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Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, Biden's Nemesis, Resigns Under Cloud

4 years ago
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The Roman Catholic bishop of Scranton is not normally known as a kingmaker -- or kingbreaker -- in electoral politics. But during last year's presidential campaign, with pro-choice Catholic and Scranton native Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket, and the working-class voters of northeast Pennsylvania seen as keys to the keystone state and the Electoral College, Scranton suddenly moved to the spotlight.

And the local bishop, Joseph F. Martino, took full advantage of that platform. 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.

Now, in a stunning turn that has taken even veteran church-watchers by surprise, Martino on Monday resigned his post under highly unusual circumstances -- citing the stress of the job and saying he could not continue in a post that should have been his for another dozen years, at least.

But church insiders say Martino had also worn out his welcome with his brother bishops and the Vatican. So 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.

Martino is only 63, and adding to the air of mystery and suspicion surrounding his resignation, his auxiliary, or assistant bishop, also resigned at the same time. The resignation of the auxiliary, Bishop John M. Dougherty, was put down to age; he is 77, and the normal retirement age for bishops is 75. Martino's sudden exit was officially chalked up to undiclosed "health reasons," according to a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop in Washington, which said that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted Martino's resignation.

But at a press conference Monday morning, Martino himself alluded to the divisions his style had brought to the diocese, and the toll it had taken on him mentally and physically: "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. This development has caused me great sorrow, resulting in bouts of insomnia and, at times, a crippling physical fatigue."

"I seek forgiveness from anyone whom I may not have served adequately as bishop, due to my human limitations," Martino said, adding later: "As the song says, you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them. And I think it's time to move on."

Many in Scranton, and beyond, would agree. In fact there are strong indications that Martino was pushed before he jumped.

From the start of his six-year tenure in Scranton, Martino alienated many with his abrasive style. He clashed frequently with the local Catholic universities -- including the Jesuit-run University of Scranton -- and was dismissive of their ruling bodies, arguing that as bishop he would not heed their advice.

Last February, Martino blasted another local college, Misericordia University, for inviting Keith Boykin, an openly-gay author, Clinton administration staffer and Harvard Law classmate of Obama, to speak on campus. The university, run by the Sisters of Mercy, was "seriously failing in maintaining its Catholic identity," Martino charged.

Also 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.

The chief cause of Martino's local problems was his controversial plan in 2007 to close and consolidate Catholic schools in the diocese, which have been struggling with declining attendance, and declining donations. Closing schools is never popular, yet the need to do something is a harsh fact of life for many bishops, especially in the Northeast. But Martino's peremptory style did not help matters, and growing protests were followed by still steeper declines in church attendance and donations, a dropoff clearly exacerbated by the recession, which has ravaged the Scranton area. Then in February of this year, Martino announced that he was closing 91 of the diocese's 209 parishes, cutting the number of Catholic churches in this storied Catholic community by almost half.

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 Sen. 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 enitre bishops conference Martino responded, "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn't speak for me," Martino declared. "The only relevant document ... is my letter. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable."

It was a bizarre episode and one that not only capped Martino's reputation as a divisive figure, but also seemed to set him against his other bishops -- a stance that may have been the ultimate cause of his downfall. Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia was named Monday by the pope to be the temporary administrator for the Scranton diocese, which comes under Rigali's purview.

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 on Saturday, for example, Biden received communion while Obama gave a moving eulogy. Obama also spoke quietly before the service with Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who himself rejected lobbying from the Catholic right that he not allow the pro-choice Kennedy a public funeral or at least not to appear if there was a public funeral. Some reports say O'Malley sought to open a channel of communication with Obama via their brief chat, which lasted just 2-3 minutes.

Moreover, the lionizing of Kennedy in the wake of his death arguably showed him to be a far more prominent and beloved Catholic figure than most any bishop.

In addition, there are signs that some bishops are growing uneasy with the more strident and even partisan tone of many church leaders, especially in the wake of the shooting of Kansas abortionist George Tiller. The opposition of some bishops to health care reform -- which the pope has declared a fundamental human right -- as well as fallout from the fierce opposition by some to Obama's appearance at Notre Dame in May has also given some bishops pause.

Last week, Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan publicly broke with that minority, telling National Catholic Reporter that the anti-Obama views represented a minority of bishops, and that the majority was hesitant to speak up.

"The bishops don't want to have a battle in public with each other, but I think the majority of bishops in the country didn't join in with that, would not be in agreement with that approach. It's well intentioned, but we don't lose our dignity by being strong in the belief that we have but also talking to others that don't have our belief. We don't lose our dignity by that," he said.

Sheehan told NCR that at a meeting of the bishops last June he said that " to make a big scene about Obama -- I think a lot of the enemies of the church are delighted to see all that. And I said that I think we don't want to isolate 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."

"We'd be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue."

Whether that interview and Martino's resignation Monday signal a turning of the tide to greater engagement isn't clear.

During his farewell press conference, Martino was unapologetic. "I did what my mother told me to do," Martino said, "She would always say, 'Well, you do the right thing.' And my conscience is clear." He said he wasn't trying to become a rallying point for the most vociferous foes of abortion, but he then defended them, saying they are often dismissed too readily by the media and even within the church because of their "passion."

He praised vocal pro-lifers as "very dear to the Lord" because of their outspokenness, and said "bishops should encourage them" as they try to "overturn a profound cancer in our society, this sin, frankly, of murdering 50 million people (referring to the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973). I think we have become quite blasé about that, and that scares me very much."

"By the world's standards perhaps I have not been successful here," Martino concluded. "But I did what I thought was right.

Clearly not everyone agreed with that self-assessment, from Martino's fellow bishops on up to the pope. Where the hierarchy, and American Catholics, go from here is the question that remains unanswered.

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