The big news of the day in Catholic America was the resignation of Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton, Pa. This is not ordinarily a diocese that attracts national attention, but Martino had managed to change that with his sharp criticism of his diocese's most famous son, Vice President Joe Biden, as well as various local Catholic institutions, primarily over the abortion issue.
Then today, not only did Martino quit, citing fatigue, at an invitation-only news conference held at a secret location, but his auxiliary bishop also quit, and the cardinal brought in to restore some order, Cardinal Justin F. Rigali of Philadelphia, declined to reappoint the diocese's controversial episcopal vicar. The purge, if that's what it was, is triggering quite a bit of chatter about whether the Vatican (which has been conspicuously warmer toward the Obama administration than have some American bishops) is concerned with the tone of dialogue among bishops stateside.
Martino acknowledged the unhappiness in his diocese, saying, "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,'' and blamed his "sorrow" over the situation for causing him health problems.
By far the best summation of the Scranton situation that I've seen comes from David Gibson over at Politics Daily, who writes, "Martino became for many the angry face of the anti-Obama wing of the Catholic hierarchy thanks to his intemperate blasts about pro-choice politicians and an overweening administrative style that irritated the flock and even his brother bishops." It's well worth reading in full, but here is an an excerpt:
In February, Martino warned Irish-American groups that he would close the city's cathedral on St. Patrick's Day if any of them honored a politician who Martino said would be considered "pro-abortion." That was seen as a shot across the bow against inviting Joe Biden; in past years, the Scranton Irish-Americans had honored both Obama and then-Senator Hillary Clinton...
But it was the presidential campaign last year that brought Martino to national prominence, and seemed to bring out the more volatile aspects of his personality.
In September, as Biden was barnstorming Pennsylvania -- the vice president was born and baptized Catholic in Scranton before moving to Delaware later in life -- Martino declared that Biden would be denied communion if he tried to receive at a church in the Scranton diocese. "I will be truly vigilant on this point," Martino said. It was a step not even Biden's own bishop in Delaware would take.
Then in October, Martino had priests read a letter during all Sunday masses in the diocese telling Catholics that voting for a pro-choice politician was equivalent to endorsing "homicide."
Martino also called on priests and anyone who distributes communion to act on their own to deny the Eucharist -- the central sacrament of Catholic belief and worship -- to anyone who they believe publicly supports pro-choice policies. Martino even rebuked Pennsylvania's Democratic Senator Bob Casey, a pro-life Catholic who supported Obama, suggesting he may be denied communion if he came to Scranton.
But it was an event in late October last year, on the eve of the presidential vote, as religious rhetoric was growing white-hot, that may have pushed Martino over the line in the eyes of many.
A parish was holding a regular voter-education forum on the election, featuring discussion of a document, "Faithful Citizenship," the election guide endorsed almost unanimously by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB. Martino showed up at the parish hall unannounced, causing a stir. Then he took the microphone and proceeded to critique the organizers for not using his own letter on abortion as the basis of the discussion.
When a nun at the forum reminded Martino about the document of the entire bishops conference Martino responded: "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn't speak for me. The only relevant document ... is my letter. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable."
There are lots of dots to be connected -- or not -- here, but for those inclined to see a push toward more civil dialogue, there is not only Martino's resignation but also the Vatican newspaper's relatively warm tone toward President Obama, and the decision of two cardinals, Sean P. O'Malley of Boston and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, to oversee the key funeral rites for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as well as the fact that Pope Benedict XVI responded to a plea for prayers from the dying senator with a note expressing "spiritual closeness" and bestowing an apostolic blessing. And last week Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, the respected archbishop of Santa Fe, suggested that most bishops were not on board with the heated denunciations of Notre Dame earlier this year for choosing Obama as its commencement speaker. "Hysterical activity doesn’t bear fruit, and there’s been some hysteria in these areas,'' Sheehan told the National Catholic Reporter.
Gibson's conclusion about the Martino matter: "His resignation may be further evidence that the U.S. hierarchy is divided between moderate voices and a more strident conservative minority that is struggling in the wake of Obama's success with Catholic voters." And Mark Silk, over at Spiritual Politics, writes, "Martino often seemed out of control, if not off his meds. ...While no one would say that a strong liberal wing is blowing from Rome, there seems little question that the message for the day is moderazione."
(Photo, by Bradley C. Bower/AP, shows Bishop Joseph F. Martino in Scranton on Oct. 1, 2003.)