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.