Bishop Olson gives Catholic voice on American Religious Town Hall
DALLAS — The free exchange of ideas and opinions is critical to an informed society, and Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth is a leading Catholic voice as a panelist on the American Religious Town Hall Meeting.
The American Religious Town Hall Meeting is a weekly syndicated television program that features clergy from various religious denominations debating religious, social, and political issues.
Begun in 1952, the program is taped in Dallas and is broadcast on Sundays on a number of local television stations nationwide as well as on Dish Network.
Bishop Olson said that the program is an important vessel for learning about other religions and points of view, as well as teaching Catholic traditions to others.
“It most certainly is not a debate nor an exercise in apologetics, two valuable things for other venues; rather, the program involves respectful listening and a reasonable articulation of what the Catholic Church teaches in discussion with people of other faith traditions,” the prelate said.
He said that people discover not only what distinguishes matters of doctrine but also what we have in common.
“I also think that the program has served as a vehicle to introduce viewers to the social teaching of the Catholic Church that is focused on the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, and not upon partisan positions in popular culture,” Bishop Olson said.
Bishop Olson joined the program in 2008 when its producers were looking for a replacement for Father Michael Duca, a Dallas priest who had just been appointed the Bishop of Shreveport, Louisiana. Duca recommended Bishop Olson, and he was asked to be a panelist.
“While that was the catalyst that prompted my participation, I would have to say that my motivation is that the ARTH provides an opportunity to represent the Catholic Church and her teachings by means of dialogue and authentic witness,” Bishop Olson said.
While Bishop Olson said he didn’t know any of the other panelists before joining the program, he has found the discussions to be beneficial in many ways.
“I find participation as a panelist to be rewarding because of the tenor of respect and good humor among the panelists,” he said. “The program helps to break down stereotypes, especially those that are fomented by contemporary secularism.”
Longtime panelist Dr. Tony Mathews, pastor of North Garland Baptist Fellowship, agrees with Bishop Olson that the civil nature of the show is one of the things that attracted him to participate.
“I was just really intrigued with the show and how they dialogue on really tough issues, but they do it civilly,” Mathews said. “I really like that.”
Mathews said he enjoys being with Bishop Olson on the show.
“He’s a wonderful person. He truly is,” Mathews said.
Fellow panelist Dr. Mel Robeck, Assemblies of God pastor and senior professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller University, said that he and Bishop Olson have become friends because of the show.
“You know, we’ve just developed a really warm friendship and relationship and I think part of that has to do with the fact that both of us have very similar understandings of what constitutes a Christian faith,” Robeck said.
Bishop Olson said he sees the program as a way to improve the tone of public debate.
“I believe that there is very little respectful discourse today in matters of politics and also matters of religion; being a panelist on the ARTH enables me to help to address this problem and to be part of the solution by collaborating with religious and spiritual leaders of many different traditions,” Bishop Olson said.
And, the program gives Bishop Olson an opportunity to relate Catholicism to a wide audience.
“I find the opportunity to articulate the Catholic intellectual tradition, to listen to others with differing views and opinions, and most importantly to come to know people who have become friends,” Bishop Olson said.
Interacting with people of other religions has helped him grow, the bishop said.
“I have learned the importance of listening,” Bishop Olson said. “I have learned the importance of speaking as clearly and concisely as I am able to speak because of the time constraints of the program. I have learned that a lot of different people watch this program around the nation and that many of them are very kind in introducing themselves to me when I have had occasion to travel.”
Bishop Olson said that many of the program’s discussions have been valuable for representing the Catholic intellectual tradition in discourse and dialogue.
“One discussion that I remember was a discussion on the significance of celibacy in the life of religious traditions,” Bishop Olson said. “It offered me an opportunity to share with others the significance of celibacy and the sacrificial character of chaste celibacy as exemplified by Jesus.”
He said that conversation led to discussions about the significance of marriage.
The show melds religious, moral, and ethical topics, and the bishop said he takes the opportunity to share the Catholic perspective.
“As a panelist, I am aware of the responsibility that I have to articulate the Catholic intellectual tradition of faith and right reason in the context of an interfaith and ecumenical discussion,” Bishop Olson said. “As a Catholic representative, I speak out of the Natural Law tradition that understands the necessity of virtue and teleology. This is an intellectual tradition that integrates and prioritizes in an inherently unified manner the issues of ethics, politics, and religion.”
The show offers its viewers important takeaways that they can integrate into their lives.
“I hope that viewers will take away a renewed sense that authentic and respectful dialogue and conversation are not only possible but absolutely a moral requirement for a religious person to be faithful,” Bishop Olson said. “I would also hope that Catholic viewers would take away a sense that ecumenical dialogue does not require that a Catholic substitute what the Church teaches for a type of polite syncretism in order to engage in fruitful and respectful dialogue.”
He said that “dogmatic and intellectual substance is essential for true interfaith and ecumenical dialogue to be authentic and fruitful.”
Bishop Olson cited Pope Benedict XVI who once said, “A sincere dialogue needs both openness and a firm sense of identity on both sides, in order for each to be enriched by the gifts of the other.”
One of the show’s executive producers, Barbara Ecord, said that Bishop Olson brings a unique perspective and personality to the show.
“The bishop is well loved and respected by all the panelists,” Ecord said. “He is always in control, knowledgeable, and a strong participant on the shows. He has a marvelous sense of humor as well as empathy.”
American Religious Town Hall Meeting has an extensive archive of its telecasts available on its website, www.americanreligious.org.