Bishop Matthew Clark leaving indelible mark on diocese
Delivered to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester in 1986, the Vatican’s letter said that Rev. Charles E. Curran’s beliefs on the subjects of masturbation, homosexuality and premarital sex would promote a questionable “pluralism in teaching moral doctrine,” and that Clark was not to defend the man’s opinions any more.
But Clark didn’t back down.
“Your Eminence, I fail to see how such a description does justice to what I wrote,” Clark responded in a return letter. “My intention was to portray moral theology as a living discipline, which ever faces new questions and which historically has developed a great deal.”
The exchange occurred only a quarter of the way through his tenure, but is a microcosm of Matthew Clark’s 33-year career as bishop of the Rochester diocese.
Sunday, Clark turns 75 years old, and is submitting his resignation to the Holy See, as is required of all bishops in the Catholic Church who reach that age.
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 Curran.
But his willingness to compromise on certain subjects has also distressed his critics, who say that Clark has skirted Vatican authority at every turn, weakened the Catholic school system, confused parishioners through lenience on social issues, and turned the Rochester diocese into the most liberal district in the country.
As Clark’s tenure nears its end, the memories of both his strongest supporters and his harshest critics are studded with the same touchstones.
James Likoudis remembers arriving at Bishop Clark’s office with a group of other parishioners in August 1979, just two months after Clark had been named bishop.
The group put forth a list of concerns, including a lack of orthodox teaching at the diocese’s seminary, sex education in Catholic schools that flew in the face of Catholic doctrine, and a seeming endorsement of the aforementioned Rev. Charles Curran’s beliefs.
But Clark treated the group dismissively, said Likoudis, 83, of Montour Falls, Schuyler
“He was obviously on another wavelength,” said Likoudis, who has authored several theological books, one of which bears Clark’s imprimatur, or official license. “He has his own theological agenda, and it’s hung very loosely to the dictates of the Vatican.”
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.
More recently, in the lead-up to the vote on same-sex marriage in New York, Clark was largely absent from the debate.
“He put out a few letters (last year), but it was the same letter they put out years before that just said ‘This is what the Catholic Church believes,’ ” said Ben Anderson, who contributes to the website Cleansing Fire, a blog critical of Bishop Clark. “That was it. There was no standing up. No going in front of the media and saying ‘You can’t propose this.’ Bishop Clark was just sort of mum on that legislation.”
Anderson called the Rochester diocese one of Catholicism’s “last progressive strongholds” in the United States.
“Things like human sexuality, these are things that the church has ruled infallible,” said Anderson. “These things never change. If your job is to defend Catholicism, and you’re doing something else, then you’re not being completely honest.”
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.
In the summer of 1998, Clark reassigned Rev. James Callan of Corpus Christi Church for three offenses, one of which was blessing gay weddings. Shortly after, he ordered diocesan priests to stop participating in a special weekly Mass for members of Dignity U.S.A.
But just one week after barring his own priests from the Dignity Masses, Clark turned around and hosted a national conference of Catholics that minister to homosexuals, and gave his second Mass for gays and lesbians, further confounding his critics.
“I have so much love for this man, because he doesn’t really care who he pisses off,” said Wahl. “He will go as far as he can while still staying within the letter of the law so he can continue to be a shepherd for the Rochester gay Catholic community.”
Corpus Christi Church eventually split from the Catholic Church in a schism that drew national attention.
But Callan — who was also cited for offering communion to non-Catholics and allowing women to concelebrate Mass — recently expressed admiration for Clark, calling him a “wonderful bishop.”
“He protected us from the Vatican for years and years with those three issues,” said Callan, a pastor at the renamed Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester. “We all believe that he feels the same way about all these issues that we did. I think the reason he let all those things go on at Corpus Christi is because he believed in them.”
Like Clark’s critics, Callan and Wahl are among those that think his actions speak louder than his lack of words.
“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.”
Women in the church
Charlotte Bruney remembers meeting Bishop Clark briefly when he spoke on the role of women in the Catholic Church at a 1993 conference in Hartford, Conn.
Five years later, as she was interviewing for a position in the Rochester diocese, she bumped into him in the hallway.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Bruney remembers Clark asking.
“I was just so touched by that,” said Bruney, a pastoral administrator at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Brockport who has served in the diocese since 1998.
Bruney was drawn to Rochester by a diocesan culture that she’d loved — and lost — in her previous post in Connecticut.
She’d been working as part of a collaborative team ministry in the Hartford diocese, but after the bishop’s sudden death, the Vatican appointed a successor who had little interest in allowing women to serve in leadership roles. Bruney and the other women were dismissed.
“I was really distraught,” said Bruney. “I had given up so much to work for the church and it felt like a big slap in the face to be dismissed without even a conversation. I wrestled with whether or not I’d stay in the Catholic Church.”
Then she remembered Clark’s speech years earlier and decided to apply for a pastoral administrator position in the Rochester diocese.
The title pastoral administrator suggests a behind-the-scenes position, and in many dioceses, that’s what they are. But in Rochester, the women who serve in these roles are visible, they are active, and they are leaders.
“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.”
But his support of the issue is commonly discussed as fact by both supporters and critics.
“He’s been very open to women’s participation in the church process, but there are certain parameters that he can’t get past,” said Mary Kate Driscoll of Rochester, a former member of the diocese’s Women’s Commission, an 18-member advisory council. “I think he’s done absolutely the best he can, given those parameters.”
Mary Aramini remembers the first time she saw Bishop Clark preside over a daily Mass, but only recalls the incident because for her, running across the bishop was extremely rare.
Aramini has come full circle with Catholicism, having left the church and adopted a pro-choice stance for about 10 years when she was younger.
Eventually, the Catholic Church drew her back. But the one she found in the Rochester diocese was not what she was looking for when she moved to the area in 1986.
She couldn’t find a novena to participate in, and most churches weren’t providing regular confession. Having returned to pro-life beliefs, she was disappointed that she never saw the bishop attending any pro-life rallies or praying outside any abortion clinics, as she’d seen bishops elsewhere do in the past.
Additionally, she felt that the church had always revered women, and didn’t think much of Clark’s progressive stances on various women’s issues.
“Everything doesn’t have to be identical to be equal in dignity,” said Aramini, a Rochester lawyer. “Women can have babies. Men cannot. You start with your basic anatomy, and you’re not the same.”
“So I don’t believe a woman has to be a priest,” she said. “I don’t believe a woman necessarily should be a priest. That doesn’t mean a woman can’t be just as active in the church, fulfilling whatever dreams they have in terms of promoting their faith.”
In recent years, Aramini has taken to attending church in Niagara County whenever possible, where she can sit through a “proper Mass” and relax, she said.
“They tolerate all diversity, except if you want to be traditional,” Aramini said.
Gretchen Garrity remembers meeting Bishop Clark at a Chrism Mass shortly after she converted to Catholicism in 2006.
“He’s a very kind and gentle man, and he knew our names and took the time to speak with us,” said Garrity, 52, of Corning, Steuben County. “It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
Garrity said that after the Mass, she proceeded to “enter vigorously into the life of the parish,” but quickly became dismayed at some of the diocesan closures that she started to see around her.
After two decades of decline, enrollment at Catholic schools nationally had slowly started to rebound in the 1990s, but in many regions, the sexual abuse scandal that would rock the church for years to come wiped out the gains.
The Rochester diocese was among those that were forced to consolidate churches and close schools in the years that followed.
Most recently, the Diocese closed 13 of its remaining 24 schools in 2008, and fewer than 4,000 students are now enrolled in schools in the diocese.
But Garrity called such closures shortsighted, saying they lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“They were operating like they were going to go out of business,” said Garrity, who said she considered the school system to be the foundation of the Catholic community. “And when you operate like you’re going to go out of business, you probably do.”
Bishop Clark remembers the school closings. And the schism with Corpus Christi, and the gay Masses, and the meetings with the women’s commission.
He remembers the time spent in his youth helping the priests in his local church, which eventually inspired him to join the priesthood.
He remembers the day in 1979 when he was appointed bishop of Rochester by Pope John Paul II, which at the time made him the second youngest bishop to ever be appointed in the U.S.
He remembers the diocesan-wide Synod in 1993, which brought together ideas and concerns from throughout the entire region and steered the diocese’s future.
But he also recalls the more painful decisions he’s had to make, and the closing of schools is among them.
So does the nationwide abuse scandal that led to the diocese’s removal of 23 priests over the last 10 years due to sexual abuse complaints.
“It is still a very dark time, but I think there are some rays of light emerging, thanks be to God, in the work that’s been done since then to train people, to educate people, to take measures of security and do what we can to make sure that will never happen again,” said Clark.
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.