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Bishop in Pa. battles for orthodoxy

The bishop in Scranton, Pa., is establishing himself as one of the nation's most outspoken defenders of Catholic orthodoxy.
Image: Joseph Martino
Bishop Joseph Martino had threatened to  cancel the traditional pre-St. Patrick's Day parade Mass if organizers honored an abortion-rights supporter.Bradley C Bower / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bishop's threat was almost incomprehensible. In this heavily Roman Catholic city, where tens of thousands of people pack downtown for the annual St. Patrick's parade, Mass would be canceled that day if organizers honored an abortion-rights supporter.

The warning — seen by some as a reference to Vice President Joe Biden, a native son — was the latest in a series of tough stands by Bishop Joseph Martino, who is establishing himself as one of the nation's most outspoken defenders of Catholic orthodoxy.

Supporters say he is simply enforcing church teachings to counter "cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose which beliefs to embrace. His critics call him a reclusive prelate who issues edicts from on high, rarely interacting with his flock.

"He's a feisty guy. He's got his views and he lets them be known," said David Gibson, a former Vatican radio journalist and the author of two books on Catholicism. "I don't think he cares about winning any popularity contests — that's not in the equation for him. He just wants to do what is right for the people of his diocese."

The showdown over Saturday's pre-parade Mass at St. Peter's Cathedral started with a letter to organizers last month. In it, Martino said he would temporarily close the church if the event "should honor pro-abortion officials and the Catholic Church is seen to be involved in this honoring."

The honorees, who include Biden's sister and mother, apparently passed muster, because Martino decreed last week that Mass would be held as usual. But the controversy surrounding Martino himself is far from over, as evidenced by the vigorous debates on local editorial pages and talk radio.

The bishop declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

'Obligation' to ensure moral teachings
Martino, a 62-year-old Philadelphia native, came to Scranton in 2003 to replace retiring Bishop James Timlin in overseeing a diocese that serves about 350,000 parishioners in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Since then, he has directed priests to deny Holy Communion to public officials who support abortion rights. He interrupted a parish forum on last fall's election to say opposition to abortion was by far the most important issue to consider when voting.

Martino also blasted the Diversity Institute at Misericordia University, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, for sponsoring lectures by a gay-rights advocate last month. Calling the speaker's beliefs "disturbingly opposed to Catholic moral teaching," Martino demanded the school disband the institute and disclose the names and content of classes that purport to teach Catholic sexual morality.

"It is not only my right, but my obligation to ensure that authentic Catholic teaching is being provided in all Catholic institutions in this Diocese, and that viewpoints in opposition to this teaching are not being presented as acceptable alternatives," Martino wrote in a statement.

Misericordia said it is committed to both its Catholic mission and its academic mission of exploring ideas freely. School officials are trying to meet with the bishop to resolve the issue, said university spokesman Jim Roberts.

Martino has also released letters harshly critical of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a parishioner and longtime foe of abortion rights. In them, he chastises the Democratic lawmaker for opposing family-planning legislation the church backed.

His supporters insist Martino is simply enforcing church teachings.

"He believes that people who call themselves Christians or Catholics have a moral obligation to live their faith. All he is asking them to do is to practice what they preach," said Gary Cangemi, 54, of Scranton, the vice chairman of the local chapter of the anti-abortion group Pennsylvanians for Human Life. "He is setting a great example."

Yet critics claim Martino, unlike his predecessor, is hardly pastoral and rarely seen.

'15th-century mentality'
Michael Milz, president of the local teachers' union for parochial schools, accuses Martino of ignoring Catholic social teaching on workers' rights. The bishop has refused to recognize the union.

'A 15th-century mentality'
Upon learning that union members planned to march in Saturday's parade, Martino again threatened to cancel Mass.

"He doesn't speak to anyone. He issues press releases," said Milz. "He has a 15th-century mentality."

Milz said he never expected such an antagonistic relationship with Martino. Catholic teachers in the Philadelphia area, where Martino once taught, spoke warmly of him, Milz said.

"He was very friendly, easygoing, great sense of humor — a very nice man," said David McQuiston, who worked with Martino at Bishop Shanahan High School. "The bishop that we see described in the newspapers doesn't seem to be the person we had taught with."

Saturday's Mass will go on as scheduled. Biden was not chosen as an honoree, but the Society of Irish Women — one of three groups organizing the parade — is honoring his sister and mother at a dinner Tuesday.

Society co-founder Evie Rafalko McNulty had been heartbroken at the thought that Martino would close the church before the parade.

"I mean no disrespect to the bishop — he has his job to do, and I will always have my opinion," McNulty said. "(But) I thought that we, as Catholics, should open our arms and open our churches and be there for people rather than shutting doors."