A Bishop’s Early Retirement

The Aug. 31 press conference when Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino announced his resignation raised my admiration of the Catholic Church. … Continued

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 While the secular world uses a harsh term like “clunker” to describe something that is obsolete, runs inefficiently and pollutes its own environment, the Church has centuries of experience in moving on and away from an ineffectual bishop without losing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.

  • ltierney2

    Rome’s wisdom? That would be a reach. Galileo would be amused by that comment.

  • DwightCollins

    tell me, how many non catholic libs received the Eucharist during Kennedy’s funeral…

  • pd_hall

    Wonderful insightful essay! If only more congregations had such acute observers!

  • usapdx


  • cheloquito

    ‘Dwight Collins,’ you typify what is offensive and repugnant about your ‘belief system,’ presumably based on ‘catholic theology;’ the manipulation and witholding of the Eucharist is elitist, exclusionary, divisive and – when used as a weapon of punishment – anti-god and anti-human. The Episcopals really got that one right: “All Baptized Christians are welcome to share at Christ’s Table!”

  • Climacus

    Mr. Stevens-Arroyo:Do you actually have any conclusive reason why we should not take Bishop Martino at his word when he gave his reason for stepping down? Is there any solid evidence that he was pushed aside or is that purely speculative?It would not appear that you are a theologian, so what place do vague assertions that Bishop Martino’s theology is “faulty” have in your essay?Finally, to characterize a “bishop’s stated role” as being “to administer the sacraments to a growing number of people rather than to shrink his flock” doesn’t seem particularly tied to anything the Catechism has to say about the chief roles of a bishop. Where did you get that?

  • dwt301

    I think you have hit the nail on the head here – Martino’s episcopate shows that Rome is going to have an increasingly hard time making sure on the one hand that the bishops it appoints in the U.S. are sufficiently conservative but on the other hand are not–you’ll pardon the expression–complete assh*&^s

  • PupsMcCann

    This is ‘Catholic America’? May God have mercy on your soul Anthony for you have clearly chosen the Democratic party over the teachings of the Catholic Church. How does it feel to be a Pelosi Catholic? Waiting for your next article to explain Church teachings on abortion… that should be interesting to say the least.

  • FormerCatholic

    For all Bishop Martino’s faults, one has to believe that the real reason for his removal is given in the last paragraph of Mr. Arroyo’s essay: the drop in giving to the church. That has never failed to gain the Hierarchy’s attention.

  • macroom2

    Bishop Martino may have acted imprudently on some matters. Since his story is over, I’m not going to spend time investigating the matter. I just want to point out that in the Gospels Jesus uses harsh words many times for people who rejected Him. At times bishops have the duty to use harsh words on some important issues.

  • razzl

    It’s clear from the comments here that the shrinking pool of remaining Catholics are resentful conservatives who make the same error Mr. Stevens-Arroyo ascribes to the evangelicals: lack of humanity and lack of understanding of the essentially humanist view of the church. If you read the fundamentally Christian part of the New Testament, the descriptions of Christ’s actions and statements, you see that it’s impossible to interpret his teachings as anything other than that we should concern ourselves with the welfare of other people as though they were our own family and give freely of our resources to help them, because in the end “our” resources don’t really belong to us. That message is what in today’s America is called “liberalism”, and you can’t rail against it or vote against it and still go around thinking of yourself as a good Christian. Life isn’t fair, but we don’t live in a parallel universe where conservative distortions of the Christian message carry the validity that the genuine liberal message does…

  • momtomany12

    Your essay shows a lack of knowledge about theology. Bishop Martino’s two greatest areas of focus were the horror of abortion and the promotion of devotion to the Real Presence in the Eucharist. How can you argue with those? And as another faithful member of the diocese, I can assure you that many are greatly saddened by the loss of our shepherd, Bishop Martino.And finally, for someone speaking about the lack of charity in someone else, perhaps you should start by examining your own conscience.

  • LA39

    Wow… Stevens-Arroyo shows an amazing lack of understanding of all things Catholic! Has he even read CIC 455.4? Not only does his quote not appear in the text, but moreover, the section he quotes hurts his case and validates Martino’s actions! (In short, it says that in those cases where the bishops’ conference makes a decree that hasn’t been requested either by law or by the pope, then each diocesan bishop retains the right to act on his own behalf, unless each and every bishop had voted in favor of the decree.)Stevens-Arroyo also misunderstands “collegiality”: it refers not to the relationship between the bishop and those in his diocese, but to the relationships between bishops and the pope: that is, bishops share in the governance of the Church with the pope.Really now… Stevens-Arroyo, for all his giddy posturing, serves up pablum fit only for those who are as equally uninformed about the Catholic Church; he does a disservice to his Church by broadcasting his distortions and misunderstandings.

  • Grabski

    I too am a Scrantonian (Nativity) and feel that this article leaves out some important points. The Bishop was given the momumental job of a long overdue restructuring. It’s not just the drop in and aging of the population…Scranton had 140,000 people in 1940 and has just over 70,000 today. There is also the issue of ‘ethnic’ parishes, which are nearly one half in the diocese. That 19th Century anachronism means that there are parishes within blocks of one another. As for ‘not listening’, the consolidation is still going forward after years of study. Consolidation on this scale leaves hard feelings; love goes out the window as the bill collectors come to the door, as it were.What’s more, the Bishop spoke truth to power in the person of the Vice President, Senators, College presidents, etc. They don’t like it. Well, that’s unfortunate – for them.Finally, no Bishop is required to turn his teaching office to a document put out by the USCCB. That abdication, not collegiality. As for Mr Stevens-Arroyo, if he has evidence that Rome accepted Bp Martino’s resignation due to a drop in donations, he should present it since he certainly implied it.

  • Christian5

    The astounding ignorance of the facts in Scranton and the church makes this piece almost humourous. In time, as all you baby boomer Spirit of Vatican II ‘Catholics’ age and retire away from management of the parishes, the church militant will regain its vibrancy and orthodoxy.