MADISON, Wis. — The recall contests in Wisconsin this summer set a national record — an indication of how deep feelings run in the state.

The last recall elections ended Aug. 16 with Republicans still holding the state Legislature. But the partisan battle over the fate of pensions, benefits and collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions created painful divisions even among Catholics — and that still needs pastoral and catechetical attention.

Wisconsin’s Catholic bishops say it’s time to set aside the political divisions that have divided parish communities and even some families.

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison has invited his flock to reconcile their differences. But he also suggested that the lingering tensions marked an unsettling truth: For many of the faithful, partisan loyalties trump Catholic teaching.

“This is a profound pastoral problem,” he said. “When the objective truth of faith is subordinated to political concerns, I am not free to teach the faith and instead get categorized as a Republican or a Democrat.”

While “the bishops of Wisconsin took a neutral position on the issue, Archbishop [Jerome] Listecki of Milwaukee rightly chose to emphasize workers’ rights in his own statement, while I chose to emphasize the principle of fairness. The media and local politicians decided he was pro-union and I was anti-union,” recalled Bishop Morlino. “In other words, politics wins the day.”

But the internal Church debate has been complicated by dueling judgments regarding the legitimacy of public-sector unions and their tangled relationship with political leaders, who negotiate their contracts and then may expect their support during re-election.

Many social-justice advocates contend that public and private-sector unions are equally worthy of Catholic support. That position has provoked skepticism in tough economic times, when public employees may receive more generous benefits than other workers.

Once faithful allies of the nation’s trade-union movement, the bishops have turned their attention to immigration reform as a top priority, in part, because Hispanic Catholics have moved to the mainstream of the Church, while public-sector unions often back policy positions antithetical to Catholic teaching, from abortion rights to same-sex unions.

Given the Church’s legacy of strong support for workers’ rights, some public-union activists looked to the Wisconsin Catholic Conference for an endorsement.

Archbishop Listecki, president of the Wisconsin Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a carefully worded statement that affirmed the rights of workers but included a caveat: “It does not follow from this that every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid.”

“Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities,” said Archbishop Listecki in a statement that was widely reported in the news media and liberal blogs as an endorsement of the public-sector unions battling Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Archbishop Listecki was travelling this week. But Julie Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, confirmed that the archbishop had taken no position in the contest between the public-sector unions and Walker.

‘Making News Wasn’t Helpful’

Bishop Morlino, for his part, suggested that the tendency of partisan activists to embrace a religious leader as a political ally reflected the politicization of high-stakes social issues among Wisconsin Catholics.

“If I teach the truth and they are Republican and they like what I say, they accept my teaching. If they are Democrats and they don’t like it, I’m labeled a ‘Republican.’ In fact, I am simply trying to teach the faith,” said Bishop Morlino, who added that he decided to “say nothing more because making news was not helpful.”

While the statement issued by the Wisconsin Catholic bishops reaffirmed Church support for the rights of workers to organize, it did not specifically address the more recent phenomenon of public-sector unions gaining collective bargaining rights in some states.

“At the very beginning of the Church’s support for labor unions, public-sector unions were not envisioned. We are still committed to the rights of workers and advocating for private-sector unions, because the same dynamics are still operative. If workers demand too much, the employer can be put out of business and the workers could be put out of a job,” said Bishop Morlino.

Bishop Morlino suggested that the advent of public-sector unions upended that equation and created “complications.”

“Employees are paying their union dues, and those dues are contributed to politicians, and those politicians are indebted to the unions for their re-election. That dynamic was not envisioned” when the Church first began to articulate a defense of workers’ rights, he said.

While he expressed frustration that many Wisconsin Catholics viewed the Church’s support for labor rights as a partisan stance, Bishop Morlino noted that he still sought to help the faithful seriously engage with the requirements of social justice.

“The role of truth in social justice is in the principles of Catholic social teaching — the principle that all people have a right to economic justice is an absolute. People of good will can disagree on the best means of achieving this principle, but they can’t disagree with the principle that everyone has a right to economic justice,” he said.

Jesuit Father G. Simon Harak, director of Marquette University’s Center for Peacemaking, articulates a different interpretation of Catholic teaching.

“The Church’s teaching on any subject always rests on the dignity of the human person. Therefore, the Church’s teaching on unions applies, whether the individual is working in the private or public sector,” said Father Harak.

Call to Reconcile

And in the aftermath of Walker’s ultimately successful effort to restrain the public-sector unions, he has “learned how easy it is for moneyed interests to reframe the economic issue and to redirect focus away from our larger economic problems and shift the blame onto working people — and how easy it is to convince the larger public with that strategy.”

He characterized the public statements of Wisconsin’s bishops as “fair and balanced. However, I thought that more attention should have been paid to the Church’s preferential option for the poor in their statements.”

Father Harak suggested that Catholic leaders in the state might have provided broader context for evaluating the escalating confrontation at the statehouse. The bishops’ statements might have addressed “the growing gap between rich and poor in Wisconsin and in the United States and our profligate and immoral spending on war and killing, instead of on the needs for social uplift,” he said.

Earlier this year, when Democratic lawmakers left the state to delay votes on legislation limiting the benefits and rights of public-sector unions, Father Harak helped some of the Democrats find shelter out of state.

As the effort to recall both Republican and Democratic legislators draws to a close, Bishop Morlino has called for reconciliation among various factions — including some spouses. “Catholic marriages have ended up with divisions, as well,” he said.

John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, agreed that it would take time to overcome the breach created by months of unresolved conflict.

“People do feel strongly,” said Huebscher. “The state is still divided. If you read comments and editorials, it reflects the intense feeling around the state. People aren’t breaking windows, but in small town newspapers, people say they are choosing not to talk about it because they have such strong feelings.”

This week, on the feast of the Assumption, Bishop Morlino asked the faithful to pray for healing and reconciliation. “The conflict really has to be healed, in part,” he said, “because it has contributed to the deepening of divisions in the Church.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.