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RI’s Thomas Tobin: Is He America’s Conservative Bishop?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

 

He’s called out everyone from Patrick Kennedy to Nelson Mandela for their stances on abortion. In last year’s Providence mayoral race, he publicly wondered whether Jorge Elorza is an atheist. No one, it seems, is above criticism from Rhode Island Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin.

Not even the Pope.

Earlier this month, Tobin was one of a few prelates mentioned in a Washington Post article on conservative dissent against Pope Francis, in advance of his widely anticipated visit to the United States next week. “In trying to accommodate the needs of the age, as Pope Francis suggests, the Church risks the danger of losing its courageous, countercultural, prophetic voice, one that the world needs to hear,” Tobin was quoted as saying.

Tobin has been even blunter. In the same Facebook post from which the Post quoted, Tobin also offered the following observation after last fall’s tumultuous synod on the family: “Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.”

The year before, he had expressed disappointment that Francis had not said more about abortion.

Is Tobin emerging as a national voice for conservative Catholics?

Tobin conservatism maybe overstated

GoLocalProv put the question to Tobin in an interview earlier this week.

“Sometimes, I suppose when I’ve spoken out I’ve been seen as a conservative—when I speak out about abortion or same-sex marriage. Other times, perhaps, I’ve been seen as more liberal when we advocate for immigration reform, for example,” Tobin said.

Tobin says he draws inspiration from the Old Testament prophets—a contentious and often eccentric lot who not only spoke of future events but also applied God’s words to present circumstances, whether to call down judgment or to point the way to salvation.

“I think the Church has the role and the bishop has a role in particular of being a prophetic voice. And what does that mean to be prophetic? It means to bring the word of God to bear and the teachings of the Church to bear on current issues, whether it’s about abortion or same-sex marriage or immigration or homelessness whatever the theme might be. It’s the role of the Church to challenge—especially those in authority—to do the right thing,” Tobin said.

Tobin also points to figures like John the Baptist and St. Thomas More as prophetic figures who have inspired him. Both were imprisoned and eventually beheaded after condemning what they saw as the sinful marriages of their kings—Herod and Henry VIII, respectively.

But Tobin’s own patron saint has something of a different reputation: Thomas the Apostle, otherwise known as ‘Doubting’ Thomas. “I find St. Thomas very inspiring because for his one moment of disbelief he was called ‘Doubting Thomas.’ I always thought he should be called ‘Faithful Thomas’ because he spent the rest of his life living and even dying for the faith, living and dying for Christ.”

Tobin’s own column in the diocesan newspaper, the Rhode Island Catholic, is perhaps fittingly named “Without a Doubt.”

But theological certitude does not imply moral superiority, Tobin said, in words that reflect the self-deprecating humility which has endeared so many to Francis.

“You know, any anytime I speak out about any of these positions, these public issues, it’s certainly not from any sense of personal moral superiority. I have no pretense about my own sanctity or holiness. I speak out because I think we are commissioned to do that despite the fact that we are imperfect. I am imperfect. Despite the fact the Church is imperfect we have an obligation to speak anyhow. If we waited for perfect preachers all our pulpits would be empty,” Tobin said.

Tobin ‘soundbite friendly’

Has Tobin, like his patron saint, been misunderstood?

He won’t say he’s been unfairly characterized as a conservative. But his supporters will.

“The media almost has created a caricature of Bishop Tobin because if you read the media you get the impression that all Bishop Tobin cares about is abortion and gay marriage,” said Barth Bracy, the executive director of the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee and an ordained Catholic deacon. “I think the media has created a caricature that fits their narrative that’s totally unfair and unjust.”

Tobin’s supporters point to his work in establishing the Emmanuel House homeless shelter, and his promotion of the Keep the Heat Fund to provide low-income Rhode Islanders with heating assistance as examples of his commitment to the full breadth of Catholic social and moral teachings.

“He is a passionate champion for many things not always popular in our culture like protecting the innocent unborn, defending human dignity of migrants, and serving the poor and needy. It is this strong commitment to building up the culture of life and creating a civilization of love right here in little Rhode Island that makes him tick,” said Fr. Bernard Healey, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church in East Greenwich, who has represented the diocese at the Statehouse.

Beyond his steadfast social conservatism, it’s also his plainspoken candor that has caught attention, Bracy says: “He’s friendly with soundbites because he doesn’t go into the 500-word explanation. He says it simply and concisely.”

Seminary classmate: Tobin ‘plainspoken, unpretentious’

One fellow bishop who has known Tobin since their days as seminarians told GoLocalProv that the Pittsburgh native has always been direct in speaking his mind. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany first met Tobin while on a ship on the way to Naples in August 1969. Both were headed to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome as seminarians.

“Tom was the first of our class to become a bishop, auxiliary of Pittsburgh, and then Bishop of Youngstown before moving on to Providence,” Scharfenberger said.

“Over the years Tom has retained most of the traits by which I always knew him. He has always been affable, a straight shooter, plainspoken, unpretentious. Definitely not an ‘airport bishop’ as Pope Francis has been known to caution some travel-oriented clergy, Bishop Tom is likely to found where you would expect a good bishop to be: at home with his flock,” Scharfenberger added.

Dan Harrop, a local psychiatrist who has worked with Tobin on a number of local Catholic initiatives, said Francis and Tobin are both misunderstood. Some people are under the impression that Francis cares about people not doctrine. “Unfortunately I think Bishop Tobin comes across as putting doctrine before people. I don’t think that’s true either,” Harrop said.

“He really is a very nice person,” Harrop said. “When he’s in a crowd or a group I would almost use the word ‘fun.’”

“As a result of his consistent promotion of Church teachings in the public arena, many people have not always been provided an opportunity to come to know the bishop as a person. He is easy to work with and is he always supportive of my work at the Catholic Conference,” Healey added.  

“I’ve witnessed firsthand his personal interaction with many people from high ranking public officials to the skateboarders in Cathedral Square. He demonstrates his priestly character by listening and readily offers kind and wise counsel,” Healey said.

A top diocesan official offered a similar assessment when asked for comment: “Working for Bishop Tobin is really a pleasure. He is very clear in his expectations. He listens well and knows when to ask the counsel of others. That’s always the mark of a true leader,” said Msgr. Albert Kenney, whose official title is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, a position somewhat akin to chief of staff for an elected government official.

Tobin open to solutions on divorced Catholics

In terms of style, Tobin may seem different indeed than Francis. But, on substance, the two are far closer than many may realize.

For the record, on abortion and gay marriage, despite his initial misgivings, Tobin said that Francis has since been clear in speaking out against both. “He certainly has been very clear about the evil of abortion. His criticism of abortion has been very clear and very strong. And also he’s been very clear both as archbishop in Argentina and now as pope about the nature of marriage being instituted by God as a union of one man and one woman,” Tobin said.

And on other issues, Tobin has embraced the Pope’s message.

“Our Holy Father’s encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si,” is an amazing document, a comprehensive challenge to the Church and the world replete with insightful observations and compelling exhortations,” Tobin write in his column earlier this summer.

“‘Laudato Si” has been enthusiastically embraced by the American Bishops and we’ve urged our fellow Catholics to take action to protect the environment. But shouldn’t we bishops be giving a good example too? For the sake of reducing carbon emissions, might we consider reducing our national and international travel—especially the number of meetings and programs we schedule and attend?” Tobin added.

This month, Pope Francis announced changes intended to simplify and streamline the process of getting an annulment. The move was panned by some conservative commentators.

But not by Tobin, who instead embraced it, issuing a statement saying he was “extremely pleased” with the reforms and promising to “implement them as soon as possible.”

Tobin also remains surprisingly open to whatever might be the outcome of next month’s synod on the family—which has some conservatives on edge over fears that the Church might loosen its discipline to the point of undermining its doctrine by allowing divorced and re-married Catholics to receive Communion.

Tobin, on the other hand, seems open to the possibility.

So he suggested in a column last year, in characteristic Tobin fashion:

“I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have ‘dropped-out’ of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion,” Tobin wrote.

In his interview with GoLocalProv, Tobin said his position had not changed. And, when pressed, he did not rule out the possibility of Communion for divorced and re-married Catholics, something that another so-called conservative critic of Francis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, has done. (Tobin was also quick to note there are other ways of ministering to and welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics.)

“I don’t know what the outcome would be. Again, I think we have to be open to wherever the Spirit flows. And I don’t know if that will be to make a change in Catholic discipline and practice or to maintain the current discipline and practice while also finding ways to minister to families who are struggling in any way,” Tobin said.  

 

Related Slideshow: Bishop Tobin on Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Pope Francis

Below are some of the more controversial or noteworthy statements of Rhode Island Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin covering a range of issues, from abortion to atheism, from Catholic politicians to the new pope.

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Carbon Sins

“‘Laudato Si’ has been enthusiastically embraced by the American Bishops and we’ve urged our fellow Catholics to take action to protect the environment. But shouldn’t we bishops be giving a good example too? For the sake of reducing carbon emissions, might we consider reducing our national and international travel—especially the number of meetings and programs we schedule and attend? After all, as a story in the New York Times awhile back pointed-out, ‘Your biggest carbon sin might be air travel.’ I offer this as a serious consideration, not to be snarky. After all, Pope Francis has encouraged us not to be ‘airport bishops,’ hasn’t he?”

- Bishop Tobin column “Without a Doubt” in The Rhode Island Catholic, June 25, 2015

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Modern Technology

“When it comes to machines and communication, and lots of other things I guess, I prefer the 20th century (mid-20th century actually) to the 21st century.

Here’s my confession: My computer skills are very basic; I don’t know a DVR from a VCR; I’ve heard about Netflix and Blu-Ray but don’t really know what they are; I prefer CDs to iTunes, real books to iBooks, and actual photos to Instagrams; I don’t own an iPod, an iPad or a laptop; I don’t use online banking and insist on having a real paycheck in hand rather than a direct deposit; and I really dislike having to refill my growing list of prescriptions online.”

- Bishop Tobin column “Without a Doubt” in the Rhode Island Catholic, April 16, 2015

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Elorza’s Atheism

“I should emphasize that being an atheist would neither recommend nor disqualify him from being Mayor of Providence. But I wonder if an atheist mayor would be in a position to respect the sincere convictions of believers (of all faiths) and to encourage and support the many contributions the faith community makes in our city and state. 

So, can anyone help determine: Is Jorge Elorza an atheist or not? It would be good to know before Election Day.”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post, October 21, 2014

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Pope Francis’ ‘Mess’

“Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post on the Synod on the Family, October 21, 2014

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Counter-Cultural Church

“In trying to accommodate the needs of the age, as Pope Francis suggests, the Church risks the danger of losing its courageous, counter-cultural, prophetic voice, a voice that the world needs to hear.”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post on the Synod on the Family, October 21, 2014

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Acting Like Protestants

“The concept of having a representative body of the Church voting on doctrinal applications and pastoral solutions strikes me as being rather Protestant.”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post on the Synod on the Family, October 21, 2014 

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'Half-Baked' Documents

“Have we learned that it’s probably not a good idea to publish half-baked minutes of candid discussions about sensitive topics, especially when we know that the secular media will hijack the preliminary discussions for their own agendas?”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post on the Synod on the Family, October 21, 2014 

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Divine Providence

“Relax. God’s still in charge.”

- Bishop Tobin Facebook post on the Synod on the Family, October 21, 2014 

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Divorced Catholics

“I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have ‘dropped-out’ of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.”

- Bishop Tobin column “Without a Doubt” in the Rhode Island Catholic, September 18, 2014

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Abortion Obsession

“Our commitment to human life is important. Some have said that this commitment can be an obsession. If it’s an obsession to protect unborn life, then it’s a very important obsession.”

- Bishop Tobin at a rally outside Planned Parenthood, as cited in the Boston Globe on December 10, 2013

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Nelson Mandela

 “There is part of President Mandela’s legacy, however, that is not at all praiseworthy, namely his shameful promotion of abortion in South Africa. In 1996 Mandela promoted and signed into law the ‘Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Bill’ that, according to the New York Times, ‘replaced one of the world’s toughest abortion laws with one of the most liberal.’

While we pray for the peaceful repose of President Mandela’s immortal soul and the forgiveness of his sins, we can only regret that his noble defense of human dignity did not include the youngest members of our human family, unborn children.”

- Bishop Tobin statement on the passing of Nelson Mandela, December 8, 2013

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Being Catholic

“Being a Catholic does not mean having to choose between doctrine and charity, between truth and love. It includes both. We are grateful to Pope Francis for reminding us of that vision.”

- Bishop Tobin statement in response to Pope Francis interview with the Italian newspaper, La Civiltà Cattolica, September 20, 2013

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Pope Francis on Abortion

“I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that. I think it would be very helpful if Pope Francis would address more directly the evil of abortion and to encourage those who are involved in the pro-life movement. It’s one thing for him to reach out and embrace and kiss little children and infants as he has on many occasions. It strikes me that it would also be wonderful if in a spiritual way he would reach out and embrace and kiss unborn children.”

- Bishop Tobin as cited in the Rhode Island Catholic, September 12, 2013

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Pope Francis Surprises

“Although Pope Francis presents a very simple, humble, gentle persona, it would be a huge mistake to underestimate him. In times past he has acted and spoken very forcefully on important issues. In Argentina he challenged his own priests to leave the safety of their churches and go out to evangelize and take care of the poor. And he was fearless in challenging the civil government on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. I suspect we’ll see some very dramatic words and gestures from this pope.”

- Bishop Tobin on the election of Pope Francis in his column “Without a Doubt” in The Rhode Island Catholic, March 21, 2013

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Gay Marriage

“[H]omosexual marriage enshrines into civil law immoral activity. The natural law, the Holy Scriptures, and long-standing religious tradition are very consistent in affirming that homosexual activity is sinful, contrary to God’s plan. It should never be encouraged, ratified or ‘blessed’ by the state. It’s important to emphasize once again, however, that while rejecting homosexual activity, the Catholic Church has consistently promoted respect and pastoral care for individuals with same-sex attraction. They are children of God and our brothers and sisters. They are invited to be members of our churches. It is our very concern for their spiritual welfare, however, that motivates our rejection of the homosexual lifestyle and same-sex marriage.”

- Bishop Tobin column “Without a Doubt” in the Rhode Island Catholic, January 7, 2013

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Woonsocket Cross

“These public battles involve the attempt to remove God from the public square and to render our society sterile and bereft of moral values. It’s an attempt to create a nation without a spiritual vision, without a soul. 

- Bishop Tobin at rally in support of Woonsocket Memorial Cross, May 2, 2012

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Death of God

“Without a doubt there will be other attacks on religious freedom. And if you and I don’t stand up to oppose these initiatives then we are complicit in the death of God in our culture. I don’t know if, in the end, we will fail or succeed, but I promise you this: I will be faithful and I will stand with you.”

- Bishop Tobin at rally in support of Woonsocket Memorial Cross, May 2, 2012

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Moral Anarchy

“The question whether or not some people are made that way—I think that’s still an open question. I’m not quite ready to cede that. But even if that is the case, that someone has that disposition, they still have the ability as human beings to control their behavior—otherwise there’s anarchy and chaos.”

- Bishop Tobin, responding to a question about whether sexual orientation is innate or acquired, interview with GoLocalProv, April 12, 2011

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President Obama

 “Is there any longer any doubt that Barack Obama is the most pro-abortion president we’ve ever had?”

- Bishop Tobin column “Without a Doubt” in the Rhode Island Catholic, January 29, 2011

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Crossing a Kennedy

“Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category—it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an ‘imperfect humanity.’ Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.”

- Bishop Tobin open letter to Congressman Patrick Kennedy, November 12, 2009

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