Janesville39.4°

Church worker’s firing sparks protest

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 15, 2009
— Forces advocating change in the Catholic Church clashed with the church establishment Saturday at St. John Vianney Church.

The issue was the firing last week of Ruth Kolpack from her job as pastoral associate of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Beloit.


The firing came in a meeting with Bishop Robert Morlino. Kolpack said Morlino asked her to renounce her master’s thesis, make a profession of faith and take a loyalty oath.


“She could not refute her thesis, as it would be dishonest, not true to her work, and risk her reputation as a scholar and academician,” according to a news release from Call to Action—Madison Area, which is supporting Kolpack.


A diocesan spokesman would not discuss the firing. He said it is diocese policy not to discuss personnel matters, out of respect for everyone involved.


Morlino was in Janesville on Saturday for an unrelated meeting. About 45 people came to meet him to protest the firing.


The protesters held placards that said “Hear Ruth out!” and “Who would Jesus fire?”


Morlino walked up to the group and offered to talk to them later in the day.


“You don’t know the whole story,” Morlino said.


“I’m certainly sorry we have division in the church, but there it is,” the bishop said. “… If anyone is willing to talk respectfully at 3:30, I’ll be there.”


Several people interrupted Morlino as he spoke, although there was no shouting.


“You weren’t respectful to her,” someone called out.


Kolpack was present but did not participate in the protest.


Later, she told supporters: “It’s really important not to heckle. It’s important to be respectful.”


Spokesman Brent King said that Catholics owe obedience to their pastor, bishop and the pope, because they represent Jesus.


Kolpack said she has worked with St. Thomas Parish in various capacities for 35 years. She was appointed pastoral associate in 1995.


“I feel confident in saying that my actions as an employee of St. Thomas have been consistently prudent and in good faith in relation to the teachings of the church,” Kolpack said in the news release. “I have never used my position to promote issues contrary to church teaching. This has never been my intention.”


Cynthia Salvador, St. Thomas Parish member said she was outraged. She said Kolpack has worked tirelessly for the church.


“It’s not only St. Thomas that’s hurting. It’s all the associations she has built in the southern Wisconsin area,” Salvador said, mentioning Kolpack's involvement in Justice Overcoming Borders and a Hispanic ministry.


Kolpack said her thesis discussed the evil that can come of blind obedience. She said she can understand how that could be a red flag for the bishop.


“But if he would’ve read the whole paper, he would’ve understood it... he didn’t give it a chance,” she said.


The thesis also criticizes the church’s language of worship, which refers to God with words such as “he” or “Father.”


Kolpack said that’s harmful.


“I’m concerned about women, about young girls, who grow up in a patriarchal, male-dominated society. What does it do to their self-esteem?” she said.


Kolpack said she came to these beliefs as she studied feminist and liberation theology at St. Francis Seminary, where she earned her master’s degree in divinity in 2003. She said that 2003 thesis was never a problem, until now.


When asked about inclusive language, diocese spokesman Brent King said no one has the right to change the words of the liturgy.


“It’s not a teaching that God is a man. It’s an understanding of how God has revealed himself through history,” through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, King said.


The Holy Spirit protects the church from error, King said.


Kolpack responded: “The pope speaks infallibly in matters of faith and morals. Bishop Morlino is not infallible. … The Holy Spirit speaks through everyone.”


As a representative of the church, if he would publicly display disregard for church teachings, that would be grounds for dismissal, King said.


Morlino did meet with protesters for about 15 minutes but said he could not get into personnel matters, protester Jim Andrews said.


Morlino said the issue was less about the thesis and more about “a certain mentality in the way of teaching,” Andrews said.


Morlino did agree to meet with St. Thomas parishioners at some future date, Andrews said.


What’s next


Supporters of fired church worker Ruth Kolpack plan an informational march before the 11 a.m. Mass today at St. Thomas Church, 822 E. Grand Ave., Beloit.


Bishop Robert Morlino apparently has agreed to discuss the matter with St. Thomas parishioners on an unspecified date.



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