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Money, politics and religion: A conversation with Bishop William Callahan

Money, politics and religion: A conversation with Bishop William Callahan

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The Diocese of La Crosse is “not doing real well financially,” says Bishop William P. Callahan, who nonetheless sees a bright future as people respond to the church’s needs.

That future may include parish consolidations and different educational models, Callahan said in a rare, wide-ranging exclusive interview with the Tribune.

A member of the Conventual Franciscan order who has presided over the 19-county diocese since August 2010, Callahan also acknowledged the economy’s effect on people’s ability to donate to the church.

“Our economy stinks,” he said. “Our people are suffering, so the expectation is not that we are going to be out there hitting them over the head saying give or else.”

Callahan addressed the church’s problems with sexual abuse, his position against gay marriage and abortion, and the church’s recent battles with the federal government over mandates that religious institutions provide insurance coverage for their workers for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion drugs.

Callahan became bishop shortly after the Rev. Patrick Umberger resigned as pastor at St. Patrick Parish in St. Onalaska after being charged with child pornography. Umberger, who was not accused of abusing children, died with the case pending.

St. Patrick was one of the first churches Callahan visited after becoming bishop in an effort to salve parishioners’ hurt and anger over the incident.

Asked whether the parish has healed, Callahan said, “I would like to say we’re more healed than not.”

Perhaps a less polarizing figure than some of his predecessors, Callahan spoke candidly about the diocese’s strengths, weaknesses and its future.

Below is a consolidated version of that interview.

Let’s start off with the status of the diocese.

Callahan: It is really quite positive. I always begin by looking at the relationship — I believe it is an important relationship that I have with the priests and what they have with me. So I think that is very important. And how, once that relationship is established, how do we move beyond to the wider range of people? I think so far, so good. They are receiving me pretty well.

Are there any examples you have of how people do relate to you?

Callahan: If I’m reading it correctly, I can go into a parish and I think there’s a good feeling. I think people are easy to talk to in both ways. They’ll tell me what they don’t like, and they’ll tell me what they like. So I’m thinking something must be happening that’s good. They’re able to communicate both positives and negatives. And they’re not afraid, so that’s a good thing.

There have been positive responses. The diocese is not doing real well financially, but there are signs that people are responding to a way of telling them what we are doing with their contributions. I don’t think they saw that so much in the past. We are trying to be as open, as honest, as straightforward as we possibly can be about what’s going on, and I think they’re responding well to that. I think they’re seeing the need for things that need to be done in the diocese, and they are seeing diocesan officials respond well to that need.

The other part is the economy. Our economy stinks. Our people are suffering, so the expectation is not that we are going to be out there hitting them over the head saying give or else. I’ve always hated that stereotype that we’re always banging the pulpit and saying give money, give money, give money. And I reject that as much as I possibly can. I try to talk about money as few times as I possibly can, in spite of the fact that there is a great need for the generosity of the people. But I believe that, by and large, they’re responding well.

When you say the diocese isn’t doing real well financially, can we put that into some concrete terms, monetarily?

Callahan: Oh, monetarily sure, like everybody else, there’s too much month left at the end of the month. We are no different than any other family. We may have more mouths to feed, and we’ve got more things to do, so because of that, our abilities to kind of stretch those dollars really requires us to be a little bit more creative.

We are working at that, but we are seeing some concrete things. We are seeing a static kind of approach to Mass attendance. We are neither going up or down. We are kind of holding our own right now, and that creates a little bit of a problem in the terms of the expectations we can have from people in terms of donations, participation, etc., so we really need to work on some other areas. It’s not just enough for the bishop or the priest or the religious leader to stand up and say you have an obligation to go to Mass, you have an obligation to participate.

My sense is they don’t understand what that means, so why in the world should you make people feel guilty when they don’t understand what it means? I think the more they are able to understand what’s going on, then they are able to give, and they’ll be generous in their time and their talent and their treasure. I think those are the key areas we would be looking for in terms of participation.

You say people aren’t afraid to tell you what they don’t like. What are some examples?

Callahan: Ha! Have you read the paper lately? The most recent thing was the election. No matter what I would talk about — (people thought) it was always tantamount to electioneering. If I would be talking about the sacredness of life, if I was talking about the protection of the unborn, if I was talking about the beauty of the sacrament of marriage, instantaneously I would be electioneering for a particular party, for a particular candidate. People were so willing to paint with a such a broad brush all of the bishops — and it was the tea party Republican brush. This is what you think, and this is the way you are, and we are not there with you. And even the ones who were with us were angry that we weren’t as angry as they were.

So they’re not afraid to tell me what they think. I was either too sensitive, I was too patriotic, I was too regimented and authoritarian. I was not strong enough on the issues. So there was a lot of stuff, but they did let me know.

When you first came to the diocese, it was right after the unfortunate incident at St. Patrick in Onalaska (in which the pastor was charged with possessing child pornography). Is that healed, healing?

Callahan: I would like to say we’re more healed than not. But that’s another club that sometimes people use with the church that, no matter how much we do that’s good in the issue of sexual abuse, we can never do enough. That whole scandal was terrible. It was dreadful for everybody.

We are working hard here in the diocese. I’m making sure that our norms for child protection are conspicuously published and conspicuously posted in all of our buildings to make sure people understand that we’re not forgetting this. We are aware that people were seriously hurt, and we’re also aware of our responsibility to step up and to offer some solutions. We want to make sure that everybody’s OK.

Now, how about priest numbers in recruitment? Some priests have been recruited from other countries.

Callahan: We are currently I would say in round numbers about 180 priests in the diocese. Of that, probably about 25 percent are international priests. Most of our international priests come from southern India. And the balance of that 25 percent comes from Africa and I would say mostly Ghana. We have a good number of international priests of whom I am very proud and very happy to have working in our diocese.

We did a study last year of our priests and seminarians. We are seeing that most of our priests now who are seniors are out of the mainstream work force. They are helping out here and there, but we are not necessarily placing them in positions of long-term authority.

The bulk of our clergy in the Diocese of La Crosse, we’re bottom heavy; we’re not top heavy. We are starting to see a lot of young men come forward as priests, which is a beautiful problem to have. Thanks be to God, we have 32 men in the seminary right now. I am very proud of them. They are serious. They are focused. They are good-natured, good-humored, and they are serious men of faith.

And I’ve got priests with all different kinds of philosophies. There are some who are looking at Vatican II and saying, “Oh, boy, what do we do and when did we do it and why haven’t we done it again?” But there also are guys who are saying, “OK, the church is this way now, so what are we doing about that?”

What does tomorrow’s church look like to you?

Callahan: Tomorrow’s church is going to have maybe a different kind of look to it simply because of the fact that so many elements of today are being built on a secular relativist temperament that is decreasing our awareness, our dependency on God and our sense of the mystery of God. We lost that somewhere along the line. I think that the message of Jesus Christ is going to remain and is as strong as it ever was, if not stronger than it ever was.

There are many things that are serious and important about the future. One of the things is the whole issue of the First Amendment, the fight for the freedom of religion that, in this country, all we are asking for is the opportunity to be free to do what the Constitution allows us to do, and that is to live our faith and to publicly profess it and proclaim it, to influence what we are doing in the marketplace.

I believe where we are going or at least the sense of where society would like to see us go is to kind of shut up. By and large, America is becoming a one-religion country — and that religion is secularism. As opposed to allowing for freedom of religion, we are being boxed in more and more — we being people of faith.

The sense of the future church is going to really be built on how we resolve these questions today. The HHS mandate is odious, and as much as it speaks to the fact that the government is telling us that we have to subscribe to a way of thinking that is contrary to the beliefs we have, not just because they are our beliefs but because they are the teaching of God.

When you talk about HHS, you’re talking about the contraceptive part?

Callahan: I’m talking about the contraceptive part of it, I’m talking about the abortifacient part of it, all of these things. And they limit us, in that sense, to a war against women. One of the most important women in our lives is the mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why in the world would we want to limit women?

So the idea of womanhood is seen most gloriously by the church. The sense of understanding the contraception, this is not what we are fighting against with HHS. This is another subterfuge. Contraception is a church ordinance that is based on the formation of conscience, and it’s up to us to be able to teach those means by which people will form their conscience. It’s not something that is legislated, especially by a government. It is something that, hopefully, someone arrives at by virtue of one’s faith, and we allow freedom within our own confines to be able to make that choice. You either choose or you don’t. It’s not something where you have a priest following after you and saying this is bad, you’re going to hell. Hopefully, we are so far beyond that.

I was talking to my nephew at Thanksgiving, and he said it wouldn’t be so bad, except you guys are always telling people they’re going to hell. He says, “I have a very good friend who is gay, who goes to church on Sunday, but just is so conflicted about what he understands about ‘the church.’”

I said, “So he’s conflicted about what, being gay, he’s conflicted about the church, he’s conflicted about life? What is he conflicted about?”

“He’s conflicted about the fact that you’re always telling him he’s going to hell.”

“I said, ‘Hopefully, no one has ever told him that he’s going to hell. That’s not what we teach. We teach certainly that there are areas of action that we consider intrinsically evil, and that there are actions that we would say these will set you outside of the law, but God is the one who judges.”

And so, in so many instances, we are being ratcheted again into a very narrow confine of saying “You can’t tell us who we are to love.”

That’s a big moment in the marriage dispute right now: “You can’t tell us who we love.”

I have no intention of telling you that, and the church has no intention of telling you that. The church is out to protect the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage, not the idea of who loves whom. Within that, there are certain frameworks that have been acceptable from the beginning of time. Marriage is one of them. Marriage has been from biblical times to this very moment something that has been honored and treasured as a unique, distinct, mutually exclusive expression of love between a man and a woman, and always, for the procreation and education of children, for the expansion of the human race. It’s one of those pillars by which humanity is defined.

Let’s go back to parish life. It sounds like you’ve got an increasing number of priests. Do you think that there’s any chance that there’s going to have to be parish consolidations in the future?

Callahan: Yes, we have a Diocesan Pastoral Plan, and we are looking at the ability that we have of meeting the needs of our parishes. The church is changing. It’s not just a matter of having a parish church here, a parish church there, a parish church there. We are looking at the way people want to come together. We’re seeing the way people gather together in different ways, not only in terms of worship but also in terms of society and the different ways they want to congregate with each other.

What we’re trying to do is look at the ways our parishes can kind of reflect how things are being done just in the terms of the social configuration. Even though some parishes may be close to each other geographically, they may be different ethnic components, they may be different societal components or whatever it may be. We’re trying to see just exactly where our people are naturally going.

The other thing that’s important in terms of the pastoral plan is looking at education, and trying to figure out what we’re doing as far as education is concerned. Catholic education is a standard — a gold standard — by which the church continues to establish creativity, thought, advancement of knowledge — all of these things which are paramount and essentially important to the human mind.

I’m a big Catholic schools guy; I’m a big, big guy on Catholic education. I’m starting to think a little more about the concept of how Catholic schools and Catholic education are going through the metamorphosis in our country. I don’t necessarily think I’m going to be beating some of the old models and saying, “This has gotta work, I’ve gotta resuscitate this system, or whatever.”

I think there are some new options. I think there are some new things that we need to develop. I think there are some new thinkers out there who are going to rethink our educational system. I think we are going to create some new models. I’m happy to see those models.

I think there are plenty of opportunities. I think the church is kind of coming along with that now and seeing the various ways in which we need to respond to the world in which we live.

There’s not such a fear any more to be able to stand up and brag for Jesus Christ. I think in some ways there’s been a sense that we have to be quiet about the abortion issue. No — abortion is murder, pure and simple. That’s all there is to it — I mean, it’s just murder. But we need to talk about that, not to be able to say if you have had an abortion, that doesn’t mean that you are outside of God’s love.

I have a feeling that the future is going to be strong for the church because it’s going to be much more heroic, and much more holy.

I don’t want people to get the wrong idea when you say there might be parish consolidations in the future. What time frame might you be talking about?

Callahan: We’re working with people. They’re determining the timetable. I’m not imposing anything on anybody. People will come to a realization of what they want as we try to present it. If we’re presenting something that is going to say “OK, listen, we’ve got good priests who are going to be able to step up and going to be a part of your life, we’ve got them for this place, and this is what we see going on in this place.”

So, we’ve got these wonderful parishes that have existed, and we see as maybe unifying some parish councils, and bringing some financial councils together. What I want to see is especially in terms of more lay involvement, and I’m not saying that to be pandering to the laity.

We have the Diocesan Pastoral Council ... made up mostly of lay people. It is a lay organization for all practical purposes, but it’s stratified, so that it includes all the 13 deaneries we have, and all the organizations. What I’m trying to see is for them to understand is how important they are to consult with the bishop, to advise the bishop and to make sure the bishop is going to do something that first of all kind of makes sense to the laity as well. At least the people are not going to be sitting there in the dark saying, “What’s he dreaming up now?”

I didn’t invent this stuff. I really want them to understand just exactly where they relate in terms of God’s plan, Jesus Christ’s coming. That is what this is all about, because the future of the formation of the Diocese of La Crosse depends on that. So if our parishes are going to be reformed, we need to have people who are going to be able to do it. They need to understand why ... and why the church needs to undergo a metamorphosis and why education needs to undergo a metamorphosis.

We’ve got some bright days ahead of us, because we’ve got some real good thinkers in the diocese. They’re already starting. They’re starting to think about it. And they’re starting to think that maybe I really mean what I’m saying when I tell them I want to hear what you have to say. For the most part, I can change my mind. Nothing is just written in stone — except that which is written in stone.

That which Jesus has revealed, and that which has been time honored and memorialized throughout the ages of humanity. That’s written in stone, so that’s what I go by.

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