Action Alert!

Our Man Martino

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 24, 2008

I’ve had frequent fantasies about three things: (1) Being Superman; (2) Being a walk-on player for the Washington Redskins who saves their season; and (3) Being a bishop who travels around his diocese in disguise, revealing his identity and taking immediate action whenever he encounters a serious abuse. The third fantasy is by far the most satisfying. The stakes are higher—nothing less than everlasting life—and it somehow seems less likely than either of the others. What I’m saying here is that I’ve generally thought it less likely that a bishop would act this way than that I could be Superman.

But I was wrong. I’ve already suggested, several times, that a new wind is blowing through the American episcopacy. For a variety of reasons, the bishops as a group are getting more pointed about upholding Church teaching, particularly Church teaching on the sanctity of human life. The quality of the men appointed as bishops, already improved under John Paul II, has clearly improved again in recent years. The abuse scandal was a frightening warning shot across the episcopal bows. The arrival of yet another Presidential election year, with Catholics still confused about whether they can support the most pro-abortion candidate ever, has heightened pastoral concern. And the efforts of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden to usurp episcopal authority and explain what the Church really teaches about abortion struck a very sensitive episcopal nerve.

Regardless of the reasons, the USCCB’s 2007 statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship—while still somewhat confusing because of its committee-like stress on too many issues at once—actually stated that support for pro-abortion candidates was not a Catholic option. Since that time, many individual bishops have clarified Church teaching even more, insisting in their own dioceses that the present political landscape offers no issue or combination of issues which can remotely be viewed as providing a proportionate reason to vote for political candidates who are pro-abortion. Therefore, voting pro-abortion is inescapably a complicity in grave evil.

The Fantasy Lives

Then along comes Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton to take the whole thing one step farther. Bishop Martino interrupted a parish discussion forum last Sunday to defend the teachings of the Church on human life—and in particular his teaching authority in his own diocese. True, Bishop Martino was not disguised. But neither was he a scheduled participant. His intervention took everyone by surprise, and his address was greeted with wild applause by pro-lifers who, for a pleasant change, undoubtedly felt happy not to have to defend life in the vacuum too often created by their pastors and bishops.

The venue for this astonishing circumstance was a forum on faith issues and the presidential campaign, held at St. John’s Catholic Church in the Diocese of Scranton, including a panel discussion on the relative merits of voting for McCain or Obama in the light of Church teaching. The forum’s benchmark was the USCCB’s 2007 statement. Bishop Martino arrived unexpectedly and listened for awhile. Then, when he began to hear some panelists cite the USCCB document to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate based on other areas of concern, he intervened to make the Catholic position clear.

In an address which has been described as both eloquent and passionate, Bishop Martino made three essential points: (1) He explained that the USCCB statement was a consensus document produced by a committee, and therefore was too easily cited to prove positions the Church does not intend; (2) He asserted that “no USCCB document is relevant in this diocese” and that the document which should have been the basis for the discussion was the pastoral letter he had issued earlier in the month for Respect Life Sunday; and (3) He made crystal clear that the immorality of voting for a pro-abortion candidate is “not debatable.”

The Points at Issue

Many commentators have professed themselves shocked by Bishop Martino’s apparently negative comments on the USCCB, especially his statement that “no USCCB document is relevant in this diocese.” The word “relevant” might be overly strong, but Bishop Martino’s point is well-taken. In fact, the USCCB has no authority to teach in any diocese, nor are its documents binding on anyone. National espiscopal conferences exist solely as a convenient way for bishops from regions with similar cultures and problems to take joint action. Each bishop remains the sole authoritative teacher of the Faith in his own diocese, with the single exception of the Pope himself (against whose Magisterium each bishop’s teachings must always be judged).

In fact, each bishop is the vicar of Christ in his diocese, and insofar as he teaches in union with the Pope, his teachings are definitive for the Catholic faithful there. So when Bishop Martino stated that the proper document to be used as the basis for the panel discussion in his diocese was his own pastoral letter on the same subject, he was absolutely correct. In fact, Bishop Martino had made it very clear in that letter how the Church’s teaching on abortion and voting was to be understood. Therefore, that understanding was not properly up for discussion in one of his parishes based on some other document. This does not mean Bishop Martino intended to dismiss the USCCB’s own document as worthless. While he is surely correct that Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is less easy to understand because of its consensus-driven nature, Bishop Martino actually quoted some of the finer passages from that document in his own pastoral letter.

Apart from Bishop Martino’s teaching authority in his own diocese—which he merely asserted according to a proper understanding of Catholic ecclesiology—there remains his teaching that it is not possible to morally vote for a pro-abortion candidate when there is an available alternative. In developing that same argument in my writings on this web site, I have pointed out that this teaching has two parts. The first is an indisputable doctrinal point: It is gravely immoral to vote for someone because he is pro-abortion; it is at least remote cooperation with evil to vote for someone in spite of the fact that he is pro abortion; and this remote cooperation with evil can be justified only if there is a proportionate moral reason on the other side. This is exactly the same teaching enunciated by Cardinal Ratzinger in his letter to the American bishops before the last Presidential election.

The second part of the teaching is a prudential judgment, and so it admits of at least theoretical disagreement. This is the judgment that in the present political circumstance there are no issues which constitute, separately or together, a proportionate moral reason (or even a remotely proportionate moral reason) to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate. This has been the sticking point for the Catholic bishops in the past. Because it is technically a prudential judgment, the bishops have been (and ought to be) slow to adopt it, for fear of denying the right of laymen to make their own prudential judgments.

Still Inarguable

The problem with this reluctance is that many bishops are getting tired of seeing people claim any and every possible reason for justifying a pro-abortion vote. They are tired of hearing such persons identify these excuses as proportionate moral reasons. And they are tired of such persons justifying their position as compatible with the teaching of the Catholic Church. What Bishop Martino is arguing (and what many other bishops have argued similarly in recent weeks) is the same argument I advanced at some length in On Voting for Pro-Abortion Candidates, namely that because abortion is a pre-eminent evil both in its intrinsic gravity and in the astronomically high numbers of lives involved, there is nothing on the contemporary scene which is remotely proportionate to it. Further, these bishops are pointing out that this prudential judgment is so overwhelmingly obvious to any person of good will, that if they (incredibly!) must formally teach it to get it through our thick heads, they will.

There is no need to repeat the details of that argument here. But it is both fascinating and edifying to see the number of bishops who are now crossing this line of prudential argument in order, at long last, to remove all doubt from a matter which has made Catholic moral theology since Roe v. Wade something very much like the last refuge of scoundrels. Bishop Martino, the Bishops of Dallas, the head of the USCCB’s Pro-Life Committee and several others have now come out and said it: The failure of the prudential argument for abortion is every bit as clear as it was for slavery or the Holocaust. Some issues really aren’t debatable. For the first time in modern America, many bishops are identifying pro-abortion voting as one of them. (Judging by the many confused and frequently condescending emails I receive, it is high time.)

Whether Bishop Martino could have handled the whole affair better—whether innocent persons were in any way unfairly bruised by his sudden and unprecedented intervention—I am not in a position to determine. But I am at least happy to report that his intervention was not the result of momentary pique. The diocese released a statement on Tuesday explaining and confirming Martino’s action:

Certain groups and individuals have used their own erroneous interpretations of Church documents, particularly the U.S. Bishops’ statement on Faithful Citizenship, to justify their political positions and to contradict the Church’s actual teaching on the centrality of abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research…. When Bishop Martino heard how some of these issues were being presented at the forum, he determined that he must address the forum to fulfill his obligation as the authentic teacher of the Catholic faith in his diocese.

Exactly so. And we may now hope that doctrinally proactive bishops are on the rise. Indeed, thanks to our man Martino, the true and the good are now far more—and far better—than a fantasy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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