The Aug. 31 press conference when Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino announced his resignation raised my admiration of the Catholic Church. After all, the secular world uses crude imagery like “Cash for Clunkers” to describe how to move on. Catholicism is far more artful.
Seldom does an ordained bishop run away from his commitment on account of “insomnia.” Martino’s words echo Roberto Duran’s “No más, no más” and Sarah Palin’s claim to serve the State of Alaska by not serving the State of Alaska. But Catholicism has phrases like “the good of the Church” and “service to the Gospel” to embellish an undeniably uncomfortable moment. The swiftness with which the Vatican acted leaves little doubt about the finality of Bishop’s Martino journey into retirement. While the secular world uses a harsh term like “clunker” to describe something that is obsolete, runs inefficiently and pollutes its own environment, the Church has centuries of experience in moving on and away from an ineffectual bishop without losing credibility or embarrassing the prelate. What is called odium populi – hatred from the people – is cause for removal from office.
As one of the faithful in the Diocese of Scranton, I think my life under Martino helps me formulate an opinion about both his out-of-step spirituality and faulty theology issues.
Catholics are usually distinguished from Calvinists and Evangelical Protestants by our Christian humanism. We consider that “grace perfects nature.” In other words, being holy makes us more truly human. But occasionally, popular piety has suffered from spirituality with a more pessimistic view of human nature. In this view, when something is painful, it is therefore more holy. Clearly, there are times when the “truth hurts” as they say – but not always, and being obnoxious is not leadership.
Bishop Martino lacked a feel for people’s human feelings all too often. At a mass intended to introduce him to the diocese, for instance, he interrupted the service to forbid the holding of hands in the rite of peace. As a Puerto Rican Catholic, I can attest to the humanistic warmth of the kiss of peace that makes the liturgy more alive. But not only did the Bishop forbid it – perhaps for some arcane, but legitimate reason – he chose also to alienate the faithful gathered in prayer. Insulated by a deformed spirituality, Bishop Martino spent 6 years interpreting carefulness as cowardice even though Catholicism demands human respect for the feelings of others.
I also think the bishop’s pastoral theology was faulty. Since the II Vatican Council, Catholicism has been set on a path of collegiality. Bishop Martino, however, issued continual directives that suffocated collegiality. In a situation where the closing of parishes and schools was necessary, he gave the impression that all decisions had already been made and efforts at dialog with the laity were merely perfunctory. He wound up micro-managing the universities, the religious orders, the votes of elected officials, the Catholic school teachers, even the organization of parades, etc. His favored weapon to enforce obedience was to withhold communion or ecclesiastical approval. Overall, his control-freakiness violated a bishop’s stated role, namely to administer the sacraments to a growing number of people rather than to shrink his flock.
His Republican-sounding October 2008 instruction on how Catholics had to vote against Democrats exposed his lack of influence over his flock that gave over 63% of their votes to Obama. Moreover, he attacked fellow bishops as lax on pro-life teaching, going so far in one instance of claiming that the consensus statement of Faithful Citizenship had no validity in Scranton. But Canon Law (455 #4) requires that a bishop “honor unity and charity with brother bishops in promulgating decrees.” So when Bishop Martino failed this test of unity and love with the other bishops, they paid him back in kind. In his final hour, he had few defenders in Rome.
His final error was to fall short in raising money because he had alienated the laity. Unfortunately, like all institutions, the church has a bottom line and if his own financial reports are to be believed, Bishop Martino didn’t measure up.
I wish retired Bishop Martino well, and simultaneously laud Rome’s wisdom that “traded him in” to give us a new leader.