Bishop of Scranton Joseph F. Martino’s October comments emphasizing the importance of abortion in Catholic voters’ decisions could result in continued national and even international attention focused upon the Pennsylvania bishop, Catholic observer John Allen says.
At a faith and politics forum at St. John’s Catholic Church in the town of Honesdale in October, Bishop Martino made an unscheduled appearance warning against erroneous interpretations of politics-related documents from the U.S. bishops. He also emphasized his own authority as bishop, saying “There is one teacher in this diocese.”
However, news coverage focused upon his remarks about abortion.
“No social issue has caused the death of 50 million people,” he remarked at the forum, noting that he no longer supports the Democratic Party. “This is madness people.”
Vatican expert John Allen Jr. told the Scranton Times Tribune that, because of the reaction to the prelate’s comments, Bishop Martino may no longer deal “exclusively with realities in Scranton” but is getting “encouragement” from the pro-life community.
Allen speculated that the bishop may be sought to keynote pro-life conferences and his writings may be increasingly studied by pro-lifers across the country. He added that normally bishops tend to shun outspoken advocacy on issues perceived as political, in an effort to avoid division in their flock.
“One way of looking at what Martino is doing is that he’s incredibly brave and therefore to be encouraged,” he said. “Another way of looking at it is, he’s splitting his diocese apart. That debate has been with us for a long time.”
After his appointment to the Diocese of Scranton in 2003, Bishop Martino reportedly indicated he intended to confront controversies directly. Other controversies in the diocese have included school and parish closings and his refusal to recognize a Catholic teachers’ union.
His recent statements have won praise from pro-life advocates.
Helen Gohsler, president of the Scranton chapter of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, told the Times Tribune that her organization is pleased and proud that the bishop’s October pastoral letter urged Catholic voters to consider abortion a priority among voting issues.
“It’s something very much that the Catholics needed to hear,” she commented.
The president of the American Life League, Judie Brown, called the bishop “one of our heroes.”
“His clear opposition to abortion, his clear teaching that a Catholic cannot vote for a pro-abortion candidate, sent ripples across the country,” she said. “Never before have we seen such outspoken, direct opposition to abortion from the bishops.”
“Every bishop in the United States should be shouting from the rooftops the sanctity of life,” Brown added.
Allen credited the internet and a fast-paced news cycle for bringing the bishop to prominence.
“The truth is that what the bishop of Scranton does can become news in Nigeria instantly, so these guys find themselves playing to a national or international audience,” he said.
According to the Times Tribune, Allen classified Bishop Martino as part of a significant minority of U.S. bishops who teach that abortion is the only voting issue that matters. He reportedly estimated that about 45 percent of the bishops teach this position, while others teach that abortion should be considered in the context of social justice and “life” issues.