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Bishop Martino's departure: did he jump or was he pushed? September 01, 2009

Did he jump or was he pushed?

That's the easy question. Bishop Joseph Martino was pushed into resignation at the age of 63. No intelligent observer can credit the official explanation: that Bishop Martino retired because of health problems. The outgoing bishop openly acknowledged to reporters that he "clearly" was not suffering from any grave illness.

Clearly Bishop Martino was under a great deal of pressure, and therefore it is not difficult to believe that he suffered from insomnia and fatigue: the only medical complaints that were mentioned in the press conference announcing his departure. But while those are serious problems, they are not ordinarily serious enough to compel a motivated leader to resign. And even if insomnia had risen to the level of a serious medical problem, the question remains: Why was the bishop under so much pressure-- the sort of pressure that could give rise to such serious problems?

If anyone had lingering doubts about the question of Bishop Martino's health, he had only to look carefully at yesterday's announcement from Scranton. Auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty's retirement was announced on the same day. The Dougherty departure, taken by itself, would have been completely unremarkable; at the age of 77, he was well beyond the ordinary canonical retirement age. But the fact that the two retirements were announced simultaneously leaves no doubt about what happened. It was a house-cleaning.

(We might even ask, in passing, why Church leaders persist in offering such implausible excuses for the resignations of bishops. If no one really believes that Bishop Martino is too sick to carry on, why is that flimsy explanation offered to the public? Corporate leaders routinely offer vague, unsatisfactory reasons for a change at the top: it is a matter of "different styles of leadership," they might say, or a question of "conflicting visions." But those explanations, lame as they are, are not transparently false. Don't Church leaders attach any importance at all to the principle of that honesty is the best policy? Don't they worry about undermining their own credibility?)

Bishop Martino was pushed out office. Now we reach the tougher question: Why?

Two different explanations have been put forward by informed observers. One school of thought says that Bishop Martino was too rough in his administrative style. He was a bull in a china shop, constantly making new enemies, needlessly causing division, refusing to act in a collegial manner and respect the advice of his brother bishops. The other school of thought says that he was simply too conservative for the tastes of his brethren in the US bishops' conference-- and especially for his metropolitan, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who has emerged as the most influential prelate in America today.

Notice: Those two explanations are not mutually exclusive. During his tenure in Scranton, Bishop Martino made a series of unpopular moves: closing schools and parishes, busting a teachers' union, denouncing pro-choice politicians, demanding assurances that Catholic universities were providing an authentically Catholic formation for their students. Many loyal Catholics would agree that some (if not all) of these moves were necessary, desirable, even praiseworthy. But were they done with appropriate tact and consideration for the good of the faithful?

Bishop Martino did make many enemies. He did show a lack of delicacy. He did alienate people who might otherwise have approved of his overall drive to ensure Catholic orthodoxy. Even among Catholics who supported his overall policies, there were many who were dismayed by his administrative approach.

Moreover, Bishop Martino did nothing to ensure the support of his brother bishops. On the contrary, he pointedly insisted that only he-- not the US bishops' conference-- had authority within the Scranton diocese. In making that statement he was entirely correct, but he was not at all prudent.

By the time his departure was announced, Bishop Martino had accumulated complaints from many different sources. There were (and are) dozens of canonical cases pending before the Roman Curia, involving real or alleged abuses of authority in the Scranton diocese. The bishop had become a problem. He acknowledged as much himself, in his final press conference, saying: "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." A bishop should be the focus of unity within a diocese; Bishop Martino had become a source of division.

Still it is not easy to dismiss the perception that Bishop Martino was removed because he was regarded as excessively militant in his defense of the right to life. Other American bishops who have alienated priests and laity in their dioceses, provoked canonical lawsuits, criticized their brother bishops, and still remained in office. The highly publicized removal of Bishop Martino-- with only the barest of gestures to camouflage the real cause-- is a rare and remarkable occurrence.

Bishop Martino was involved in many squabbles, it is true, but his most highly publicized battles involved his praiseworthy efforts to ensure that the Church in Scranton spoke with a clear and consistent voice in defense of the dignity of human life. So it was inevitable, and entirely predictable, that his removal would cause rejoicing among liberal Catholics, and anguish among conservatives, with both sides assuming that the bishop's ouster was a result of his militant pro-life stand.

It isn't that simple. Bishop Martino was removed because he was so divisive. His strong pro-life stand did not cost him his episcopal assignment. On the other hand, it's fair to say that his pro-life stand did not save his episcopal assignment, either.

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