MILWAUKEE — In this intense political season, the leader of some 700,000 Catholics in the Milwaukee area is weighing in on the state’s divisive issues. FOX6’s Mike Lowe recently sat down with the most prominent religious leader in Milwaukee – Catholic Archbishop Jerome Listecki to talk politics.
When Listecki arrived in Milwaukee two years ago, he had an almost impossible task: replacing the Reverend Timothy Dolan. “I’m here because God wants me to be here. It was following a friend (Dolan) and I would certainly want to follow in the wake of someone who has had such a good impact on the community,” Listecki said.
Dolan left for New York, but Listecki proved that he, too had the common touch, and a sense of humor. The 62-year-old archbishop is a serious man – a retired Army lieutenant colonel who sees himself fighting the good fight, upholding Catholic teaching not only in his pulpit, but also in his politics. He is, in many ways, Milwaukee’s political priest, and he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. “I’m part of the political process. I’m not just a head of a corporation. I’m a believer. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe he is – not to do a Tebow, but I believe he is our Lord and Savior,” Listecki said.
Listecki says faith must translate into action, and he has taken steps to protect what he sees as Catholic values under assault. He criticized Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her characterization of Catholic teaching on abortion, and he condemned President Barack Obama’s appearance at the University of Notre Dame. In addition, Listecki came out against the healthcare bill on the same grounds – that the Obama administration would force Catholic hospitals and schools to provide birth control coverage, which goes against Catholic teaching on contraception. “We’re not going to do it. We’re not going to violate our conscience. If individuals think we will just take this lying down, we do have courts, laws and the Constitution,” Listecki said.
Not everyone is in Listecki’s controversial corner. His critics say he should stay out of politics. “That’s the privatization of religion. ‘We don’t mind if you’re religious, as long as you close the curtains, and we don’t have to see you. As long as you don’t say anything that disrupts those things we want to do.’ That’s not faith,” Listecki said.
Given his strong belief in translating faith into action, it’s no surprise in what analysts say is the most polarized political climate the state has ever seen, that Listecki is taking sides. But when asked what side he’s on, Democrat or Republican, Listecki said: “I’m a Catholic.”
That raises the question: where does one of Wisconsin’s most influential religious leaders stand on its most polarizing politician, Governor Scott Walker? “Scott Walker did what he thought was right. He was a leader who stood up and was willing to ‘take the heat.’ Only time will tell about the course of action. In his mind, he saw that as the right action. As a leader, I respect him for doing it,” Listecki said.
On the question of collective bargaining, Listecki says compromise would have been better than the protracted political battle. “There’s a balance that has to be achieved, so it has to be done within the context of respecting rights. At the same time, those who are seeking benefits from society have to realize society can’t grant that which they are seeking, because those sacrifices have to be made for the common good,” Listecki said.
Listecki says the recall effort is only further dividing a fractured state. “You have a recall when you have corruption, something illegal, something that is morally detrimental to society. Otherwise, you have an election. You wait four years. You vote that person out of office,” Listecki said.
The underlying issues here are taxes and the distribution of wealth – issues that have spawned opposing movements. “What I see in all of this, not only the Occupy Movement, 99-1, but the Tea Party, there’s a lot of unrest, uncertainty, and therefore, folks are going to try to come up with quick solutions and answers. What I’m into is what helps people achieve their dignity. That’s not going to come from money. That comes from a relationship with God,” Listecki said.
Listecki says his relationship with God began at an early age. “It was sometime around the age of three that I actually voiced this is what I wanted to be, that I wanted to be a priest,” Listecki said.
Listecki grew up in Chicago in a working-class Polish-Mexican neighborhood – the kind of blue-collar immigrant community that was defined by its parish, where the Catholic church played a life-supporting role. “The church was a great supporter. They were there for family. They were there for the worker,” Listecki said.
Listecki’s parents taught him the value of hard work, and the steel workers taught him the importance of faith, that even though life was hard, it was their religion that kept them going. “I worked in the blast furnace in the plants when I was 18, and my summers home from the seminary – boom, right back into the mills,” Listecki said.
Listecki’s education took him from the steel mills to the seminary, but his ministry doesn’t stop at the church door. You may find the son of a tavern owner at a bar. “The Archbishop can have a beer every once in awhile,” Listecki said. He can also be found taking in a Marquette University basketball game.
Listecki is a leader who calls the shots, like the basketball coach he once was. He wants Catholics to get in the game of the battlefield of ideas, and play to win. Listecki addresses the issues of the day, including politics, on his own TV program. Behind the scenes, he weighs in on the presidential race. “The problem with Romney is that he’s not connecting,” Listecki said. He also talks politics from the pulpit, taking as his touchstone one core Catholic principle: the value of human life. For Listecki, the defining social-political issue is the perennial hot-button of abortion.
On a cold January night, Listecki was getting ready to deliver his most politically charged Mass of the year. He warned the congregation against putting politics over prayer. “Everything has to be grounded in prayer, everything that we do, or else we become idealogues,” Listecki said. Listecki asked the congregation that in making their political decisions, to put life first. “We care for our country, which has taken this disastrous course for the destruction of human life, and the diminishing of the dignity of the human person. We pray for those who have chosen a culture of death. May God forgive them,” Listecki said.
Not everyone agrees with Listecki’s politics or positions, especially his view that abortion should be the Litmus Test of a candidate for office, but no one can question the passion this political priest brings to debate. “If looking back and I’m dead, I often thought what do I want on my tombstone? And on my tombstone, a really simple phrase: He led them to holiness. And that’s the key for every bishop and archbishop in any community, for any religious leader. He led them to holiness,” Listecki said.
Archbishop Listecki leaves Friday for Rome, where he’ll meet with Pope Benedict to deliver a report on the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Listecki will stick around for a week to attend the ceremony elevating his predecessor, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, to Cardinal.