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Etc.: The bishop and me

POSTED November 24, 2014 12:45 p.m.

By the time you reach this spot in your favorite weekly newspaper you will have read how I spent my Wednesday night.

It is strange for someone in the news media to be a participant in a story. (And this is now the third time in a couple of months, after stories about The Journal’s coverage of the Merle Forbes murder and the state of the building that houses our offices.) Participating in what we’re covering is not what we journalists are supposed to do, and that certainly wasn’t what I intended to do Wednesday night.

As far as the Wisconsin State Journal’s Friday story goes, whether I “tried to make a big deal out of it” or whether my presence “added kind of a negative vibe” (whatever that is) depends on your perspective. Neither Bishop Robert Morlino nor I raised our voices, and the video someone shot of the event, if it still exists, I believe would prove that. I chose not to follow Morlino to St. Augustine’s (where he apparently gave his intended speech in the basement) because I didn’t want to embarrass St. Augustine’s by putting them in the position of claiming that a church is a private place in which not all of the public is welcome.

No public figure (and Morlino certainly is one as the leader of southern Wisconsin’s Roman Catholics) giving a speech to which the public was invited in a public place (and your tax dollars paid for UW–Platteville’s Doudna Hall) should expect to be able to decide whether he or she wants the news media to be there. When the bishop makes a public appearance, particularly given what has happened in Platteville’s Catholic churches over the last few years, that is news, whether the bishop intends to make news or not. So was the ordination of three priests at St. Mary’s last year, which I also covered. (That’s the second ordination I’ve covered in my career, the first being Fr. Randy Timmerman of Dickeyville at Sinsinawa Mound in 1993.) So are St. Mary’s Harvest Festival or St. Augustine’s Octoberfest. So was St. Mary’s bazaar Saturday morning.

I have until now avoided commenting on what’s happened at St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s because I wasn’t here to observe all of what happened. St. Mary’s school closing was the biggest tragedy I’ve seen here that didn’t involve death. In a very Catholic area, Platteville is the biggest city west of Madison and south of La Crosse without a Catholic school. Part of that may be because of the quality of the Platteville Public Schools. But neither Platteville Public Schools nor any other public school teach Catholic values, for obvious reasons. Now, parents who want their children to have a Catholic education (including non-Catholics) can’t have that in Platteville.

This has opened the old wounds of what has happened at St. Mary’s and St. Augustine’s since priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest arrived at the Platteville churches. (Wounds on both sides of the theological divide, from what I observe.) Many people who feel shut out by the changes at the churches voted with their feet, and left — some for other Catholic churches, some for other churches, and maybe some for no church at all. Whatever era it was when what the church said was absolute law, that’s not today’s reality.

Complaints of divisiveness usually are complaints made by those who don’t get their way. (Calling someone’s decisions “evil” instead of “wrong” is as unhelpful as telling those who criticize your decisions that they’re going to Hell.) But I believe that if God wanted us to follow authority without question, God would not have given us free will. (For that matter, if we were supposed to follow authority without question, we’d all be British.) And authority does not generate respect when you shut out those who disagree with you, or charge others with “calumnious inciting of hatred of your priests, the faith, and” Morlino, to quote the bishop from 2012.

I’m not a theologian, but sitting in a Christian church (including the Catholic Church, in which I was baptized, given First Communion, confirmed and married) listening to Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel readings on most of the Sundays of my life, I have neither heard nor read any part of any of the four Gospels in which Jesus Christ’s response to encountering those who didn’t share his views — the Pharisees, the scribes, the Jewish authorities of his day, and even the Romans — was to run away. And certainly had Christ’s disciples and apostles fled from those who disagreed with them, the Christian church would be unlikely to exist today.

The right thing for Bishop Morlino to have done Wednesday was to have given the speech he intended to give where he intended to give it, particularly with the news media present. Our increasingly secular society likes to ignore or explain away evil despite evil’s very real presence in our world. Among the responsibilities of every Christian is to spread the news of Jesus Christ to those who haven’t heard that word. That can mean being in places where the audience disagrees with you. Morlino’s message shouldn’t be limited to Roman Catholics.

This being the week of Thanksgiving, I should finish by saying this Thanksgiving I am thankful for the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects our freedom of speech and religion, and freedom of the press, even though some people don’t respect those rights.

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