon, 70, a lifelong Catholic, quietly but purposefully strode to an exit.
"I could have stayed in there and pretended I was soaking it up, but why be a hypocrite?" said McMahon, as he waited out the 14-minute message from Morlino by gazing at a quilt hanging in the church vestibule.
A handful of other parishioners also walked out, unwilling to hear Morlino's opposition to three controversial issues - same-sex marriage, the death penalty and embryonic stem-cell research. One read the Bible. One prayed. One dabbed at tears.
It was an odd and difficult weekend, many Catholics said. While they are no strangers to the complexities of church issues, this was a new development in negotiating the tricky intersection of personal faith, religious doctrine and electoral politics, they said.
Morlino, bishop for 270,000 Catholics in the 11-county Madison diocese, had ordered all parishes to play his strongly worded audio message on Nov. 4 and 5, just days before an election in which all three hot-button topics will be on the state ballot, either directly or indirectly.
Voters will decide Tuesday whether to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage and civil unions, and an advisory referendum will ask them whether they think state legislators should reinstate the death penalty. Meanwhile, stem-cell research has been an issue in a close governor's race.
Morlino warned priests in a letter that any verbal or nonverbal expression of disagreement with him on their part before or after the playing of the audio message "will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences."
For some Catholics, Morlino had gone too far by inserting politics directly into the sanctuary and by slapping a gag order on priests. But others cheered. Finally, they said, a tough- love church leader willing to state the obvious and herd a sometimes wayward flock back into line.
Response to recording
The issue played out in various ways over the weekend.
At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Madison, which seats more than 250 parishioners, 27 people filed out of the 9 a.m. Sunday service as Morlino's message began. Eleven more stood in silence for the duration of Morlino's comments, their backs turned to the altar.
One of those who walked out was Michael Ennis, 14, an eighth-grader who wore a white T-shirt with a message he had written on it in big, red letters earlier that morning that said, "A Fair, Christian Wisconsin Votes No."
The statement is a variation on "A Fair Wisconsin Votes No," the slogan used in television ads by a group that opposes the gay marriage ban amendment.
A parishioner at Blessed Sacrament announced during the service that there would be an opportunity that evening at 7 to meet at the church and process Morlino's message and "the controversy" it had provoked.
The Rev. Pat Norris said later in an interview that the purpose of the gathering was not to debate politics but "to express feelings in an atmosphere of Christian love."
"Some people may be feeling very positive (about what Morlino said)," Norris said. "Others may be very concerned about the way he said it."
A clear message
In the taped homily, Morlino never utters the words "election" or "referendum," and he never tells people to vote "yes" or "no." But his message is clear.
He says residents "have a big challenge right now in Wisconsin" on three issues.
He says there is no right to redefine marriage, and that "if we admit that there is such a right, that causes the collapse of the family and that causes the collapse of society, in due time."
On the death penalty, he says life without parole and secure prisons can protect society from criminals. Embryonic stem-cell research is being promoted for commercial interests, Morlino says, not because it has ever led to the cure of a single disease.
Quoting the Bible, Morlino says that a person who tries to confuse the issues, causing another to sin, "would be better off with a millstone around his neck, tossed into the sea."
Judy Winter, a Catholic from Platteville, said she was pleased that Morlino had stated so forcefully what is "simple, natural law."
"I think he has absolutely every right and every duty to speak to the issue because there's been so much confusion," she said, likening Morlino to a corporate CEO who calls in managers and states company policy.
She attended two church services over the weekend - one in Lancaster and one in Fennimore - and saw no one walk out. Those who walked out at other parishes "obviously are not well-educated in natural, moral law, let alone Catholic teachings," she said.
However, others have challenged Morlino on Catholic teachings. In an open letter to Morlino printed Thursday in the Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times, 50 Catholic families in the Madison diocese said his opposition to civil unions for gay couples "is dangerous and wrong."
"Jesus told us the most important of his teachings was to 'love one another' with tolerance and understanding being fundamental to the Christian way of life," the ad said.
Morlino did not respond to a telephone interview request made through the diocese's communications office Thursday. In a posting on the diocese Web site Thursday, Morlino responded to the ad by saying he knows some of the signers and respects and loves all of them.
"Let us pray together that the bitterness, which this whole matter has stirred in the hearts of some, will be healed soon by the power of the Holy Spirit," Morlino said.
Catholic priests handled the mandate to play Morlino's audio message differently. Some stuck to the facts. One prefaced the recording by saying, "As most of you have heard by now, I have been ordered to play this." Another said he was "required" to play it.
At Holy Mother of Consolation Church in Oregon, the Rev. Bill Connell admitted he wasn't supposed to say anything about the taped message from Morlino but couldn't help himself. Looking a bit ragged, Connell confessed he hadn't slept for two nights, worrying about what parishioners might do or say upon hearing the tape.
Luckily, only one person walked out during the three Masses at which the tape was played, Connell told attendees at the final service Sunday morning.
"I just want to say thank you for being respectful," Connell said. "I don't think his comments were all that bad. Pretty good, in fact."
At the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Mount Horeb, the Rev. Rick Heilman introduced the tape by praising Morlino's credentials and calling him a leader of international renown. After the sermon, Heilman said he was gratified that no one in his congregation walked out.
Among those at the service was Ken Scott, 43, a gay Catholic who lives in Mount Horeb. Scott said he is a lifelong Catholic who attends services through Integrity/Dignity, a Madison-area ecumenical organization affiliated with Integrity, a national gay and lesbian group within the Episcopal church, and Dignity, a national gay and lesbian group within the Catholic church.
Scott listened to the sermon, then attempted to hand out fliers after the service on the public sidewalk outside the church. The fliers offered alternate views from Milwaukee-area priests on why people should vote against the gay marriage ban amendment.
It was tough work. Several men from the parish followed Scott around, telling people to rip up the fliers. At one point, Heilman came outside and told people to ignore Scott, taking Scott's flier out of the hand of one parishioner.
"You don't want to read it, it's propaganda," Heilman told the parishioner.
"Don't let them control what you can read," Scott responded.
Later, Scott said he thought the church leaders over-reacted and showed that they don't trust their parishioners to form their own opinions on civil matters. Heilman did not respond to an interview request.
Jennifer Milas, 54, a member of St. Ignatius, said she fully supports the bishop and was glad that he ordered the tape to be played.
"I think a lot of people hadn't talked about their beliefs much," she said. "This really brought it to people's minds."
Milas said she will be voting in favor of the ban on gay marriage and civil unions Tuesday. As for those who walked out of services or protested in other ways, "I just pray that they'll have a stronger faith," she said. "I don't condemn them. I pray for them."
State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. •
Excerpts from Bishop Morlino's address
Bishop Robert Morlino's audio message to Catholics in the Madison diocese can be heard at the diocese's Web site at http://www.madisondiocese.org.
"We cannot protect for people rights that they do not enjoy, and there is no right to redefine marriage."
"Capital punishment is bad because it escalates an already existing climate of violence and terrorism by responding to that climate with more violence. It's not necessary."
"When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary the mother of God that she would give birth, and then Mary said, 'yes,' at that moment, nine months before Jesus was born, Jesus became a pre- embryo and then an embryo. That's what happened on the Feast of the Annunciation. Jesus became a pre-embryo, and we don't go throwing pre-embryos away or destroying them because it might help somebody else. How would any of us like to be killed to help someone else?"
"It's not that we're forcing our Catholic faith on them. This is all natural law. This is all reason. We can explain it."