A Bishop in the Tradition of Cardinal O’Connor

Deal W. Hudson
February 9, 2009

Recently I’ve begun to notice a resemblance between Scranton’s Bishop Joseph Francis Martino and another Philadelphia-born bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor. Bishop Martino is outspoken, and his direct, almost pugnacious, criticism is reminiscent of the late cardinal of New York.

Both Martino and O’Connor attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary before seeking graduate degrees – Martino at Rome’s Gregorian University, in church history; O’Connor at Villanova, in ethics, and Georgetown University, in political science.

Pope John Paul II appointed both as bishops – O’Connor in 1979, Martino in 1996. O’Connor, like Martino, would go to Scranton but remained there only one year (1983-84) before being chosen, to everyone’s surprise, as archbishop of New York.

For a Catholic bishop, O’Connor, at 64, was still a relatively young man when he left for New York. Martino will turn 63 on May 1.

Am I suggesting that Bishop Martino is destined to follow his predecessor to New York? No, that isn’t likely to happen; controversial bishops rarely receive prestigious appointments. O’Connor’s relatively low profile early in his career (thanks to a lack of public controversies) made it unlikely he would be blackballed in the selection process.

Bishop Martino’s presence in Scranton is a case of being in the right place at the right time. First of all, Scranton’s moderate size and its location in northeastern Pennsylvania give Bishop Martino the opportunity to bring about substantive changes in the Catholic culture of his diocese and state.

In addition, Scranton is the hometown of Vice-President Joseph Biden. Bishop Martino’s stated position that he would deny communion to the vice president of the United States stands as a constant reminder of the dilemma facing Catholic Democrats with the Obama administration’s efforts to remove all legal restrictions to abortion.

“No Catholic politician who supports the culture of death should approach Holy Communion,” Bishop Martino said, regarding Biden. “I will be truly vigilant on this point.”

Bishop Martino’s pro-life leadership during the election has been cited as an influence in getting Pennsylvania Catholics to buck the national trend and vote for John McCain, 52 to 48 percent. The story of his crashing a seminar on the USCCB document “Faithful Citizenship” at one of his own parishes was easily the most dramatic, and colorful, Catholic moment in the campaign. “People, this is madness,” he said after hearing a panelist explain how Catholics could vote for a pro-abortion politician in good conscience.

But when he told those gathered at St. John’s Parish, “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me,” Bishop Martino could have been channeling Cardinal O’Connor of the 1980s when he (and Bernard Cardinal Law) battled the “seamless garment” message emitted from the bishops’ conference.

More recently, Bishop Martino has shown some of Cardinal O’Connor’s willingness to take on Catholic politicians by name. It was the latter’s 1983 face-off over abortion with vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that came to mind as I read Bishop Martino’s public letter to Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

In his letter, Bishop Martino asked Senator Casey to reconsider his vote against affirming the Mexico City Policy. Casey had voted against an amendment offered to a children’s health insurance bill by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL):

It is the height of irony that this amendment was defeated while the Senate passed legislation to provide health insurance for children who would otherwise be without it. What hypocrisy offers health insurance to children in one part of the world when children in another part will be deprived, by the stroke of the same pen, of their first breath?

The local media have been reporting a decline in Bishop Martino’s popularity due to his “interference” in politics, but he pays no attention to such criticism. In a 2004 interview in the Scranton Sunday Times, he explained:

All these bugaboos about separation of church and state are brought up, which are just not true. What that really means is, “Shut up bishop, shut up.” I have a right to speak up like any other citizen, and I have a right to remind Catholics – that’s my duty – to remind Catholics it’s not what they can do but what they should do. I think that’s something that they haven’t heard enough of, and they’ll hear it from me.

What Bishop Martino promised four years ago, he has delivered. Over the past decade, Catholics have been blessed with the leadership of several notable bishops, but with the emergence of Bishop Joseph Martino, we are witnessing the bold style of a fellow son of Philadelphia, the late Cardinal O’Connor.

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