TIME Magazine (U.S.), September 02, 2009
an Anti-Abortion Bishop Too Vocal for the Vatican?
By Amy Sullivan
suddenly departing politicans and CEOs, the standard line is to "spend time
with my family." Now the Catholic church may have its own version of this
unconvincing, stock answer. On Monday controversial Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino
stunned longtime church-watchers by announcing that he was resigning his post
because of problems with insomnia and fatigue.
The controversial Catholic
leader, who has gained national prominence for his outspoken pro-life advocacy
and aggressive criticism of pro-choice Democratic politicians, was still more
than a decade away from reaching the Church's automatic retirement age of 75.
Martino's abrupt resignation, along with the fact that he was not reassigned to
another position within the Church, has some church insiders suggesting that the
highly unusual move was far from voluntary and quite possibly the work
of a Vatican that has been decidedly less openly critical of the Obama Administration.
Whether Martino is leaving willingly or not, his departure means that one
very vocal critic of the Administration has lost his bully pulpit. That may come
as a relief to some within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), who
have become increasingly disturbed by the politicization of some church leaders
this year, most notably in protests against President Obama's invitation to speak
at Notre Dame and the role of some church officials at Senator Ted Kennedy's funeral
service and burial. Martino seemed to take special pleasure in castigating institutions
and individuals that he felt were failing to properly represent Catholic values.
He could be abrasive, blasting Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania
for inviting an openly gay writer and former Clinton Administration aide to speak.
The university, declared Martino, was "seriously failing in maintaining its
Catholic identity." Earlier this year, Martino threatened to shutter Scranton's
cathedral on St. Patrick's Day if any local Irish-American organizations included
pro-choice politicians in their celebrations.
During the 2008 campaign,
Martino focused particular attention on vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden,
the Scranton native and Catholic Democrat. The bishop declared that Biden would
be denied communion if he tried to receive it at any church in the diocese, which
covers the northeast quarter of the state "I will be truly vigilant
on this point," said Martino. And he warned his parishioners there would
be dire consequences for supporting Biden and the Democratic ticket. In October,
Martino directed that a letter be read at all Sunday masses, charging that a vote
for a pro-choice politician was the same as supporting "homicide." He
also instructed priests to deny communion to anyone they believed publicly supported
Finally, shortly before election day last fall, as David
Gibson of AOL Politics Daily has reported, Martino showed up unannounced at a
voter-education forum at a Honesdale parish to criticize organizers for discussing
the comprehensive election guide endorsed by the USCCB instead of the letter he
had drafted for the diocese on abortion. "No USCCB document is relevant in
this diocese," Martino declared of the guide he objected to, which stated
that there were a lot of issues, not just abortion, that Catholic voters should
consider when making a decision about whom to support. "The USCCB doesn't
speak for me."
Such comments didn't endear him to the parishioners
who organized the forum, or to his immediate superior, Philadelphia Cardinal Justin
Rigali. As the head of the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Rigali is
just as opposed to abortion as Martino. But he is a much more politic figure.
Many think Martino finally went too far this spring when he started training his
sights on Bob Casey, Jr., the Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania and a staunchly
pro-life Catholic. Casey's late father, the former governor of Pennsylvania, is
still revered by Catholics for speaking out against the Democratic Party's support
for abortion rights. But that didn't stop Martino from sending Casey letters
also issued as press releases warning the senator that his opposition to
abortion was insufficient. In one such letter, Martino wrote that Casey "persist[s]
formally in cooperating with the evil brought about by this hideous and unnecessary
[abortion] policy" and suggested that the senator could be denied the Eucharist
in the Scranton diocese.
The situation came to a head this spring, when
King's College in Wilkes-Barre invited Casey to speak at its commencement ceremony.
Objecting to Casey's vote to confirm former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius
(a Catholic who supports abortion rights) as Secretary for Health and Human Services,
Martino said it was "sad and disappointing" that the college chose to
honor a Democrat who could not "muster the courage" to oppose "the
Two days before Casey's address at King's, Rigali
issued a statement "applauding" the senator for introducing legislation
to promote policies that encourage women facing unplanned pregnancies to carry
their babies to term. In the highly ritualized world of Church communication,
the Cardinal's announcement was akin to a public smackdown of Martino. One month
later, Martino was summoned to Rome, and submitted his resignation.
departure comes just weeks after the Archbishop of Santa Fe became the first Church
leader to speak out publicly about the increasingly political behavior of a minority
of bishops within the conference. Archbishop Michael Sheehan told the National
Catholic Reporter on August 12 that he spoke out during the bishops' meeting in
June, arguing that they risked "isolat[ing ]ourselves from the rest of America
by our strong views on abortion and the other things. We need to be building bridges,
not burning them."
Building bridges has also been the public posture
of the Vatican when it comes to the Obama Administration. The Vatican remained
silent on the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama to speak. And
although Pope Benedict expressed his disappointment with Obama's support for abortion
rights when the two met in July, a Vatican spokesman went out of his way to state
that the Holy Father was "very impressed" by the Democratic president.
But that approach is clearly anathema to Martino, who has no regrets and
no doubts. "My devotion to the sanctity of life is a long-standing and visceral
principle of my standard of acting and being," he said at Monday's press
conference in Scranton. "We must work to overturn a profound cancer in our
society, this sin of frankly murdering 50 million. We have become quite blase
about that, and that scares me very much."
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