The news of August contained two revealing illustrations of Church politics in America: the early and unusual resignation of a bishop known for defending orthodoxy and an elaborate Catholic funeral in honor of a senator known for repudiating it.
Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton announced his resignation in August at the age of 63, citing “insomnia and crippling physical fatigue,” which at his departing press conference he attributed obliquely to his unpopular governance and orthodox stands: “For some time now there has not been a clear consensus among the clergy and people of the Diocese of Scranton regarding my pastoral initiatives or my way of governance.”
Martino had drawn sharp criticism for closing schools and parishes. But more fatal to Martino’s ecclesiastical career was his frank orthodoxy, which many Church officials regarded as highly impolitic.
Politic heterodoxy, or impolitic heterodoxy for that matter, is tolerated, sometimes even rewarded. Impolitic orthodoxy isn’t. The Martinos go; the Mahonys stay.
Evidently in the eyes of many of his colleagues Martino had made the intolerable mistake of taking Church doctrine and discipline far too seriously and lacked the proper pastoral finesse of a modern bishop. In February, for example, after Misericordia University invited an open advocate for “gay rights” to speak, Martino said that the school “in this instance is seriously failing in maintaining its Catholic identity.”
Bishops in other dioceses have kept silent during similar controversies or seen in them occasions for “dialogue.” Those bishops will not be asked to retire early. No, they will stay in office until 75 and watch placidly as local Catholic colleges and universities stumble toward their secularist terminus.
In another intolerably divisive move in February, Martino told three Irish- American groups that if they honored any pro-abortion politicians at their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations he would shut down St. Peter’s Cathedral on that day. Implicit in his threat to the groups was a warning not to invite the former Scranton local, Vice President Joe Biden, whom Martino had previously identified as a pro-abortion politician who could not receive Communion in his diocese.
But even more mortifying to many of Martino’s episcopal colleagues than these incidents was his surprise visit last October to a parish forum on election issues where the statement “Faithful Citizenship,” issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), had been handed out. The forum organizers disregarded Martino’s letter on the subject and were touting the loophole in the USCCB document which approves of voting for a proabortion politician provided that supporting his pro-abortion stance is not the “intent” of the vote.
“No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” Martino shot back in response to a question from a nun citing that sophistical statement. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me…. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”
The backlash to this and other moments of his six-year tenure caused Martino insomnia and poor health. Perhaps if Martino had followed the “pastoral” style of those who presided at Ted Kennedy’s Catholic funeral services he would still occupy his episcopal seat. They, after all, lost no sleep over and felt no sickness at the thought of honoring an aggressive and unapologetic pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage Catholic politician.
It is hard to imagine a more surreal and scandalous spectacle: here was the most pro-abortion president ever appearing at a Catholic Church to deliver a eulogy over the coffin of the most infamous Catholic politician ever, all before the eyes of millions of impressionable Catholics. Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s complacent presence provided the final touch.
The meaning of it all was not lost on left-wing columnist David Gibson, who saw in the Martino resignation and glorious Catholic Kennedy funeral a happy confluence of events, writing at the website Politics Daily: “Whatever the ins and outs of the internal church maneuvering, the upshot is that a leading voice in the anti-Obama wing of the church hierarchy has been silenced while both Obama and Biden continue to take center stage. At Edward Kennedy’s funeral [in August], for example, Biden received communion while Obama gave a moving eulogy.”
At his final press conference, Martino acknowledged that “by the standards of the world perhaps I have not been successful here.” But what morally and spiritually serious bishop at this point would want to be?
He and other struggling bishops who err on the side of orthodoxy, while colleagues congratulate themselves for worldly tact, may in time enjoy a posthumous success. Catholics a century from now will surely look back upon this era of episcopal accommodation as a disgrace and those few bishops who bucked it not as failures but as fallen shock troops of renewal.