Scranton Bishop Unexpectedly Visits Forum, Repudiates False Teachings on Catholic Voting

By Hilary White

Bishop Joseph MartinoSCRANTON, Pennsylvania, October 22, 2008 ( – An unexpected visit by the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania to a parish forum on the upcoming elections, has resulted in a small firestorm of controversy, after the bishop forcefully repudiated the idea that Catholics can vote for pro-abortion politicians. Some of the bishop’s comments exposed a long festering problem since the Second Vatican Council over bishops conferences and their often liberal bureaucracies. The conferences, which have no actual teaching authority, quickly assumed a far greater role in the Church than was intended by the Council, often replacing the authority and obligations of local bishops on many issues.

Parishioners of St. John’s church in Scranton were discussing a statement that had been produced by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that some argue lends itself to the interpretation that Catholics can vote for pro-abortion candidates under certain circumstances. They were taken aback, however, when Bishop Joseph Martino arrived at the forum unannounced and told his flock, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”

An eyewitness said that the bishop told his audience that he had voted against the USCCB statement, titled “Faithful Citizenship,” and described it as a consensus document “written to mean all things to all people.”

“The only relevant document ... is my letter,” he said. “There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”

Bishop Martino was referring to a pastoral letter he issued earlier this month that rejected a trend in the US Catholic Church, sometimes bolstered by official USCCB statements, that claims that abortion and euthanasia are moral equivalents to other issues such as war and economic injustice. According to this theory a Catholic can in good conscience vote for politicians who are pro-abortion but hold acceptable views on other “peace and justice” issues. 

In his letter, Bishop Martino called legal abortion “injustice of the worst kind” and said that laws that create a situation in which “the weakest and most vulnerable are denied, because of their age, the most basic protection that we demand for ourselves ... is discrimination at its worst, and no person of conscience should support it.”

Bishop Martino specifically cited and strongly refuted the common argument that says while abortion is wrong, it is not “the only relevant ‘life’ issue that should be considered when deciding for whom to vote.” Morally equivalent issues, he suggested, might be euthanasia and destruction of embryos for research purposes, because these involve the direct killing of human beings. However, while health care, education, economic security, immigration, and taxes “are very important concerns,” he said, “the solutions to problems in these areas do not usually involve a rejection of the sanctity of human life in the way that abortion does.”

A statement from the diocese later confirmed the Bishop’s comments at the forum, as reported in the media. The diocesan statement said Bishop Martino had been “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 fulfil his obligation as the authentic teacher of the Catholic faith in his diocese.”

In recent years, Catholics have received conflicting messages from their Church’s leadership over whether it is permissible to vote for a politician who, while supporting abortion, is supportive of efforts to help the poor, or of other “peace and justice” causes.

Bishop Martino’s letter is regarded as one of the stronger statements refuting and condemning the erroneous, but nevertheless popular, so-called “seamless garment” theory that downplays the unique evil of abortion. “Consider this,” the bishop wrote in his letter, “the finest health and education systems, the fairest immigration laws, and the soundest economy do nothing for the child who never sees the light of day. It is a tragic irony that ‘pro-choice’ candidates have come to support homicide – the gravest injustice a society can tolerate – in the name of ‘social justice’.”

He added, “Even the Church’s just war theory has moral force because it is grounded in the principle that innocent human life must be protected and defended.”

Pro-life advocates have noted that during the current US general election cycle, the tone of statements from the Catholic bishops has been considerably stronger than in the past.

Fr. Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, told today, “There’s no question that the Seamless Garment was a convenient catch all term to describe things that are not morally equal.” But Euteneuer said that the wind is certainly shifting in the Catholic hierarchy.

Fr. Euteneuer said that statements such as the one from Bishop Martino are becoming more common. “The internal culture of the bishops’ conference itself seems to be changing and that is a good sign, because they seem to be immune to external influences.” Scandals, pressure from lay people and even massive law suits, Fr. Euteneuer said, have not had a profound effect on the Bishops’ conference, but “when the bishops themselves start to move in right direction, things begin to change.”

Fr. Euteneuer said the change in the US bishops has certainly been more noticeable since the visit this spring of Pope Benedict XVI. Their shift towards greater orthodoxy can be put down to the leadership of Pope Benedict, he said, who as a fellow bishop has the insider’s ability to break into the conference’s closed shop.

Such change is slow, he said, but comes as “more bishops are formed in orthodoxy and given a chance to act. The Catholic Church, because of its hierarchical structure has the capacity to reform itself like no other institution.”

Read the full text of Bishop Martino’s letter:

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