A Fearless Inner-City Ordinary

These days, it’s not easy being an Ordinary in America’s northeastern inner-city dioceses. These bishops have had to cope with rapidly changing demographics that have seriously impacted their ability to carry out the Church’s mission.

The Catholic men and women of the nation’s “greatest generation,” who were the mainstay of the Church in New York City, Boston, Hartford, Newark, and Philadelphia, have been aging, leaving the old neighborhoods for retirement settlements in the south or west. And they’ve been dying, too. In the last decade, members of the World War II generation have been passing away at the rate of one thousand a day.

As a result, inner-city Catholic populations have declined, as have collection basket revenues; hundreds of churches and parochial schools have had to be closed. The influx of new Catholic immigrants to run-down neighborhoods has posed additional challenges. Dioceses are struggling to provide essential spiritual services to these hardworking, struggling minorities.

Political clout has also declined. The days when an Ordinary could make a few discreet calls to deep six anti-Catholic policies are pretty much over.

In my hometown of New York, for instance, Catholics in recent years have been defeated on many fronts. Cafeteria Catholic governor, George Pataki (1995-2006) approved state gay-rights legislation and the repeal of the “conscience clause” on state abortion services, thus forcing Catholic medical institutions to violate their commitment to the sanctity of human life. Our current governor, David Paterson, a baptized Catholic, is pushing for passage of gay-marriage legislation.

Enter the Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, who became the seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn in August 2003. Known as the “Diocese of Immigrants,” it is completely urban and has about 1.8 million Catholics and 200 parishes.

The sixty-five-year-old DiMarzio has been an incredibly effective Catholic advocate. He has been adept in dealing with special interests and pols of all stripes in City Hall, Albany, and Washington.

DiMarzio made his debut on the national stage in 2004 when he criticized a New York Times op-ed piece by a Notre Dame dean, Mark Roche, titled “Voting Our Conscience Not Our Religion,” which concluded that Catholics in good conscience could vote for the pro-abortion John Kerry for president. Bishop DiMarzio blasted the author, complaining that this “Dean of a major Catholic University, confused the issue of conscience and, in fact, told people how to vote.” “This,” he continued, “is something that none of us particularly likes.”

DiMarzio reminded Catholics that conscience is “not some type of freewheeling optional determinate of our action” but instead must be informed. The bishop went on to demonstrate that there is “a hierarchy of values” regarding life and that one cannot put poverty issues on an equal plane with abortion or euthanasia.

In May of this year, he publicly criticized Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins saying he “made a serious error in inviting President Obama to be commencement speaker…” He endorsed former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon’s position that Notre Dame had a responsibility, “not to honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

The bishop has also been an effective coalition builder. Realizing that 40 percent of New York’s housing foreclosures are in his diocese, DiMarzio teamed up with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and local legislators to address the problem. Stating that “Housing is a basic human right, not a luxury,” he established Catholic Charity support programs to counsel and aid those in communities most affected.

Bishop DiMarzio has led the charge opposing state legislation that would amend the statute of limitations for abuse of minors to permit people who are alleging wrongdoing going back more than fifty years to initiate lawsuits against the Church that are impossible to defend. The bill, he argues, is not “aimed at individuals, but rather at the institution of the Church” and was “spurred by trial lawyers and some victims to punish the Church for its historical inadequacies.

In this battle, the bishop has been fearless. DiMarzio has publicly criticized the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, for singling out the Church. He warned legislators at a breakfast at his residence that if the legislation becomes law his diocese could go bankrupt, that he will be forced to close churches in their district and angry constituents will punish them at the polls. When accused by the press of blackmailing legislators, DiMarzio refused to back down saying, “This bill is going to bankrupt the Church. . . .We are going to close parishes in these districts if this bill goes through. I’m not going to deny that I said that.”

DiMarzio has also publicly praised Assemblyman Vito Lopez for sponsoring a competing bill that would not significantly alter the statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits. In recorded robocalls to Lopez constituents, the bishop expressed his gratitude for “his firm and courageous stance.”

DiMarzio dismissed the whines of the New York Times and other critics who claimed he stepped over the line and violated the Church’s tax-exempt status, saying he cannot be denied the right to thank those public officials who helped the Catholic community.

Bishop DiMarzio has been the most adroit Ordinary in the public square since Francis Cardinal Spellman resided in the “Power House” behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He should be the model in our time for priests elevated to the episcopate.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.