Standing up to Bishop Morlino
His Leadership Does Not Reflect Church's True Teachings

By Jim Beyers
April 23, 2009

"Well, the very worst has happened today. Bishop Morlino fired me."

This is the message Ruth Kolpack sent to friends on Thursday, March 12. For most of us, it came as a shock.

For the last 25 years, Ruth had been employed at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Beloit, serving under four pastors and three bishops. Since 1995 she'd been a pastoral associate, working in religious education, liturgy and service to minorities, living out the teachings of our church.

Ruth was fired after a 10-minute meeting with Bishop Robert Morlino, who has headed up the Madison diocese since 2003. She says he asked her to refute her master's thesis, which urges a more inclusive role for women in the church. When she refused, she was fired.

Morlino has since said there were other reasons for his decision, which he has not explained. The bishop has apparently decided to pursue a strategy of obfuscation and character assassination, making it difficult for Ruth to mount a defense.

Ruth and I are members of two organizations dedicated to increasing lay involvement in church governance. Members of both organizations, Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful, published the recent open letter to Bishop Morlino in the Wisconsin State Journal.

We did not question the teachings of the church but protested Bishop Morlino's unjust actions.

I am a lifelong Catholic, a so-called cradle Catholic. I love my church and its teachings of justice and service to others. I have served in many ministries in various parishes and was the CEO of a Catholic hospital for 13 years.

After Pope John XXIII opened the windows of Vatican II to let in the fresh air of new understanding and enlightenment, a hierarchy emerged that wants to slam the window shut. It saddens and angers me, but it will not drive me from the church I love. I will continue to join with others in keeping the faith but working to change the church.

And part of that involves standing up to our bishop.

Bishop Morlino's tenure in Madison has been marked by confrontation, not cooperation. His relationship with the priests and faithful has not been one of "servant to the servants of God" but one of dictator.

Ruth Kolpack, on the other hand, is loved by the parishioners she served, and they are greatly distressed and angry, as I am, that she has been dismissed. Her firing came just a few days before the First Communion class guided by Ruth was to receive the sacrament.

While Bishop Morlino may not be unique in his behavior, other bishops have managed to be pastoral and supportive of their priests and lay people. They are teachers, not tyrants, and find it better to lead and reward than dictate and punish.

The late Kenneth Untener was for 24 years the bishop of Saginaw, Mich. When he evoked the image of a shepherd in his homilies, it was not the usual image of one who rounds up the flock and crowds them into the sheepfold. Instead he said, "The shepherd brings them to the wide open spaces, green pastures, wider horizons, where they can have a freedom they never knew before" (National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004).

I think the latter more closely embodies Jesus' ministry and great commandment: to love God with our whole hearts and souls and love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the foundation of the church I and many others believe in.

But Bishop Morlino expects his followers to simply echo material that is put before them by the diocese — or else. One should expect well-educated and prepared teachers to think for themselves and to question some of the rigid "teachings" of the bishop.

On April 3, Bishop Morlino traveled to St. Thomas the Apostle Parish and met with upwards of 400 parishioners who wanted to discuss his action against Ruth Kolpack. They did so respectfully, describing the many contributions she has made to that faith community. One member called her "the foundation of the parish."

The bishop should realize the damage he's done, not only to Ruth but to the community. He should reinstate her.

Author Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953) wrote: "If any man should deny the Divine origin of the Roman Church, let it be known that no mere human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility could have lasted a fortnight."

Most of us who are members of this church love it and intend to stay, as we recognize the wisdom of Belloc's words.

Jim Beyers is a retired health care administrator who lives in Madison. He served as CEO of the Monroe Clinic from 1982 to 1995.


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