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VOL. 8 | NO. 26 | Saturday, June 20, 2015

‘If It’s on His Mind, You’re Going to Know It’

Bishop Stika guides fast-growing Knoxville diocese with pragmatic flair

ROGER HARRIS | The Ledger correspondent

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The state legislature’s vote this year to make the Bible the official book of Tennessee raised eyebrows among believers and nonbelievers statewide.

Although the bill passed the House of Representatives, it was tabled by the Senate following questions about its constitutionality and opposition from the governor, other elected officials and community leaders statewide.

Among those opposed to the idea was Bishop Richard Stika, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville.

Stika goes beyond traditional conservative or liberal positions when discussing many of today’s most polarizing social and religious issues.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“The Bible stands on its own,” Stika says. “It doesn’t have to have a state recognize it as the official book.”

The 57-year-old priest, born on the Fourth of July, is not shy about sharing his thoughts on hot button topics, be they personal, religious or otherwise. He is a man comfortable with his faith and his role within the broader Knoxville community and unafraid of controversy.

His longtime friend, St. Louis CPA Mike Stillman, put it this way: “If it’s on his mind, you’re going to know it. He never holds anything back.”

In an interview with The Ledger, Stika agreed to share his thoughts on a range of secular and non-secular issues.

If the Legislature reconsiders the Bible bill next year, look for Stika to stand firm against the idea of putting the Bible alongside the Tennessee Cave Salamander and limestone, the official state amphibian and official state rock.

There are many reasons to reject official recognition, Stika adds.

“Let’s say you go along with (state recognition of the Bible). First of all, which version – the King James Version or the New American Bible – because there are certain books that are contained in one and not the other,” he explains.

Also, Tennesseans of the Jewish faith might have difficulty accepting an official state book that includes the New Testament, as might Muslims who follow the Koran, says Stika, who was appointed Knoxville bishop on Jan. 12, 2009.

America is great because “we have all these traditions, all these cultures, all these languages,” he says. “… So I think the Bible stands on its own as a very holy book, a very significant book, an inspired book.

“Whether Tennessee or any other state recognizes it as the official book, to me it is THE book, a book of guidance.”

Stika, whose maternal grandmother was born in Poland and paternal grandparents were born in Bohemia before all three came to the U.S, says it’s all about respecting the diversity that has made America great.

He is equally candid when discussing other topics during a conversation in his West Knoxville office next door to Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Here’s what he had to say. His comments have been edited for clarity.

Are school vouchers a good idea?

Definitely, Stika says. “Having the dollars follow the child is so very important.”

The public education system in the U.S. is not meeting the needs of all children, and parents should have the opportunity to seek the best education possible for their children, explains Stika, who graduated from St. Louis University with a degree in business and a holds a masters of divinity from Kenrick Seminary.

“Part of it is the funding,” he adds. “It’s just our priorities are all messed up. You see how we’re being passed by other countries in mathematics, science and all that.

“If I was a parent, I would want my child to go to the best school. If I was a parent, the best school for me would be one that has the basics plus an environment where I know when my child enters that school, it would be a good Christian environment.”

But whether or not parents choose a religious education, Tennessee and the rest of the country should do whatever necessary to provide every child with the best education possible, Stika adds.

“Vouchers have been a political football in the United States for a long time. The challenge is (to provide) the best opportunities whether it is a good public school system because it’s an area where taxes are strong or in the poorest neighborhood where taxes are not strong and children suffer.

“…. In some ways we live with an educational system that started a couple of centuries ago and it really hasn’t adapted,” he said.

Church-state separation

When asked if using school vouchers to pay for a private school education would conflict with separation of church and state, Stika says that doctrine, as intended by the nation’s founders, is often misunderstood.

“I think the evolution of the separation of church and state is really kind of messy because people think of all the things that it is but it isn’t. The separation of church and state, according to the founders of our country, was saying our government would not recognize a particular church as the official church of a country, like the Church of England,” he says.

Faith has always been an important part of the history of the United States, even though there has sometimes been “friction between one faith tradition and another,” Stika adds.

When the United States was founded, Christianity was the nation’s dominant faith because most of the people came from the largely Christian European countries, he notes.

“But now we have all these different faith traditions,” Stika says. “… The United States is a great experiment that has worked in terms of cultures coming together. It’s been rough but it continues on. Some people see (separation of church and state) as you completely remove church from culture, but that’s never been the case in our nation. That would be a whole new concept.”

Marriage equality

As a Catholic priest, dealing with same sex marriage is at the same time a very simple and very complex issue, Stika says.

Pope Francis had ascended to the papacy only two days before this blessing to the diocese of Knoxville was signed.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Simple, in that the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. Complex in that there are laws that come into play and that people have different viewpoints.

“I believe in biblical marriage. I believe if you look at the word marriage in the scriptures – and I know there is debate (because) some of scriptures kind of go off this way and that way – it’s the union of man and wife, man and woman. I cannot teach anything contrary to that because the church doesn’t believe anything contrary to that and neither do I.”

Some will criticize the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage, but that criticism is misplaced, Stika says.

“In some ways right now if you’re a church and you stand for something other people say, oh, hate crimes or hate speech because of what you believe in. But no, no,” Stika explains.

“I tell our priests, don’t condemn same-sex marriage. Teach what we believe in because we can stand on that. Anytime you teach the faith you don’t have to condemn another person. Just teach the truth as you believe it and it will take care of itself.”

If a same-sex couple brings a child to the church for baptism, do as Pope Francis teaches and baptize the child, Stika tells the diocese priests.

“Because if they bring a child for baptism, baptism is something significant and it also allows an opportunity to talk to someone. If you immediately say no then you close all conversation. … But if you have an ongoing conversation, who knows, you might bring people to a place where they begin to think about things.”

What about the baker who cites his faith as reason to not make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple?

That, too, is complicated, Stika says.

“It’s a fine line. You have to respect the rights of individuals who have a business but we would never want to get into a place where we got water fountains that say, ‘for colored only.’

“There’s that fine line, again, of respecting the integrity and rights of people and also respecting the integrity and rights of those who provide services,” Stika adds.

Pope Francis, Congress, ISIS

“He’s a rock star these days,” Stika notes, adding that the pontiff will likely make politicians on both sides of the aisle squirm when he addresses Congress in September as part of an official state visit to the U.S.

The pope’s strong views on the environment, immigration, helping the poor and other issues has sparked controversy among some presidential candidates.

Republican Rick Santorum, a Catholic, has been among the most vocal. The former senator from Pennsylvania has made headlines for suggesting the pope should leave talk about climate change to the scientists. Pope Francis, who has a degree in chemistry, has been a strong advocate for protecting the planet’s resources.

The pope’s new encyclical on the environment (scheduled to be published June 18) will undoubtedly make some politicians uncomfortable and that would be a good thing, according to Stika.

“He’s a man who really walks the walk … and I think we need to hear those things. So often we as a nation think that everybody needs to think like us, and I think that’s probably caused some of the problems in the Middle East. America is the dominant player, and the pope comes from Argentina but he also speaks for a world that isn’t necessarily just the United States.”

It is his role as the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world that has made Pope Francis a target of assassination by the terrorist group ISIS, Stika says.

“In some ways, he’s their No. 1 target. It’s because they see him speaking for Christianity,” he adds. “… They associate the west with Christianity and they see the west as kind of losing its focus … and they see the pope as the center of Christianity.”

On being close to death

In March, Stika nearly died from a diabetic crisis. It was the second time he had suffered a near-death experience.

In his column for The East Tennessee Catholic magazine, Stika shared his thoughts on being merely minutes from death.

“Since I am not God, I do not know why I have survived these two moments. It is my sense that He wants me to accomplish something for His glory. Or it could be that He is just not ready for me.

“Having come so close to death makes me all the more aware of the gift of each day, of family and friends, of our faith, and above all, of Jesus himself. The stark reality of my mortality is ever before me, which is indeed a grace for it causes me to see everything in a new light.”

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