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Robert Vasa, the bishop of eastern Oregon, is a son of the American Plains, a no-frills man of the cloth who once described himself as "common as an old shoe."

Born and raised on a Nebraska dairy and row-crop farm<NO1><NO>, the 59-year-old cleric came 11<NO1><NO> years ago to the vast Catholic diocese where he helped convert a horse barn into a retreat center and wired the church office for a computer network.

With a theological steadfastness that belies his homespun ways, Vasa <NO1><NO>gained <NO1><NO>national attention by stripping <NO1><NO>Bend's major hospital of its Catholic affiliation for performing tubal ligations.

<NO1><NO>He also imposed on lay teachers and administrators a pledge of fidelity to Catholic prohibitions on pre-marital sex, masturbation and homosexuality, calling them "gravely evil."

Named in January as successor to Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh, Vasa (pronounced "Vasha") will be introduced to local Catholics at Mass this morning at St. Eugene Cathedral.

Vasa declined to say what his initial priorities will be, other than getting to know the priests and parishioners of the 165,000-member North Coast diocese.

His record suggests that he <NO1><NO>could depart <NO1><NO>from the largely <NO1><NO>tolerant approach to church<NO1><NO> doctrine attributed to<NO1><NO> his predecessors.

Plain, if not blunt, in speech, the man who will be Santa Rosa's sixth bishop is inclined to squeeze a dime hard. He won't pay for cable TV and he'd rather eat beans out of the can with a spoon than dine on French cuisine off fine plates and silver service.

"People say I am penurious at the risk of being cheap," Vasa said in an interview.

Called at young age

Vasa will share the bishop's residence and work alongside Walsh, 73, until Walsh retires later this year from the post he has held since 2000 and returns, he hopes, to serve as a parish priest in his hometown of San Francisco, where he was ordained in 1963.

Vasa, who said he felt called to the priesthood in grade school, takes over a diocese <NO1><NO>still recovering from an extended sex abuse scandal that surfaced in 1994 and drained $25 million from church coffers in compensation to victims.

He will face an immediate challenge in replenishing church finances, while his doctrinaire style raises questions about how he will mesh with the North Coast's liberal inclinations.

Santa Rosa's bishops generally have allowed the members of their flock to follow their own consciences, said Yvette Fallandy of St. Eugene's Parish in Santa Rosa and a former member of a lay advisory council to the bishop.

"The assumption has been that Catholics who turn up at Mass believe firmly in the Apostles' Creed and practice their Catholicism as best they know it," she said.

Bishop Walsh is a "commonsensical conservative" who issued no pronouncements on church law while bringing stability to the scandal-plagued diocese, Fallandy said.

There remains tension, however, over the doctrine of a 2,000-year-old church ruled by Rome but spread over a spectrum in America from traditionalists who favor the Latin Mass to advocates for change in keeping with the 21st century.

Disputes over the church's opposition to abortion, birth control and homosexuality, and its adherence to clerical celibacy and a male-only clergy are enmeshed in the split.

"There are many flavors of Catholics," Fallandy said.

Vasa, a canon lawyer who was named bishop of Oregon's Baker diocese in 2000, describes himself as a moderate, "standing in the very heart of the church."

"I get criticized from both sides," he said. "I must be moderate."

No moral wiggle room

But even his admirers say that Vasa does not deviate from church doctrine. He has waded into controversy, supporting the excommunication of a liberal Catholic group and suggesting the Catholic politicians who support abortion rights may be guilty of heresy.

Discussing some of his initiatives in Oregon — cutting ties with a hospital that performed tubal ligations and holding lay ministers to an oath of fidelity — Vasa maintained there was no moral wiggle room.

Catholic health care directives do not allow sterilization surgeries, he said. St. Charles Bend, a regional medical center serving 240,000 people in central and eastern Oregon, refused to discontinue tubal ligations, so Vasa said he ended Catholic sponsorship of the hospital.

It was a "cordial relationship," he said, that involved no management or financial connection. But as a Catholic hospital, founded more than 90 years ago by a group of nuns, it was "in many ways operating in my name" — a situation he said he could not condone.

Nor could he tolerate any unauthorized teaching by lay ministers, Vasa said. An "affirmation of faith" he promulgated in <NO1><NO>2004 required acceptance of the church's prohibition against contraception of any form and defined pre-marital sex, masturbation, fornication, pornography and homosexuality as "gravely evil."

Critics in the Baker diocese said the pledge focused on "pelvic issues" and alienated volunteers and parishioners, according to a Spokane Spokesman-Review report.

"I just made it very explicit," Vasa said. "You are not teaching your opinion, you are teaching the principles of the Catholic Church."

Straightforward oath

When Vasa imposed the oath, "people were going bonkers," said Rev. Joe Reinig, vicar general of the Baker diocese, who was a parish priest at the time.

Reinig recalled that he summoned his lay ministers and lecturers and explained that "if you can't agree with this, you can leave now."

"Nobody left," Reinig said.

The bishop's oath was "pretty straightforward," he said. "If you want to call yourself a Catholic, you follow what the church teaches."

Reinig, who now holds the No. 2 post in the diocese, said he considers Vasa as "orthodox," meaning he "follows the church's teachings as best he can."

"He will not deviate from the truth," Reinig said.

Mark Brumley of Napa, head of the Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, said the term orthodox — which he would apply to Vasa and Pope Benedict XVI — defines the middle ground between Catholic traditionalists and advocates for change.

"It is not always the most comfortable place to be," said Brumley, a member of St. Apollinaris Parish in Napa, part of the Santa Rosa diocese.

Vasa, who was ordained in Lincoln, Neb. in 1976, is not a doctrinal "hardliner," Brumley said, but someone who "values clarity about what the church teaches."

"He's very interested in winning people over, not excluding them," Brumley said.

Cindy Vrooman of Sonoma, a former nun, isn't so sure.

Bishop Walsh, in her estimation, is aware of the divisions among local Catholics but tolerates them all "for pastoral reasons," she said, like a patriarch keeping a diverse family together.

Vasa may be less inclusive, said Vrooman, who was involved with the church for 50 years but no longer attends Mass and belongs to the reform group Call To Action. "I get the feeling Vasa will impose his will," she said.

Vasa was vicar general of the Lincoln diocese in 1996 when it moved to excommunicate local members of Call To Action, an independent organization that claims 25,000 members nationwide and advocates change of Catholic policy on issues such as celibacy for priests, the male-only clergy, homosexuality and birth control.

When the Vatican upheld Lincoln's decision 10 years later in 2006, Vasa — then six years into his tenure as bishop in Baker — expressed approval, according to the Catholic News Service.

"There never was any question of the bishop's right to do this and the suitability given the circumstances," Vasa told CNS.

<NO1><NO>In an interview, Vasa said he was supporting the Nebraska bishop's right to order the excommunication, calling it "a prudential decision on his part."

Vasa said he saw no need to take such action in Oregon, and that he did not know if such a need exists in the Santa Rosa diocese.

'The right-to-murder heresy'

On another hot-button issue, Vasa asserted in a Catholic newspaper column in 2006 that pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians might be considered heretics, a label he acknowledged as "terribly harsh."

"Nevertheless, there are those of the household of Faith who obstinately deny some truth that is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith," Vasa wrote. "There is some question, for instance, about whether those who openly profess to be pro-choice are, in fact, holding to a heretical position."

Acceptance of abortion rights, he added, has been called "the right-to-murder heresy."

In an interview, Vasa said that an abortion-rights advocate could no more be "in communion with the church" than one could be "in communion with the black caucus and be a member of the KKK."

Rep. Mike Thompson, the North Coast's seven-term Democratic congressman, is a pro-abortion rights Catholic.

"I support a woman's right to make decisions about her health care," Thompson said, adding the he separates his role as a lawmaker from his Catholicism.

<NO1><NO>Thompson said he and Vasa, whom he has not met, "probably agree on more things than we disagree."

Vasa said he could not comment on Thompson's situation because he knows nothing about the congressman's voting record or any conversationThompson may have had with diocese officials.

Deviations not condoned

Vasa said he understands "cafeteria Catholicism," the practice of personally following some church tenets but rejecting others.

It is human nature, he said, to embrace concepts that reinforce one's own beliefs. But he does not condone deviations from Catholic principle.

"Catholics must believe what Christ teaches through his church is good for us," Vasa said. His duty as bishop, he said, is to teach and explain those lessons.

"Every teacher challenges us to move from where we are to a different place," he said.

Lay Catholics assert that church law gives them the right to act according to their conscience, and numerous rules, such as the prohibition on birth control, are routinely ignored.

Many of the church's controversial policies involve sexual behavior, Vasa said. In what he described as a "slight nuance" in its position on contraception, the Vatican has said that "it might be deemed more charitable" to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDs and other diseases.

But that does not change the fact that "promiscuous sexual activity" is both immoral and the cause of AIDS transmission, Vasa said.

In eastern Oregon, Vasa was on far more politically conservative turf than he is on the North Coast.

His sprawling diocese covers 66,800 square miles, all of Oregon east of the Cascade Range, a land of wide open spaces where cattle outnumber people by more than 2-to-1. It is nearly six times the geographic size of the Santa Rosa diocese, which stretches from Petaluma to the Oregon border.

Vasa's diocese closely matches Oregon's 2nd Congressional District, the only one of that state's five districts with a plurality of Republican registered voters (41 percent). Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who has represented the district since 1998, was re-elected in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote. In the past three presidential elections, the district voted twice for George Bush and for John McCain in 2008.

The Santa Rosa diocese, which closely matches Thompson's 1st District, voted for Democrats Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. Democrats hold a 46 percent plurality among registered voters and Thompson, who has also been in Congress since 1998, got 68 percent of the vote in 2008.

Acknowledges blunt style

Brumley, the Catholic publisher, said Vasa doesn't appear to be the type of bishop sensitive to secular politics. Among the incoming bishop's concerns, he said, will be developing candidates for the priesthood from within the diocese.

Cafeteria Catholicism is by no means unique to the liberal North Coast, Brumley said. "It's everywhere."

But Vrooman, the advocate of change, said she thinks Vasa's orthodoxy may grate on some local Catholics. "People like Bishop Vasa treat it (church policy) like it's black and white," she said. "There's no room for dissent."

Vasa himself seemed to acknowledge his blunt style in a farewell statement posted on the website of the Baker diocese.

"I am also painfully aware that some have found me too difficult and I can assure you that I have often carried them with me to the chapel in prayer and at Mass," he wrote. "I am sure that I have not been all that you hoped I could be for you and I ask that you pray that I do better in the future. Please do not judge me too harshly."

<NO1><NO>Vasa said he has no regrets about his 35-year bond with Catholicism, "called by God's grace to be a person who tries to live a life for others."

Priests engage with their parishioners in moments "of peak joy and deep sorrow," including birth, marriage and death, he said.

"It is all joy and grace and blessing."

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