The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA) has a feature piece, "Next Santa Rosa bishop brings 'orthodox' view of Catholicism" (March 5, 2011) that tries mightily to be fair-minded and objective about Bishop Robert Vasa, newly moved to Santa Rosa after spending several years leading the Diocese of Baker (just over the mountains from my digs in Eugene, Oregon).
Ah, shucks—who am I kidding? The piece is not really that fair-minded and objective at all; just consider a few examples of the language and approach used:
With a theological steadfastness that belies his homespun ways, Vasa gained national attention by stripping Bend's major hospital of its Catholic affiliation for performing tubal ligations.
He also imposed on lay teachers and administrators a pledge of fidelity to Catholic prohibitions on pre-marital sex, masturbation and homosexuality, calling them “gravely evil.”
Vasa declined to say what his initial priorities will be, other than getting to know the priests and parishioners of the 165,000-member North Coast diocese.
His record suggests that he could depart from the largely tolerant approach to church doctrine attributed to his predecessors.
Plain, if not blunt, in speech, the man who will be Santa Rosa's sixth bishop is inclined to squeeze a dime hard. He won't pay for cable TV and he'd rather eat beans out of the can with a spoon than dine on French cuisine off fine plates and silver service. (emphasis added)
The impression is that Bishop Vasa is a humorless, rigid autocrat (and something of a rube) who seeks first and foremost to put down anyone who disagrees with him. The truth is, however, that Bishop Vasa is not only a very fine bishop, he has a wonderful sense of humor, is very intelligent and witty, is well-educated, and has a deep passion for the Gospel and the souls of those entrusted to his care. That fact that some Catholics in the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, came unglued when Bishop Vasa required anyone working for the diocese to publicly uphold Catholic teaching says plenty about how bad things were. It also shows how willing he is to endure a flood of whining, shrieking, and gnashing of teeth so that Catholics are held accountable to Church teaching about hot button moral issues. That is, after all, a essential part of being a bishop, even if some bishops shy away from it.
Needless to say, I hardly expect The Press Democrat to handle public relations for Bishop Vasa or lay out the red carpet, but the piece is almost unrementingly negative—if not overtly, at least suggestively. This is pretty obvious in how he is presented as a leader who has little or no concern about people, only rules and more rules. And, not surprisingly, the ol' "follow your conscience" mythology is employed, on cue:
He will face an immediate challenge in replenishing church finances, while his doctrinaire style raises questions about how he will mesh with the North Coast's liberal inclinations.
Santa Rosa's bishops generally have allowed the members of their flock to follow their own consciences, said Yvette Fallandy of St. Eugene's Parish in Santa Rosa and a former member of a lay advisory council to the bishop.
“The assumption has been that Catholics who turn up at Mass believe firmly in the Apostles' Creed and practice their Catholicism as best they know it,” she said.
Bishop Walsh is a “commonsensical conservative” who issued no pronouncements on church law while bringing stability to the scandal-plagued diocese, Fallandy said.
There remains tension, however, over the doctrine of a 2,000-year-old church ruled by Rome but spread over a spectrum in America from traditionalists who favor the Latin Mass to advocates for change in keeping with the 21st century.
Disputes over the church's opposition to abortion, birth control and homosexuality, and its adherence to clerical celibacy and a male-only clergy are enmeshed in the split.
“There are many flavors of Catholics,” Fallandy said.
Actually, there are Catholics and there are "Catholics", and it's completely within the realm of sober, mature behavior to note that when "Catholics" say they can, in good conscience, ignore or spurn formal Catholic teaching, they aren't being a "flavor", but a flake and a dissenter. As St. Vincent of Lerins wrote fifteen centuries ago: "We may say that a true and genuine Catholic is the man who lives the truth of God, the Church, and the Body of Christ; who does not put anything above divine religion and the Catholic faith—neither the authority, nor the affection, nor the genius, nor the eloquence, nor the philosophy of any other human being. He despises all that and, being firmly founded in the faith, is determined to hold and believe nothing but what the Catholic Church, as he has perceived, has held univerally and from ancient times" (Commonitoria, 20). Or, in the frank words of Pope St. Gregory VII: "Quod Catholicus non habeatur qui non concordat Romanae ecclesiae" ("He cannot be accounted a Catholic who does not agree with the Roman Church.")
One of the few brights spots in the piece is a quote from Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press (full dislosure: I know Mark; in fact, he's my boss):
Reinig, who now holds the No. 2 post in the diocese, said he considers Vasa as “orthodox,” meaning he “follows the church's teachings as best he can.”
“He will not deviate from the truth,” Reinig said.
Mark Brumley of Napa, head of the Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, said the term orthodox — which he would apply to Vasa and Pope Benedict XVI — defines the middle ground between Catholic traditionalists and advocates for change.
“It is not always the most comfortable place to be,” said Brumley, a member of St. Apollinaris Parish in Napa, part of the Santa Rosa diocese.
Vasa, who was ordained in Lincoln, Neb. in 1976, is not a doctrinal “hardliner,” Brumley said, but someone who “values clarity about what the church teaches.”
“He's very interested in winning people over, not excluding them,” Brumley said.
Which is immediately followed by:
Cindy Vrooman of Sonoma, a former nun, isn't so sure.
Of course she isn't. How shocking. How dull. And how sad that many Catholics will go with the Former Nun Flavor—"Add tepid water. Stir up manufactured controversy. Serve over Sixties'-styled noodles"—but want nothing to do with the true food and drink of Catholic doctrine, practice, and faith.
• "Look Forward and Upward": An Interview with Bishop Robert Vasa (Catholic World Report, February 2011)