Bishop Morlino Was Truly a Churchman of His Time


National Catholic Register, 27 November 2018

COMMENTARY: The life and service of the late shepherd of the Diocese of Madison tracked in an unusual way the ecclesial shifts of his era.

The death of Bishop Robert Morlino will be noted far beyond the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. The late prelate’s outspoken orthodoxy and support for traditional liturgy will ensure that. Yet his life is of interest beyond his diocese and his admirers. It tracked in an unusual way the ecclesial shifts of his time.

Robert Morlino was born on New Year’s Eve 1946 into the solidly Catholic culture of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He would attend the Jesuits’ Scranton Preparatory high school, belonging to the last generation where it was wholly unremarkable that some of the graduates would enter the Society of Jesus. Morlino did, studying at Fordham and Notre Dame and in Weston, Massachusetts — a typical formation for thousands of Jesuits in the United States.

He was ordained in 1974 and experienced as a young priest the upheaval in the Society of Jesus, as theological confusion, disciplinary breakdown, widespread homosexuality and a culture of dissent sent Jesuits heading for the exits in droves. Most left to embrace a liberalizing world outside the order; fewer sought refuge in the diocesan priesthood, where they could live their priesthood unmolested by the deep dysfunction of Jesuit leadership in the 1970s. Father Morlino was one of the latter, incardinating in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1981.

He held various diocesan offices before completing his doctorate and teaching at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. There, he was part of a widespread renewal of seminaries that marked the United States in the 1990s. Sacred Heart would become a noted center for orthodoxy, producing from its faculty several bishops: John Nienstedt (New Ulm, St. Paul and Minneapolis), Allen Vigneron (Oakland, Detroit), Earl Boyea (Lansing) and Leonard Blair (Toledo, Hartford).

Morlino was part of that cohort of Sacred Heart professors when he was appointed the bishop of Helena, Montana, in 1999. In 2003, he was transferred to Madison, where he would confront the culture of one of America’s most aggressively secular cities.

Early 21st-century Madison was a long way from mid-20th century Scranton. The aspiration of Scranton Catholics in the 1950s to join the American mainstream was the reason for places like Scranton Prep — a place where talented Catholics would receive the quality education they needed to live the American dream.

In Madison, Bishop Morlino made it clear that the American mainstream was a dangerous place for the faith and that Catholics were called not to join it, but to critique it and convert it.

“Your peers in this generation and so many others are running toward hell with much more enthusiasm and strength than so many mediocre people are running toward heaven,” Bishop Morlino said earlier this year in a May commencement address at Thomas Aquinas College.

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