Bishop Martino resigns; asked a good question last spring

Bishop Martino of Scranton, PA
Bishop Martino of Scranton, PA

Scranton, Pennsylvania, resigned.  One blogger wrote, “Did he jump or was he pushed?” and concluded that his resignation – at the relatively young age of 63 – was probably not due simply to fatigue.

Diversity.  I first heard about Bishop Martino last spring, in the flap that arose when Misericordia University‘s Diversity Institute invited Keith Boykin to speak at the University.  Bishop Martino voiced his “absolute disapproval” of Misericordia’s hosting of Keith Boykin, saying in a published reflection that it was “not because of his sexual orientation, but because he is a well known proponent of morality that is disturbingly opposed to Catholic teaching.”

Misericordia University responded, as most colleges would, that the Catholic intellectual tradition thrives on exposure and debate of a variety of viewpoints, and that the Diversity Institute made sure that many came to campus.  Bishop Martino validated the importance of understanding diverse viewpoints, but countered that there were viewpoints that would certainly be diverse, but all would agree were inappropriate for campus:

“Would the Diversity Institute be justified in hosting a speaker who believes the Holocaust is a myth?” he asked, ” Or one who believes slavery is okay because certain people are inferior? Or one who believes women can be exploited because they are the “weaker sex”?

Catholic intellectual tradition.  In its response to the bishop, Misericordia University stated that it “is deeply committed to its Catholic mission” which includes exposure to a diversity of viewpoints.  It is an accurate portrayal of the Catholic intellectual tradition to say that the scholars of the Church have often been the ones who not only look at, but even preserve, teachings that are different from their own.  Early on in the middle ages, scribes and monasteries had to decide whether they would only hold and copy Scripture and teachings of the recognized Church Fathers. Luckily for us, they decided to save everything; through their willingness to look at all ideas, we have the works of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and antiquity, as well as medieval Islam and other cultures. Misericordia’s response is well grounded in history and its mission.

It was in the midst of the hubbub that Bishop Martino asked the question that never got an answer.  He asked the officials at Misericordia “to convey how it teaches Catholic morality regarding sexuality and homosexuality, and to produce concrete evidence.”  Some reports at the time say that he demanded to see course descriptions and syllabi.

Academic freedom.  I suspect that Misericordia’s refusal to answer that question is grounded in the academic freedom of the university.  I do not know what process is used for a university to continue to be listed as “Catholic” – but it is probably much more organized and less adversarial than this episode.  As an outsider, I have no insight into the breakdown of communication between the University and Bishop Martino that ensued.   If I were president of a college, I would vigorously defend the academic freedom of the university. I’d hope to find a way to do so without completely alienating the bishop.  In this case, that might not have been possible.

The good question.   The style or personality or workload of Bishop Martino clearly plays an important role in this particular situation. (A TimesLeader article last spring portrayed a much more complex man than more recent descriptions of a dogmatic and abrasive personality.)  It’s not surprising that Misericordia chose not to respond to the demand to demonstrate where and how it teaches Catholic thought.

But the question is a good one.  It’s a commonplace observation that people may know a simplistic version of a point of Catholic doctrine (“they’re against divorce” – as though any religion holds up divorce as a desirable outcome for a marriage!) but do not know why – the fullness of the belief in question.  Often, the simplistic version is simply wrong. The version of Catholicism that gets bashed so often is, for the most part, not the one the Church puts forth.

College-level doctrine. So – shouldn’t students who graduate from a Catholic college or university at least have an opportunity to get a college-level understanding of those doctrines?  There is debate about whether all students should be required to learn Catholic doctrine – but it is certainly reasonable that the full-exposition of the teaching should be available to students on a Catholic college campus.

Bishop Martino’s question prompted me to include Caritate in Veritas among the readings in my upcoming sociology course, “Social Issues and Social Change.”  It will be tough sledding in the classroom:  the students will not have either the depth in social and economic theory that Pope Benedict has, nor the theological background.  There will be a lot of unpacking of terms and meanings.  But – if it succeeds – those students will gain exposure to a truly diverse view points about social good – including a solid grounding in the Catholic perspective.  It will be evident in the syllabus and – when I can get it revised – the course description.

The question lives on.  Faculty members are notorious for defending their academic freedom; Bishop Martino’s confrontational approach was just about doomed to produce the communication breakdown that occurred.  But I hope that Misericordia – and other Catholic colleges – will take up his question and pursue it on their own.

One of those common inspirational lines asks, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Bishop Martino, in essence, asked a Catholic university the same question.  Just as the first version wakes up individuals and prompts them to act out their faith more fully, Bishop Martino’s version can wake up colleges and universities, prompting them, too, to find ways to live out their faith identity more fully.

to convey how it teaches Catholic morality regarding sexuality and homosexuality, and to produce concrete evidence.
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