An American bishop with a penchant for plain speech explains how—and why—he has become involved in public controversies.
Interview by Jim Graves
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, was born and reared in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the youngest of four children from an observant Catholic home, and his father was a manager at Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Tobin was attracted to the priesthood from a young age, and remembers pretending to celebrate Mass at home as a small child. “God was interested in having me be a priest,” he recalled. “And it was nourished by the Catholic faith in our household.”
Tobin has fond memories of the priests and Benedictine nuns who were his teachers at the Catholic schools in which he was enrolled as a child. He attended seminaries both in Pennsylvania and Rome, and was ordained a priest in 1973. In 1992 he was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and went on to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio from 1996 to 2005, when he became the eighth bishop of Providence.
Bishop Tobin has been an outspoken defender of Catholic teaching, and has tangled with prominent political figures over such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. He regularly pens a column, “Without a Doubt,” for his diocesan newspaper, and has written two books on faith, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life and Effective Faith: Faith that Makes a Difference. He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: You have been a leader against the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in your state of Rhode Island. Who is behind this effort, and what arguments do you make in opposition to them?
Bishop Thomas Tobin: Rhode Island is a very liberal state politically. The vast majority of our General Assembly in both houses are Democrats. The question of gay marriage has been on the horizon for many years. Fortunately, in recent years, we had a governor, Governor Donald Carcieri, who promised to veto it. Governor Carcieri is a practicing Catholic. Also, both our previous Speaker of the House and the president of the Senate kept the lid on same-sex marriage in the General Assembly.
That scenario has changed.
Our newly elected governor, Lincoln Chafee, is an Independent. He made promotion of same-sex marriage one of his priorities, even mentioning it in his inaugural address. And the new Speaker of the House, Gordon Fox, is an openly gay man who has also made it one of his priorities.
The arguments we’ve been making against same-sex marriage are well known. While the Catholic Church has respect, love, pastoral care, and compassion for people with homosexual orientation, we believe that homosexual marriage is wrong because it gives state approval of an immoral lifestyle involving immoral sexual activity.
Also, it is an attempt to redefine the institution of marriage as it has been understood since the beginning of time. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman and is meant to foster life and love. Homosexual marriage can never do that. It is an ill-advised attempt to redefine something God has given us and what is one of the building blocks of human society.
Additionally, the passage of homosexual marriage presents a challenge to religious freedom and conscience protection, as has been the case in other places in the country. Our neighbors in the Archdiocese of Boston in Massachusetts, for example, had to get out of the adoption business because they were being forced to place children in situations where there were two gay people living in a home in an alleged marriage. The Archdiocese of Washington had to stop giving family medical benefits because they were being forced to provide them to gay couples who tried to get married in civil marriages.
And there are situations where ancillary Catholic facilities such as reception halls must be made available to gay couples as they attempt to marry. All these things are on the radar screen if you go down this road of approving homosexual marriage.
CWR: How has the Catholic community in Rhode Island responded to efforts to legalize same-sex marriage?
Bishop Tobin: Historically there has been some apathy about it among the citizenry of Rhode Island, including among the Catholic population. But recently, because our political landscape has changed, we’ve done a better job in getting our pastors involved, rallying the Catholic faithful against it. I’m proud of what our pastors and people have done, both in reaching out to our legislators and making their voices heard in the media, saying this is not something that is acceptable to us.
We need our people to understand that this is a serious issue. Our greatest danger as a Catholic community is apathy. If we’re not aware of the situation, don’t care about it or make it a priority, gay marriage will pass in Rhode Island. But if we’re galvanized and make our voices heard, we’ll keep it out of our state.
It is important to emphasize that this is not just an exercise in partisan politics. This is an expression of our faith. We have to be involved in this issue as disciples of Christ and members of his Church.
Recently, the Providence Phoenix, a liberal-leaning, gay-friendly newspaper here in Providence, ran a lead story by David Scharfenberg, “Will the Catholic Church kill gay marriage?” They gave us a left-handed compliment by saying that we’ve been rather effective in our opposition. We have a long road ahead of us, and a tough fight. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But we’re doing our best.
CWR: What have people said to you about your leadership on this issue?
Bishop Tobin: I get both support and criticism. From practicing Catholics, as well as members of other religious communities, I’ve been getting a lot of support. They say, “Thank you for leading the charge,” “Thank you for speaking out,” or “This is what we expect the bishops to do.”
There are also those on the other side of the issue who are upset and angry that the Church is so visible and vocal about this issue. They talk about separation of church and state and say we shouldn’t be involved in it, or that we’re “homophobic,” bigoted, and interfering in other people’s lives. These are all the predictable reactions that you hear surrounding this issue, and they’re leveled time and again against me and the Church. I’m sure such complaints will continue.
CWR: You also spoke out against the Obama administration’s decision in February not to defend traditional marriage.
Bishop Tobin: The Obama administration directed the Justice Department to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, and I did as well in response to a media inquiry, saying that the president overstepped his authority and abdicated his role and sworn duty to uphold the laws of our nation. It was just another attempt to impose a liberal, politically-correct agenda on our nation. It was disappointing.
CWR: In 2009, you had a dispute with Democratic former Congressman Patrick Kennedy over abortion. Can you tell me your side of the story?
Bishop Tobin: It began when Congressman Kennedy publicly criticized the American bishops about our opposition to Obama’s health care plan. We said we would not support anything that funds abortion or does not offer conscience and religious freedom protections. Congressman Kennedy strongly criticized us, and questioned our commitment to human life and social justice. That prompted my response to him.
What followed was a series of statements from him, and letters from me, that went back and forth. Finally, he revealed the fact that three years before I had written to him privately and confidentially asking him not to present himself for Holy Communion because of his position on abortion. It was meant to be a personal, pastoral approach. But in his flurry of public comments, he revealed the letter. It was disappointing, but it gave me the opportunity to reiterate the Church’s teaching on abortion.
CWR: You’ve also challenged Republican politicians, including Rudy Giuliani, over the issue of abortion.
Bishop Tobin: I’ve sparred with Rudy Giuliani and a number of other politicians, and it’s been thoroughly non-partisan. I challenged Rhode Island’s previous Republican governor, Governor Carcieri, on the immigration issue. I challenged Congressman Kennedy, a Democrat, and Governor Chafee, an Independent. Their political party meansnothing to me.
I’m trying to take the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church and apply them in the public arena. I think it’s the role of the Church and the bishop to express a prophetic voice. It is an important part of our tradition.
CWR: How should a bishop best approach a Catholic politician who publicly opposes Church teaching?
Bishop Tobin: The teaching of the Church should be public and the issues should be discussed publicly. But in regard to someone’s personal sacramental practice, I think a personal, confidential approach is the best way to begin.
CWR: You’ve written two books on faith. Borrowing from the title of one of your books, how does a Catholic have an “effective faith”?
Bishop Tobin: Effective faith is a theme that has emerged from my own teaching, preaching, and writing. If our faith is authentic, it is effective and makes a difference in our daily lives. We can’t compartmentalize our lives, going to church for an hour on Sunday and then acting like pagans for the rest of the week. If our faith is authentic, then it touches every part of our lives: our work, our family lives, our community involvement, and the activities with which we entertain ourselves.
That has been one of the great failures of many of us in the Church—we do not incorporate our faith into our daily lives. Jesus said Christians are the salt of the earth and light of the world [Mt 5:13, 14]. As the Second Vatican Council taught, our faith is supposed to transform us, and then we move out into the secular world and transform it into the Kingdom of God.
It begins when we are transformed ourselves, especially through the power of the Eucharist, into the image and likeness of Christ.
CWR: You’ve made a point of reaching out to inactive Catholics in your diocese and inviting them back to church.
Bishop Tobin: Just before Christmas, I wrote an open letter to inactive Catholics as part of our diocesan-wide Year of Evangelization. The program was an effort to make the Church more present, active, and visible in our world, as well as to encourage inactive Catholics to come back to the Church and sacraments. We also invited those who had no religion to come learn what our faith is about.
CWR: Many people admire you for the leadership you’ve provided to the Church. Who do you admire and who has been an influence in your ministry?
Bishop Tobin: My strongest influence has been our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. For a good part of my priesthood and my life as a bishop, he was our pope, the Vicar of Christ. He is also the one who chose me to be a bishop; I have a photograph of him presenting me with my pectoral cross when I was first appointed.
Not only am I impressed by his life and ministry, but I’ve been greatly influenced by all that he has written. He gave us a blueprint for approaching the world from a perspective of faith. I often, for example, refer to Pope John Paul’sEvangelium Vitae [a 1995 encyclical concerning the value and inviolability of human life] and Pastores Dabo Vobis [a 1992 apostolic exhortation concerning the formation of priests]. And Pope John Paul’s writings have been beautifully complemented by Pope Benedict, who has given us some wonderful reflections about many things, including charity and hope.
As far as saints, the one I refer to often is St. Thomas the Apostle. The title of my column and first book, Without a Doubt, is derived from the fact that we call St. Thomas “doubting Thomas.” I often think about how he worked through his doubts to become a faithful and effective witness of Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. I also like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who gave us many wonderful writings and modeled a holy Catholic life.
When people ask me why I’m getting involved in public debates with politicians, I think about St. Thomas More, how he professed his faith and challenged the government of King Henry VIII, which had become immoral. I also think of St. John the Baptist standing outside the palace of Herod, challenging Herod on his immoral lifestyle. Both ended up giving up their lives for their witness to the truth.
Saints who challenge an established political order in witness to the truth of the Gospel and a common, decent morality appeal a great deal to me. We need to rediscover this courage and conviction in our own time.
CWR: You criticized retired Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland when he released his autobiography A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church in 2009. What is the appropriate way for Catholics to criticize the leadership of their Church?
Bishop Tobin: That’s a sensitive issue. Catholics have a right to challenge their leadership, including their pastors and bishops, but it always has to be done with understanding. Sometimes when I’m criticized I find people don’t even have the right information. Also, critics need to be charitable. It is never productive to engage in personal judgment, condemnation, or name-calling.
And along with criticism, our pastors and bishops need to be encouraged. If people think we’re doing something right, there’s nothing wrong with sending a word of encouragement. Sometimes people only speak up when they have a problem or see a failure, and give no credit when things are going well. We need to use our gift of speech in an encouraging way to build up the Church, its leaders, and fellow members.
CWR: Shifting to the corporal works of mercy, winters in Providence are cold, and when you arrived you launched a successful program, Keep the Heat On, to provide the needy with heating assistance. How’s it going?
Bishop Tobin: In our first five years we raised more than $1 million and helped more than 3,500 households during some difficult winters. Our response this year has been strong as well, with individuals, parishes, non-Catholic churches, and corporations all chipping in to help us.
I like this program because it is tangible and an effective corporal work of mercy. We raise the money and it goes directly to individuals who are not eligible for other forms of assistance or who have exhausted those. It gives people who are truly needy and desperate a place to turn.
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer in Newport Beach, California.
How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?To evangelize means: to show this path—to teach the art of living.This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works.