The announcement that Bishop Robert Carlson is headed to St. Louis, which has been vacant almost a year, is welcome news indeed. Like the previous incumbent, Archbishop Raymond Burke, Carlson is not likely to be mistaken for a liberal anytime soon. But, more importantly, he brings a compelling personal story, a commitment and dedicated track record on vocations, and a pastoral sensibility to his role as bishop.
The story may be familiar to you already or soon will be. Carlson says that when he got to Sioux Falls as coadjutor bishop in 1994 he saw the posting as a first step in his ecclesiastical career. Then, he got cancer in 1996. And, the people of God, whom he had viewed just a moment ago as part of a step in his career, brought their faith and their love to him in such a way that when he finally was pronounced cancer-free after proactive treatment at the Mayo Clinic and a visit to Fatima, "That followed a number of years of healing. It removed ambition and the cancer." There are not many bishops who admit such personal tales of their own on-going conversion. It is powerful stuff.
Carlson also has a reputation for focusing on and increasing diocesan vocations. When he arrived in Saginaw in 2005, the diocese had four seminarians and no new candidate entering the seminary. Within a year, he had fifteen students studying for the priesthood. His secret was that he became his own vocations’ director. "I think letting the young men know that the Bishop thinks their job is important says something," he told The Catholic Report in 2006. He had achieved similar results in Sioux Falls. In once great Catholic centers like St. Louis, revitalizing the presbyterate is essential if the faith is to be renewed.
Co-workers in both of his previous diocesan assignments say that Carlson is approachable and pastoral. A couple of arch-conservative blogs have taken Carlson to task for not being strict enough in enforcing rules, while some on the left denounced his kerfuffle with then-Senator Tom Daschle when Daschle refused to support a ban on partial birth abortions. Getting hit from both sides is usually a good indicator that a bishop is applying the theology and canons of the Church in a judicious and pastoral manner.
Carlson’s pastoral letter before last year’s election unfortunately fell short. He affirmed that abortion is not the only issue a Catholic should consider, but then he added: "Abortion results in the killing of approximately 1 million children in the womb every year. A Catholic can, in good conscience, vote for a pro-choice candidate only if other issues outweigh this one in number and in kind." The problem with this analysis is that the choice the voters faced was not between killing one million unborn children or not. The voters faced a choice between a sort-of pro-life politician whose party has been talking about ending abortion for years and done precious little, and an admittedly pro-choice politician who nonetheless said he was committed to reducing the abortion rate. This brings to mind the parable of the man with two sons, one of whom says he will do his father’s will but doesn’t, and the other son who says he will not follow his father’s wishes but ends up doing so anyway.
As noted at Rocco’s website, Whispers in the Loggia, Carlson also has the respect of his brother bishops. This is vital at a time when the Bishops’ Conference must really work to help bring the Episcopal bench together so that they can speak with one voice, even when they are not entirely of one mind on certain issues. Carlson powerfully speaks about how the love and support of the people of God strengthened his faith. Let’s hope that in this new and more prominent position, his ministry will strengthen the faith of the good people of St. Louis.