Bishop Matthew H. Clark was effectively my boss when I worked at the Catholic Courier from 1988 to 2006, and I had numerous pleasant—as well as some difficult—discussions with him. He was both reserved and outgoing, friendly as well as astute, and always carried himself with a certain kind dignity.
He was probably the most controversial bishop the Diocese of Rochester ever had, so when people have asked me if I knew he had passed away, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t know how to sum up my experience of him, since I had met him in 1982 when I was a freshman at St. John Fisher, and wound up working for him much of my adult life.
First off, on a personal note, he was unfailingly ethical and polite in all my dealings with him and also was a great travel companion—and, to his credit, a fellow Pinstripes fan. We talked formally in his office and oftentimes informally when he would pass me in the diocesan headquarters parking lot, gently chiding me for smoking. One thing I always noticed about him was the fact he would pay attention to me or anyone else in his company with a cordiality that many in our gruff, abrasive society simply lack.
I particularly remember going to Rome in 2005 with him as part of a Catholic-Jewish delegation marking the anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a Vatican II document that repudiated the church’s historic antisemitism and called for the institutional church to foster reconciliation with Jewish people. The delegation also was marking the upcoming 10th anniversary of the diocese’s signature of “The Rochester Agreement” with leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester and the Rochester Board of Rabbis.
It was among the most intellectually, spiritually and emotionally stimulating experiences I’ve ever had. I had a number of meals with Bishop Clark and Mike Crupi, our photographer, who joked that he thought the bishop liked to eat with us because we were the only table where he could just relax and have fun and not address heady issues. I don’t know if that was totally true, given I was known for occasionally badgering him on various issues, but I think Mike and I got to see a less formal side of him over the course of our journey and I realized Matthew Clark liked to laugh, enjoyed a good story and was always interested in whomever was speaking to him.
I also spent years covering his role as an institutional leader. What I saw over the course of almost two decades working for his paper was a man on fire to reform the institutional church in the 1980s repeatedly get battered by critics on the Right and the Left and become more and more pastoral and reflective as he aged. He was decidedly in favor of a unified church his whole career, but he was born in a time when that unity was severely tested, indeed, often broken, by both internal and external forces, from the demands of feminism and political activists to the sex abuse crisis and theological dissension.
When he was a young bishop, he made a name for himself calling for a greater role for women in the church and was considered a “liberal” by friends and foes alike. He made waves throughout the international church when he issued the 1982 pastoral letter “Fire in the Thornbush” on women in the church. By the time his term of service to the diocese ended, he had led it through massive school and church closings; tried and failed to keep a large part of the membership of Corpus Christi Parish from leaving the church over such issues as intercommunion and the blessing of gay unions; and had testified in the diocese’s bankruptcy hearings over its handling of clerical sexual abuse allegations.
Given that final note has become THE public image of Catholicism among many, my honest take was he did better than many bishops when it came to cracking down on clerical sex abuse, but in retrospect I think he’d agree with me he could have done more and done better.
I’m quite sure there are people who hate how he handled these cases—indeed, I can’t think of a scandal that has done more to sully the image of the church in recent decades nor so permanently alienated many from it. But I must stress he did take abuse seriously, and on more than one occasion, I had to write about priests whose careers he effectively ended over abuse. In fact, the only time I saw him get angry—not at me—but sort of with the world, was when I interviewed him about a priest who’d been caught having an affair with a married woman. I asked him a question that annoyed him, can’t remember exactly what I said, and he just raised his voice and said, “Look, Rob, he broke his vow!” I don’t want to overdramatize the moment, but it was briefly tense, and then he calmed down. We kind of shot each other a look, sort of like, “This is awful, let’s just wrap up this interview!” I remember leaving his office thinking how little I envied someone who had to deal with such crises.
It would honestly take me book to write about each and every issue I saw him face—at times I agreed with his critics, and at other times, I thought they were shoddy and unfair. One thing I did notice—he never personally disparaged anyone who criticized him. He was, in my observations, a class act, an old-school gentleman in many ways, who understood leaders don’t get to take things personally.
So, were his critics correct? It’s a rather challenging question, given how to respond to difficult crises is always an issue any public leader must face. In short, I generally found his critics on the Right hated him for the sin of recognizing reality. For those who complained he was closing schools, I think they failed to realize that the nuns who had staffed Catholic schools for decades were gone and that many of the schools were no longer financially stable. For those who claimed he was too much of a feminist, I think he simply believed that the idea women should be confined to their traditional roles in the church seemed silly in a world of female prime ministers, CEOs and presidents. For those who criticized his outreach to the LGBTQ community, I think he felt that the church could not ignore its members whose sexual orientations or expressions had been marginalized and still call itself a pastoral church. On that note, I believe he felt that lay people, in general, needed to have more roles in the sacramental life of the church for it to survive.
On the Left, I found his critics were often upset with him for not more rapidly changing reality. This is understandable—I have concluded much of the past 150 years or so of social struggle comes down to each generation increasingly becoming less patient with the mistakes made by the generation preceding it—and Matthew Clark became bishop in an era where people had lost all patience with institutions that don’t respect them or empower them. But sometimes I felt like many of his liberal critics didn’t understand the bishop did not have as much power as they thought and that he did have to move along with a worldwide church of 1 billion people—including millions who would consider themselves more conservative than he—and in concert with the Vatican. To put it baldly, it’s one thing to hope women get ordained to the priesthood, it’s quite another thing to convince the College of Cardinals.
The church itself has never quite worked out these issues of who’s in charge of what to everyone’s satisfaction, and I doubt it will simply because, to quote James Joyce, Catholicism means Here Comes Everybody. This is a tension quite familiar to many who have worked for the church, but it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t because it almost has to be lived—and I’m sure more radical people would say it’s a struggle not worth it, that only total commitment to The Cause, whatever it is, constitutes human integrity. I get that, but I have very liberal and very conservative acquaintances who have worked for the church, and my take is I have no idea why God wants them both there nor what conversations they are having that might lead to a better place for all involved.
Which leads me to what I found to be Matthew Clark’s best personal characteristic—the bishop’s ability to allow others to talk. People who only know me from my secular jobs as a newspaper reporter are always surprised to find out I worked for a Catholic paper—it’s sort of like telling some people, particularly those skeptical of or hostile to Catholicism, that I was a part of a cult or I used to do hits for the Mob, given the looks I’ve gotten.
“Did they censor you? Did they tell you what to write?”
I’ve heard these questions ad nauseum, and I remember saying to someone once, “I experienced more freedom to say what was truly on my mind working for a Catholic paper than I ever did working in a commercial radio station, or a social services agency or even a diner.” I well remember numerous free-flowing debates, arguments and conversations in the office over virtually every issue of our time—and they were often prompted by the fact the church had a position on them, whether it was the rights of organized labor or the right to health care.
Were there times the higher ups told me not to publish something? Yes, but no more than I ever experienced at a secular news outlet, and I have extensive experience working for both secular and religious publications.
To make it easy to understand, on the same day once, I got a call from a Planned Parenthood advocate and a prolife activist literally yelling at me that I had favored the other side in a story on abortion. My boss told me, “This means you’re actually doing your job.”
I wrote about gay rights, war, health care, human trafficking, immigration issues, poverty, predatory capitalism and totalitarian communism, on and on. I’ve known religious journalists who would kill to have had the freedom I had to write on pretty much any issue I and the staff thought was relevant. I have heard utter horror stories of censorship by other diocesan papers (not to mention secular news outlets), so I appreciate the fact I got to write for what was probably the best Catholic diocesan paper in the world in many ways—we won many awards from the New York Press Association, a sign our secular cohorts recognized good writing, photography and layout works no matter if you’ve covering the pope or Marilyn Manson.
That was only possible because Matthew Clark trusted me and my colleagues enough to write fairly and honestly—my mantra as a religious journalist was a universal church deserves universal scrutiny, and I think, in the end, the bishop agreed.
It got to be almost a joke between us, the fact we would inevitably play devil’s advocate to the church’s positions—at one of my last press conferences with him, I asked Bishop Clark some hardball question about whether he’d formally defy the feds to protest U.S. immigration policy, as some other bishop had planned to do.
He started laughing, and said, “I knew if anyone would ask that question, it would be you, Rob.”
Et lux perpetua luceat ei—And may perpetual light shine upon him.
Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer who has written for secular and religious publications.