The Power of a Bold Bishop

Deal W. Hudson
December 1, 2008

An article published yesterday in the Scranton Times announced, “Bishop takes his place on the national stage with his staunch anti-abortion stance.” Bishop Joseph F. Martino wasn’t the only bishop who spoke boldly during the presidential campaign, but he was noticed, in part, because Scranton is Vice-President Elect Joe Biden’s hometown.

Martino was also noticed because he quite literally crashed a seminar on “Faithful Citizenship” being held against his wishes at St. John’s Catholic Church. Objecting to the spin being put on the bishops’ conference document, Martino told those attending the seminar, “No social issue has caused the deaths of 50 million people,” adding, “This is madness, people.”

The Scranton Times rightly observes that Bishop Martino has not become a national figure merely because of his prominence during the election. But the article fails to note a very important and pertinent fact: Catholics in Pennsylvania did not vote for Barack Obama as they did nationally: Self-identified Catholics in Pennsylvania voted 52 percent to 48 percent for McCain.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this fact but made no attempt to discover the reasons for the anomaly. Pro-life activist Brian Gail from Philadelphia has no doubts as to the cause; he credits Scranton’s bishop for this result: “One man did this, and did it all but single-handedly. His name is Bishop Joe Martino.”

Other Catholics involved in the campaign agree with Gail and view the numbers in Pennsylvania as something to build upon. Bud Hansen Jr. from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, was co-chair of Catholics for McCain. “I am happy to say that our efforts were not in vain. The results tell us that we can re-build the Catholic vote in our state, starting from the grassroots. There is no question that there are very major problems that we are facing at this time, including the economy, immigration, healthcare, and especially national security, but all these issues can be dealt with at the same time that we are protecting life.”

Also not mentioned in the Scranton Times profile was the most important thing the bishop said the night he walked in on the “Faithful Citizenship” seminar: “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” he was quoted as saying in the Wayne County Independent. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”

Nothing stirs the pot like a bishop declaring his independence from the bishops’ conference. Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told the Scranton Times “that people perceive him to be a spokesman” for the U.S. bishops, when “the views he has voiced do not represent the U.S. bishops as a whole.”

But the bishops are clearly divided over “Faithful Citizenship” – there is no unified understanding of its interpretation. Furthermore, Father Reese does not mention the 100 bishops who did speak out in the last six weeks of the campaign.

The Scranton Times article concludes that Bishop Martino is now “disliked” in his diocese, quoting William Parente, a political science professor at the University of Scranton. Parente suggests, “The solution to the problem is for the papal nuncio to promote Bishop Martino to a commission in the Vatican where he can start fresh, and we can appoint one of the local clergies who would be more popular as the new bishop.”

Bishop Martino may not be popular among the Catholic Left, but he has become a hero to Catholics all across the nation, and that is what has some people (perhaps Parente?) worried. No doubt Bishop Martino is unconcerned about a loss of popularity among some of his flock.

That the majority of Pennsylvania Catholics bucked the national trend and voted against Obama is a fact that requires further investigation. Such study will very likely reveal a lesson in leadership – one that will be of particular interest to all the bishops as we approach the consideration of the Freedom of Choice Act.

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