From Standard Speaker:
Local and national Catholics reacted Tuesday to statements by Diocese of Scranton Bishop Joseph F. Martino apparently discounting teachings of the national body of bishops during a political forum at a Honesdale Roman Catholic Church this weekend.
Martino arrived unannounced in the midst of a panel discussion on faith issues and the presidential campaign at St. John’s Catholic Church on Sunday. According to people who attended the event, the bishop chastised the group for holding the forum and particularly took issue with the discussion and distribution of excerpts from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ position on voting issues. The document defines abortion and euthanasia, as well as racism, torture and genocide, as among the most important issues for Catholic voters to consider.
“No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” he was quoted as saying in the Wayne County Independent, a Honesdale-based newspaper. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”
Thomas Shepstone, a local businessman and Catholic who spoke about his opposition to abortion rights during the event, recalled Tuesday that Martino also told the audience that he voted against the U.S. Bishops’ statement and described it as a consensus document “written to mean all things to all people.”
According to participants, Martino expressed dismay that the panelists did not discuss the pastoral letter he directed all priests in the Diocese to read in place of their homilies on Oct. 4 and 5. In that letter, he called on Catholic voters to consider abortion above all other issues, except those he defined as having equal moral weight, like euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research.
“The only relevant document … is my letter,” he said at the forum, according to the Independent. “There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”
According to the Independent, the bishop also said he no longer supports the Democratic Party.
A diocesan spokesman on Tuesday confirmed the bishop’s comments as reported in the Independent.
The spokesman, William Genello, also released a statement that noted the bishop attended the event because he “was concerned because of the confusion and public misrepresentations about Catholic teaching on the life issues.
“Certain groups and individuals have used their own erroneous interpretations of Church documents, particularly the U.S. Bishops’ statement on Faithful Citizenship, to justify their political positions and to contradict the Church’s actual teaching on the centrality of abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research,” the statement said.
“When Bishop Martino heard how some of these issues were being presented at the forum, he determined that he must address the forum to fulfill his obligation as the authentic teacher of the Catholic faith in his diocese.”
Professor Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic constitutional legal scholar who advises Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama, said Tuesday he respects Martino’s passionate speech about life and doubts the bishop intended to separate himself from the larger church.
“That said, we have to be faithful to the church as the church universal exists,” he said. “And the church universal exists in places other than Scranton. It’s everywhere. Its teaching is timeless.”
Participants at the event described a spirited exchange of ideas that was either interrupted or invigorated by the bishop’s arrival.
Gene Tagle, the moderator of the event, said the bishop “torpedoed” the forum, even though he had been told about the event as early as May 27 this year.
“If the bishop disapproved, it seems all he had to do was have his secretary pick up the phone, call our parish pastor and tell him not to go ahead with the forum,” he said. “Instead he came in at the midpoint of the meeting and totally surprised everyone.”
Tagle said the bishop criticized the resident pastor, Rev. Martin Boylan, for holding the forum and “seemed to justify his presence there by stating that he owned the building.”
He also described the bishop’s tone as “angry and admonishing” and said his words created a surprising level of emotion in the audience.
“When he left it was chaotic,” Tagle said. “He incited his supporters to wild applause and shouting. And some individuals were castigating others for supporting pro-choice candidates. It was pretty wild there for a while.”
The bishop left shortly after his remarks and many audience members — some put the number at two-thirds of the group, others say a quarter — left after him.
Shepstone, the panelist, was one who left.
“I left because it was singularly inappropriate to continue the meeting after the bishop had spoken,” he said Tuesday, explaining that the bishop had made it clear he wanted the meeting to stop.
“He spoke eloquently and he spoke forcefully and there was nothing else to be said.”
Wendell Kay, another panelist and a Wayne County commissioner, stayed for the scheduled question-and-answer session after the bishop left, despite being startled by the interruption.
“He’s my bishop and I accept what he says, but I was a little bit surprised at the turn of events,” he said, “and thought if there had been an objection from the diocese in advance we probably would not have held the forum.”