Deal W. Hudson
Published August 16, 2010
Too often, Catholic commentators, including myself, speak about American bishops in the plural. The existence of a national bishops’ conference unfortunately encourages this habit, one that obscures a basic fact about the Catholic Church: It is individual bishops who are responsible for sanctifying the lives of the Catholic faithful.
There’s no better antidote to the chatter about “the bishops” than focusing attention on one bishop who, by all accounts, is doing his job exceedingly well. Bishop Robert F. Vasa is a shepherd who has been steadily gaining a national reputation for his articulate leadership on controversial issues and generous support of lay apostolates.
Vasa was named bishop of Baker, Oregon, in late 1999. Most of his life as a priest has been spent in Nebraska, where he was born in 1951. Ordained to the priesthood in 1976, Vasa served as a pastor, teacher, and advocate to the marriage tribunal before going to Rome for post-graduate study in canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1979.
Returning from Rome two years later, Bishop Vasa spent nearly two decades serving the diocese of Lincoln – first under the leadership of Bishop Glennon Flavin, then under Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who came to Lincoln in 1992. Bishop Vasa held all the positions of responsibility available to a priest from pastor, judicial vicar, vicar general, to finance officer and chairman of the Diocesan Building Commission.
In just over his ten years as a bishop, Vasa has made a series of bold decisions and released several incisive statements. In April 2004, he issued “Giving Testimony to the Truth,” a document addressed to the lay ministers of the Baker diocese that included an oath of fidelity. Reminding those who serve the diocese that it is the bishops who commission them to exercise these works, Bishop Vasa made the oath a requirement for employment, because the Church “teaches that anyone commissioned to a lay apostolate in the Church should be fully accepting of all Catholic teachings.”
The following year, Bishop Vasa may have ruffled a few feathers when he rejected the USCCB’s imposition of the “Talking About Touching” program as a response to priest sexual abuse. Preferring to create his own “safe environment program,” Bishop Vasa argued that “Talking About Touching” left too many unanswered and troubling questions:
Are such programs effective? Do such programs impose an unduly burdensome responsibility on very young children to protect themselves rather than insisting that parents take such training and take on the primary responsibility for protecting their children? Is it true that other groups, actively promoting early sexual activity for children, promote these programs in association with their own perverse agendas?
In 2006, Bishop Vasa weighed in again on a controversial subject, what he called the “heresy” of pro-abortion Catholic politicians:
There is a point at which passive “tolerance” allows misleading teachings to be spread and propagated, thus confusing or even misleading the faithful about the truths of the Church… There is a very strong word, which still exists in our Church, which most of us are too “gentle” to use. The word is “heresy.”
Interviewed by LifeSiteNews at the Catholic Leadership Conference in 2008, Bishop Vasa stated that abortion support “disqualified” a Catholic for political office. The USCCB’s controversial “Faithful Citizenship” document of 2007, according to Bishop Vasa, contained the same view. He rejected the spin on “Faithful Citizenship” that a Catholic could vote for a pro-abortion candidate for “proportionate reasons” when facing a politician who supported capital punishment and the Iraq War:
When we have someone who has that stand on a disqualifying issue, then the other issues, in many ways, do not matter because they are already wrong on that absolutely fundamental issue.
Bishop Vasa’s interest in health care is longstanding and informed, as he created self-funded medical insurance for his former diocese of Lincoln as well as Baker. He also serves on the board of the Catholic Medical Association, which described him as having “visionary wisdom.” In February 2010, explaining that the St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon, “gradually moved away” from Church ethical and religious standards, Bishop Vasa announced it can no longer be “called Catholic.” St. Charles was performing sterilizations in the form of tubal ligations.
A month later, Bishop Vasa described the health-care bill – which was supported by Catholic politicians like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden – as “positively evil.” He rejected the arguments used by Catholic supporters that it was necessary to pass in spite of its flaws:
The demand that such a provision [i.e., abortion] be eliminated is not a demand for ‘perfection.’ Such a demand, in this case, is not the enemy of the good, it is standing in the face of evil.
In all these actions, Bishop Vasa is viewed by those who know him as a leader who expresses, without hesitation, the common sense of the Catholic Faith. When Gene Zurlo, a lay leader who has worked with Bishop Vasa, heard I was writing this column, he urged: “Say that he is holy, wise, faithful, and courageous, and that we need more like him!”