2009-03-19 / Family

Bishop Battles For Orthodoxy In U.S.


(AP) - 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 abortionrights 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 most outspoken defenders of Catholic orthodoxy in the United States.

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.

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 Vatican considers abortion an "unspeakable crime."

The honorees, who include 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Upon learning that union members planned to march in Saturday's parade, Martino again threatened to cancel Mass.

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