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Our Man Martino: When Lack of Explanation Is a Scandal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 02, 2009

Okay, I admit it. I was one of those who admired the (publicly visible) work of ex-Scranton bishop Joseph Martino. I’m miffed that the bishop I praised last October (see Our Man Martino) should be forced out of office less than a year later. Full disclosure: This doesn’t look good on my résumé.

But that’s just one reason I would prefer to know exactly why Bishop Martino was pressured to resign. Like Phil Lawler, who has speculated on the reasons (see Bishop Martino's departure: did he jump or was he pushed?), I’m embarrassed by the Vatican’s continuing tendency to mislead or tell outright lies about the affairs of high officials in the Church (things like appointments, resignations, future plans, and papal health). Presumably this is done for “reasons of state”, but it not only fails to satisfy, it just plain looks bad.

As a member of the faithful, I would like very much to know if Bishop Martino was squeezed out for the very reasons which made me applaud him, or because he made enemies unnecessarily, or because his brother bishops didn’t like him, or because he alienated persons of power and influence, or because he was psychologically fragile, or because he had committed some significant indiscretion or sin. Certainly he alienated many people, which is the basis of Phil’s very plausible conclusion that he must simply have unnecessarily alienated too many.

The problem I have in thinking about this is that lax and liberal bishops have rather consistently and most unnecessarily alienated huge numbers of deeply committed Catholics without any institutional reprisals, and very often their failure to uphold Catholic doctrine, to ensure sound religious education and faithful liturgy, and to deal effectively with sexual abuse have not visibly alienated them from their brother bishops. So one has to wonder whether Martino’s downfall was occasioned by alienation not merely of many people but of the wrong people. Did he alienate the proverbial clerical club, which consists mainly of bishops and favored priests, but typically also includes political power brokers and extremely wealthy laymen who put up the money for Church projects?

It may certainly be that Bishop Martino’s parish closure practices were too insensitive, or that the closure rate was just too high, resulting in a fractured diocese. Such things are deeply painful and divisive, but in a shrinking Church whose neighborhood demographics have also shifted dramatically, many dioceses, to remain financially viable, will have to do (and some have already done) precisely the same thing. So here’s a Machiavellian theory: Could it now be a strategy to send a man in to close worn-out parishes rapidly, destroying diocesan unity in the process, and then replace him with an untainted successor who will sympathetically lament the now irreparable loss and then move on with renewed support?

Presumably not, but in any case one thing is sure: Bishop Martino’s resignation will be used to strengthen those who want to resist Church teaching in politics (favoring the culture of death) and in academic life (ignoring the Magisterium in the name of a false academic freedom). In the wake of this resignation, it will be argued repeatedly that the Vatican doesn’t like men who press these issues too hard, that Rome’s preferred mode of Catholic action varies substantially from her official teachings.

In other words, the faith will be undermined. It is precisely to prevent this sort of outcome that Church leaders should ordinarily present clear reasons for their administrative actions. The faithful have a right to a pastoral explanation for the premature resignation of a doctrinally faithful and pro-life bishop, just as they have a right to a pastoral explanation of why, at approximately the same time, a Cardinal presided over the funeral of the most influential cafeteria-Catholic champion of abortion rights in the U.S. Senate. Whenever deliberate administrative action or inaction tends to undermine Catholic fidelity, such action or inaction demands explanation. Moreover, one would expect both the American bishops and the Vatican to work particularly hard to give the lie to the wealth-and-power explanation of ecclesiastical affairs.

Not to do so is a scandal.

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