When the Democracy Campaign recently shined light on the efforts of the Madison Catholic Diocese to influence the outcome of the statewide referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, Bishop Robert Morlino's first reaction was to brandish the First Amendment in his defense.
Calling for public disclosure of the diocese's political activities was an attack on freedom of religion, Morlino asserted, going as far as to say our defense of the public's right to know is "persecution" and an attempt to "intimidate" the church.
When it later dawned on the bishop that the Democracy Campaign had not challenged the diocese's right to take a position on the marriage amendment or publicly advocate its position or incorporate its position into church teachings, but rather simply wanted the diocese to publicly disclose clear electioneering activities, Morlino quickly took a different tack.
In an interview with a Madison TV station, he acknowledged that printing and distributing 110,000 fliers urging people to vote yes had "political implications" but insisted that it did not amount to electioneering because the materials were merely being offered but not forced on people. "If I had some way of forcing people to do it that would be electioneering," he reasoned.
Now it's becoming obvious that Morlino not only has an other-worldly conception of political campaigning, but also a rather unconventional idea of what constitutes "forcing." In a front-page commentary in today's Wisconsin State Journal, columnist Bill Wineke reports Morlino sent all the priests in the Madison Diocese a "personal and confidential" letter last week ordering them to play a 14-minute recorded sermon detailing his positions on the marriage amendment, the death penalty referendum and the issue of embryonic stem-cell research at all services next weekend.
The bishop warned the priests that "any verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement with this teaching on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences."