Media canonizes Roman Catholic Bishop of Rochester

A reader sent in this story from the (Rochester, New York) Democrat and Chronicle with the note, “Is it possible to be any less subtle in presenting one’s subject as a saint? Or, conversely, anyone who disagrees as possibly evil?”

I suppose I can imagine less subtlety. But this is definitely up there. Headlined “Bishop Matthew Clark leaving indelible mark on diocese,” it’s an article that tells us about the blissfully wonderful and compassionate and beautiful and fantastic era of Rochester Bishop Matthew H. Clark and the horribly mean and awful and “stern” and “foreboding” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. That backwards and possibly evil Ratzinger had the audacity to tell Clark to stop promoting teachings that contradict church doctrine:

With beliefs shaped by the historic Second Vatican Council, Clark’s willingness to explore evolving viewpoints on issues not supported by the Catholic Church have endeared him to his supporters, who call him caring, thoughtful, and compassionate in an era where some Catholics find themselves conflicted over church teachings.

He’s shown benevolence towards gay and lesbian Catholics, given leadership roles to women not seen in other dioceses, and has generally been accepting of progressive theologians, such as [the Rev. Charles E.] Curran.

So much purple prose. And so little substantiation. And so much editorializing. So which beliefs have been “shaped” by the Second Vatican Council? And what in the world does a “willingness to explore evolving viewpoints on issues not supported by the Catholic Church” mean? I get the message. We’ve figured out by now that so long as the church in question is traditional, flouting its teachings is awesome sauce. Far more skillful stylists than this guy clubbed that into us years ago. And I know that teaching what Jesus did about marriage or sexuality means you’re not benevolent toward people. Only by embracing, funding or otherwise supporting sex outside marriage are you really benevolent and helping people. We all know that by now. But still.

We learn that Clark’s loving and beautiful “willingness to compromise” hasn’t made everyone happy and there’s some kind of reference to the school system being weakened, Vatican authority being skirted and parishioners being confused. But the reporter just moves right past that to explain away any drop in membership as a result of sexual abuse scandals.

Then we get many paragraphs about, as the paper subheds it, “LGBT issues.” We hear from some people who were less than pleased with Clark’s dismissal of their concerns about lack of orthodoxy or silence about issues on which Catholic teaching is clear:

Clark’s critics acknowledge that publicly, Clark has never explicitly said that he supports same-sex marriage.

But they feel his actions have shown his personal stance on the issue, citing events as far back as 1986, when Clark placed his imprimatur on Rev. Matthew Kawiak’s sexuality handbook, which discussed homosexuality, contraception and masturbation; Clark later removed the imprimatur on the orders of Cardinal Ratzinger.

Oh, did Kawiak’s book discuss these things? How informative! He discussed sex issues in a sex handbook! Thanks for that precise information that tells us everything we need to know! I mean, I’m sure you’re also surprised to learn that a sex book discussed sex things. And I am sure you don’t need to know anything about what, exactly was discussed.

But then we hear from fans of Clark and check out this story:

Thomas Wahl remembers Bishop Clark taking the pulpit in September 1998, before a Mass of gay and lesbian Catholics.

Wahl, the one-time head of the local chapter of Dignity U.S.A., a group of gay and lesbian Catholics seeking acceptance from the Catholic Church, was among the more than 600 who pushed passed the protesting crowds at the door and watched as Bishop Clark took the altar at St. Mary’s Church.

“He said ‘Good afternoon,’ and then he just stopped,” said Wahl. “And for 15 or 20 seconds, the tears rolled down his cheeks.”

It was only the second such Mass that Clark had attended, and it came in the midst of a two-year stretch that saw the Rochester diocese take center stage in a national debate on how the Catholic Church should treat its gay parishioners.

After the diocese’s first gay Mass, which Clark had convened in March 1997, protestors got the attention of the Vatican, who began keeping a close eye on the region as the diocese made some seemingly conflicting decisions regarding its gay outreach.

The reporter then expresses his own personal confusion as to how Clark could have reassigned someone for “blessing gay weddings” and told priests to stop participating with Dignity U.S.A. (And to think, the only thing that completely uncontroversial group sought was “acceptance.”) and yet said Masses for people attracted to people of the same sex.

We learn that the congregation that had the priest who blessed gay weddings split from the Roman Catholic Church and that the priest in question was also giving communion to non-Catholics and “allowing women to concelebrate Mass.” The Dignity U.S.A. guy is quoted saying he loves Clark “because he doesn’t really care who he pisses off” and the priest is quoted as saying “He protected us from the Vatican for years and years with those three issues.” The breakaway congregation seems to inspire really over-the-top media coverage. You may recall this piece from the recent past.

In general the story pits “ideologues” (those are the bad guys who align with the Vatican) against the “compassionate” (those are the good guys who support all the things the right people support). You’ll note that you only get described as an ideologue if you’re on one side of the issue. If you take an ideological position on the other side, well, then, you’re still just compassionate and loving and beautiful and kind and let’s shed tears of joy and what not. So:

“The church has some very high ideologues,” said Wahl. “But from a caring, compassionate point of view, you will not find anyone better than Bishop Clark.”

Then we hear from Charlotte Bruney, a woman who says she wasn’t retained by a new Connecticut bishop after her boss’ death. We’re told, though we have no way of knowing if this is true, that the new unnamed bishop “had little interest in allowing women to serve in leadership roles.” She thought about leaving the church but decided to apply for a position in Rochester. She’s quoted:

“He’s permitted women to preach pretty extensively in this diocese,” Bruney said. “He’s always been conscious of the voice of women, and he’s felt our pain when he’s had to restrict us.”

In addition to allowing a somewhat expansive role for pastoral administrators in the diocese, Clark has also made several statements in the past suggesting his support for one of the church’s most divisive issues: the ordination of female priests.

He’s often couched such statements, saying in 1991, for example, that “Were it possible, I would do it. It is not possible.”

To preach? Are we sure that’s what she said? And, if that’s what she said, is it true? It seems that extensive preaching by women would something that would be easy to substantiate.

There’s an interesting part of the article that reads almost like an editor said “Your article is so one-sided as to be embarrassing. Could you please try to balance it out.” We hear from Mary Aramini, a woman who left the church and adopted a pro-choice stance. Then she came back to the church and now finds the diocese tolerates “all diversity, except if you want to be traditional.”

And we get a brief mention of how the diocese has closed most of its schools, including 13 of its remaining 24 schools in 2008. Fewer than 4,000 students are enrolled in the diocese’s schools today. This is blamed on the sexual abuse scandal.

By the end, the piece drops even the pretense of being anything other than an opinion piece, with Bishop Clark the kind and compassionate and wonderful man simply remembering what he went through:

One day soon, he will have only memories.

But the diocese he led will have something more substantial: A church more accepting of the modern world’s complexities; one more open to expanded roles for women and laypeople.

And, for better or worse, those are things that will fade far less quickly.

If only we could find out what the reporter thinks about Clark and his positions. If only we could somehow discern that. I guess we’ll always have to wonder.

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  • Maureen

    Interesting points:

    1. Local Rochester media stonily ignored their former bishop, Fulton J. Sheen, becoming a venerable. Instead, they ran stories about Bishop Clark being about to retire in a month.

    2. Local Catholic bloggers, and bloggers with Rochester connections, have been counting down to Clark’s retirement for years. They are trying not to be unChristian about celebrating his going, but the man has overseen and fostered the crumbling of a once-amazing diocese, while breaking every canon law and rule of logic. Pretty much nobody gets ordained from Rochester, and the number of parishes has dropped precipitously. A good bishop could have helped Rochester a lot, but he hasn’t been that.

  • Ed Dougherty

    Bishop Clark seems to be a thoughtful, reasoned bishop according to the article. And those are the types that truly love the church by questioning it on teachings that may be incorrect. He also seems like he actually treats his laity as people with viewpoints and intelligence to be considered. That’s a refereshing change in the church.

  • Maureen

    3. I notice they really, really didn’t mention his flirtation with women’s ordination, the way he picked parish managers who also gave sermons instead of the priest assigned to the parish, and the way the priests assigned to parish managers were generally treated like sacrament vending machines.

    I’m not even from Rochester, nor have I paid that much attention to Clark. He forces himself upon the attention by doing so many dumerazel things.

  • M. Swaim

    Feel free to check out this video tribute to the numerous parishes that have closed on Bishop Clark’s watch:

    I wonder how many of these parishes had pastors involved in the abuse scandals…

  • Mollie

    Please remember to focus on media coverage.

  • Maureen

    For the interested, the Cleansing Fire blog by Rochester folks. They’ve got posts or links to an awful lot of what’s gone on, so it’s a good place for reporters to search through.

    They also report that the independent Catholic newspaper, The Wanderer, in recent weeks has has released a six-part series recapping Rochester’s troubles under Bishop Clark’s watch. Yep, not as outright evil as the infamous Bishop Weakland, but he sure has put in some effort to mess things up.

  • M. Swaim

    Among the kinda important questions not asked- is Rochester closing down so many parishes because they have a higher instance of sexual abuse than other dioceses? What has been the clusure rate of parishes and schools harder hit by the scandal? What dioceses are growing, and are they growing because they’re taking the same governance approaches that Bishop Clark has taken? Inquiring minds want to know…

  • AuthenticBioethics

    From this article, we get a very good portrait of what a media-approved “Good Catholic” is. Breakaway parishes that praise him, happy and grateful dissidents, a decimated educational system — these are the badges of a successful Catholic bishop?

  • Martha

    God bless the Internet, because it gives us some information about that “sexuality handbook” and why the mean, hardline, stern, foreboding Cardinal Ratzinger asked the bishop to remove his imprimatur.

    Criticism: I wish they had explained what an “imprimatur” is and what it does and does not mean. Praise: Well, at least they didn’t do the mandatory “Boss of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquistion” line about the then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

  • Martha

    Mollie, I don’t know if this is addressing the journalism or not, but I rather wish they had given an extract from this letter:

    “Bishop Matthew H. Clark remembers the letter: stern, foreboding, and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man whom the world knows today as Pope Benedict XVI.”

    Is this a paraphrase of what the bishop said – “It was a stern and foreboding letter” – or the reporter’s interpretation? And how exactly was it stern and foreboding – did it start off “Achtung! Zis is ze Chief Inquisitor speaking; you vill sit up straight and listen! Zis iz a stern und foreboding letter, so no messing about!”

  • Spencerian

    This article illustrates the central disconnect with American journalism and stories about Catholic Christianity: The Church is not a democracy (nor is it a dictatorship).

    The story itself acknowledges this from the quotes of many who are proud of the bishop shielding its pro-LBGT members from the Vatican. From what are these people being shielded?

    The article doesn’t come close from pondering the notion of “What if the bishop was wrong?” or “Isn’t the Vatican the final authority here?” and, obviously, how the Church truly treats its followers with same-sex attraction.

    One doesn’t shape a religion. It’s supposed to shape you, but that simple idea is lost in the article’s strong individualism.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Ah yes, Ed Dougherty. The “thoughtful, reasoned bishop,” like the ones “that truly love the church by questioning it on teachings that may be incorrect.” Any bishop who thinks teachings of the Church may be wrong is not worthy of the title or office of bishop. One does not become a successor of the Apostles simply to destroy the Apostles’ teaching.

    The fruit of such “questioning” is visible in the numbers, something the reporter never looked at: how many people are going to Confession or Mass, the number of marriages, the number of annulments, the number of ordinations, the number of Baptisms, the number of Confirmations, the number of First Communions, the number of parishes that have been closed or merged, the number of schools that have been closed or merged, the number of hospitals that have been closed or merged, the number of men and women in religious life, etc., etc.

    Look at places where the bishops aren’t questioning the Catholic faith and the sacramental numbers are starting to go up, especially in ordinations. Look at places like Rochester and Albany where the bishops have questioned the faith of which they were appointed to be guardians and the sacramental numbers are extremely depressed. I’d like to know how many priests both Clark and his sidekick in Albany, Howard Hubbard, have ordained in their way-too-long reigns. But don’t look for hard numbers like these from hagiographical news writers.

  • Bill Crawford

    Other denominations in Rochester, most prominently the Presbyterian Church USA, have been on the cutting-edge of gay issues in the church. I believe the PCUSA presbytery there ordained a lesbiann many years ago which caused a ruckus in the denomination and was overturned.

    All that to say, these other churches and the gay-rights movement in Rochester may color the way the reporter at the D-C would cover this. ALmost like it’s in the water there.

  • Thinkling

    A more recent piece of treacle from the same source

    Bishop Matthew Clark was an exmple [sic] in leadership

    If honest reporters wish to find out what people are complaining about in that diocese, the site in Maureen #7 comment is actually a good source for documentation of such issues. Some of the commenting is less than charitable (disclaimer: I sometimes comment there and am not always part of the solution), and some even less than informed, but the posts themselves are generally great. Videos of liturgical services, letter trails trying to get issues resolved, screenshots of bulletins with problematic material later denied, etc. There was a great well researched ~20 part series on some long term financial irregularities and the agendas under the surface that I think could be consolidated into a nice book. One does not have to agree with the premise of the site to see they have done a really good job in documenting content.

    One of the complaints often aired on the site is that the local GodBeat reporters seem to be “on the payroll of the diocese” (my paraphrase). After reading this one wonders why they think that. [sarcasm]

  • Mike

    Great post, Mollie! I’ve linked to it over at the Cleansing Fire site.

    - Mike

  • asshur

    Might be this info can be of interest (taken from Catholic Hierachy; in turn from data of the Annuario Pontificio

    Year Cathol. Percent Priests C/P/P Deacons Male R. Fem. R Parishes
    1970 450,000 37.3% 504 892 223 1,460 195
    1980 369,840 25.2% 502 736 153 1,045 161
    1990 392,748 27.6% 389 1,009 74 144 839 161
    2000 294,827 18.8% 315 935 105 102 687 180
    2010 354,000 22.7% 253 1,399 127 81 481 124

    FYI. Bp Fulton resigned in 1969 so the ’70 data are included for comparision only. Bp Clark was installed in 1979

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I wrote a comment earlier linking to the Catholic Hierarchy site, my point being that stats are readily accessible for any reporter intrepid enough to look it up. In this case, Dobin could have used the stats to make the point that membership didn’t collapse under Bp. Clark. However, the number that matters is average Sunday attendance, and I can’t find a detailed site with that information.

    It should be noted that the Episcopalians do a really good job with their stats. And come to think of it, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester is at the left end of the Episcopal Church, which rather supports the in-the-water thesis.

  • Mattk

    “With beliefs shaped by the historic Second Vatican Council”.

    Whenever I see something like this I always wonder if the reporter has read any of the documents promulgated by the Council.

  • Mark

    Mollie, being LCMS, the Roman Catholics are the other body that you can usually point to in regard to a male clergy. When I realized what was actually taking place in the Rochester Diocese, the real story is the authority, actions and place of the pastoral administrators. The article has it right – preaching is a good word. The more interesting story wanting to be written is the “expansive role”. The best word for the pastoral administrators is probably senior pastor from the modern protestant usage. If the article was really digging deep it would try to answer if this was an ideological move by the Bishop or if it was something stumbled into out of emergency.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I have to say that I am not in sympathy with Bp. Clark’s ideology and I’m sure the faithful Catholics in Rochester have many real grievances.


    My prior bishop was pretty much in the same camp as Bp. Clark, though more discreet. However, he was also a remarkably kind and good man, under whom our diocese doubled in size (Hispanic migration is a large part of that). He was very accommodating towards more traditional Catholics, making space for two Anglican Use congregations and our married priests. He took the attitude that “if it’s from God, it will flourish”, and hence allowed some shady things to happen in the diocese. But he also allowed much that was good.

    So what I’m saying is that while the article is unduly hagiographical, it’s also a story of a man on the edge of retirement who may (I don’t know him) be a truly kind and perhaps even holy man.

  • Mollie

    Passing By,

    I’ve lived in places with Lutheran overseers who could be described the same way. And I don’t think that there’s any need for outsiders to litigate whatever was going on there. I just think the journalism should be less hacky. If you can’t praise someone without making his opponents seem like the antichrist, you should figure out a better approach.

  • Mike

    asshur and Passing By,

    While the earlier Annuario Pontificio data listed on the Catholic Hierarchy site seems fine, I have noted some serious problems with the 2010 and 2011 data, at least as far as the Diocese of Rochester (DOR) is concerned.

    I just put up a post detailing my findings. See here, if interested.

    Also, for DOR Mass attendance data, see here.

    Finally, Passing By wrote, “He was very accommodating towards more traditional Catholics.” Here in DOR we are allowed one Latin Mass per week. It is scheduled at an inconvenient time for most people (1:30 pm on Sunday) and held in a the kind of neighborhood where security guards are required to both ensure that worshipers get in and out of church without problems and to patrol the parking lot while they are at Mass. But I guess you could still call that an accommodation.

  • Grey Bear

    This deviate should have been retired years ago along with his fellow heretic in Albany ! How many deviates did these two miscreants ordain ? Now he’ll spread his filth just like Weakland et al.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mollie – I don’t disagree. The critics are quoted in a flat, matter of fact manner, where the supporters are lionized. Of course, the Holy Father is the anti-christ, but heck, that’s just standard fare.

    Mike – interesting stats. Where did you get the average Sunday attendance? Mr. Google has not been friendly in that regard.

    Our diocese has had one Traditional Latin Mass at least since I moved back here in 1990. It’s held at my parish church in fact, which is in a bad neighborhood, but also centrally located and accessible from the freeways. Our new, more traditional bishop has been here since 2005 and it’s still the only TLM I know of, so I suspect it’s not widely sought here. The TLM Mass in Dallas has evolved to a fully functioning parish, and I do have one friend who drives over to that, but he was not active in the group here. So there you go. My positives on the late bishop were through the Anglican Use not a bunch of radical modernists, I assure you.

  • Mike

    Passing By,

    In the late 1990s DOR launched a program called Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium, which was (and continues to be) a way for groups geographically nearby parishes to plan together how to make the best use of our rapidly declining number of priests, among many other things. I was on one of those parish planning groups for 8 years and our average October Mass attendance numbers was part of the data package the diocese made available to us. After I left in 2008 I continued to get the data from my replacement.

    BTW, DOR doesn’t seem to consider this sensitive information: There have been at least 2 articles on our declining Mass attendance in our diocesan newspaper in the last 3 years, complete with many of the numbers you read in my post.