Monday, August 31, 2009

Exit, Stage Right

Shrouded by the same mystery that has surrounded his tenure, Bishop Joseph Martino has resigned as Bishop of the Diocese of Scranton after a 6 year reign of terror. See Scranton's Bishop Martino stepping down.

Rumors of his departure have been rampant for some time, but the official word from Rome came this morning. Vatican accepts Bishop Martino's resignation. As the Scranton Times reported over the week-end:

Bishop Martino's resignation at the age of 63 is unusual – it comes more than a decade before the age, 75, at which bishops must submit their resignations under canon law – and caps six years of a tumultuous tenure as head of the 11-county diocese.

Sources in the diocese say the bishop stepped down because of health reasons.

Today, Martino cited his reasons for his early retirement -- by quoting from the lyrics of Kenny Rogers' song, The Gambler, “You have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them." he then aptly added, "And I think it's time to move on." In other words, as noted by Whispers in the Loggia, Calming the Waves:

Bishop Joseph Martino admitted to the assembled media that 'there has not been a clear consensus regarding [his] pastoral initiatives or way of governance' of the 350,000-member diocese following parish and school closings which, however necessary due to changing demographics, caused considerable controversy in the 11-county church.

The 63 year-old prelate said that the difficulties led to bouts of insomnia and a weakened immune system which, having taken a toll on his physical vigor, led him to submit his resignation to Pope Benedict in June, nearly a year after he first mentioned to his metropolitan that 'moving on' might be the best plan for himself and the diocese.

Of course, his critics (and there are legions of those) believe that "health reasons" is just a cover for the fact that he got the boot by the pontiff for his heavy-handed administration of the diocese. With the reign of Martino, who knows what the truth is. And with the closed world of the Catholic Church, who knows if we'll ever find out. Turns out that he tendered his resignation in June, which was accepted by the Pope in July. However, it was only disclosed after the rumors started when Martino was seen moving out of the Scranton rectory that is the home to the Bishop of Scranton.

Yet, one thing is for sure -- the resignation is very unusual. In fact, according to Clerical Whispers, "The Vatican statement it noted that the pope had accepted the resignation under a provision of church law in which a bishop due to illness or "some other grave reason, has become unsuited" to carry out his duties." So much so that, as Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia notes, Sede Vacante: "Today's move is just the third time this decade that a Stateside red-hat has been called in to oversee a local church amid emergency circumstances."

I've written about Martino many times, observing his antagonistic, combative, hostile style. Some of the highlights are chronicled in In Scranton, the Curtain Falls:

At the helm of one of the nation's most staunch, reliable bastions of Catholicism, while the kind, bookish cleric's fierce advocacy for the pro-life cause has won him fervent admiration from church conservatives nationwide, the quarter-million member Scranton church has been roiled since Martino's 2003 arrival by swaths of contentious parish and school closings, strained relations with the presbyterate, a perceived indifference to the media, clashes over the diocese's de-recognition of the local union for Catholic high school teachers (a move upheld by the Vatican) and, most famously, a steady stream of statements on politics, parades and public officials which served to draw lines in the sand in the socially conservative, heavily-Democratic area, home to both the revered Casey clan and, in his boyhood, Vice-President Joe Biden.

No doubt, Martino was brought to Scranton to handle a difficult job, to oversee the consolidation and closure of various schools and Churches in this diocese with a dwindling number of parishioners and priests. No one would have been loved after implementing those difficult changes, especially in a city as traditional as Scranton and its surrounding towns. While Martino was brought to town to be the henchman, to chop the excess, he just didn't need to be such an aloof, dictatorial in his carrying out his mandate. A bit of compassion -- need I say, empathy, would have perhaps made parishioners feel that the Church understood their pain, instead of looking like they frankly didn't give a damn.

In an excellent essay on the reign & departure of Martino, David Gibson of Politics Daily observes, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, Biden's Nemesis, Resigns Under Cloud:

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.

* * * *

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."

* * * *

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.
As Gibson concludes:
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.
And I can certainly say Amen to that.

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