PROVIDENCE — A gusty, wet autumn afternoon found Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Rhode Island joining a prayer vigil outside a Planned Parenthood clinic. Two dozen abortion protesters, some holding “Respect Life” umbrellas, huddled in a semicircle around the bishop as he fingered his rosary beads and led them in prayer.
“Our commitment to human life is important,” he told them, as gas trucks rumbled by on Point Street. “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.”
With his choice of words, Tobin seemed to be taking a direct swipe at Pope Francis, who sent tremors through the Roman Catholic Church in September when he said church leaders are too “obsessed” with abortion and other divisive social issues such as gay marriage.
On Sunday, Tobin publicly disagreed with Francis again. While the pope said that former president Nelson Mandela of South Africa, who died last week, will “inspire generations,” Tobin issued a statement declaring that appreciation of Mandela’s admirable qualities should be tempered by his “shameful” promotion of abortion in his country.
The Rhode Island bishop has emerged as a visible and vocal contrast to the new pontiff’s more inclusive tone, even as he praises the enthusiasm and spirit that Francis has brought to the church. To those who know Tobin, that role is not a surprise.
From his pulpit in the country’s smallest state, Tobin has gained national attention for straddling the blurry line between church and state. In 2009, he famously told then-Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, whose uncle was the nation’s first Catholic president, that he should not receive communion because he supported government funding for abortion.
The week before the popular new pontiff’s comments on abortion, Tobin told his diocesan newspaper that he was “a little disappointed in Pope Francis” for not having said much about abortion, and that “many people have noticed.” Francis’s decision to deemphasize divisive social issues, despite recriminations from critics, was seen as a slap at conservative US bishops like Tobin.
“It’s one thing for him to reach out and embrace and kiss little children,” Tobin told the newspaper. “It would also be wonderful if in a spiritual way he would reach out and embrace and kiss unborn children.”
Tobin, coming off a bruising political fight against passage of a same-sex marriage law in Rhode Island this year, also found himself trying to explain the pontiff’s remarks about homosexuals: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” Francis had asked.
Tobin calls that “one of the most misquoted phrases” in recent church history and says bishops and cardinals have suffered “angst” trying to explain Francis’s words.
The bishop says he will continue to battle in the public arena as issues arise that require a stand against society’s moral decay. He dismisses would-be reformers who would seek to widen the church’s appeal by softening its views on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, women priests, and priest celibacy. “Is an ‘easy’ church, devoid of any moral imperatives or challenge, being faithful to its mission?” he asked in a speech this year.
Pope John Paul II, a more dogmatic leader than Francis, appointed Tobin, now 65, bishop of Providence in April 2005, just three days before the pontiff’s death.
“Unfortunately, [Tobin] came off more as a political leader of the right than a spiritual leader for everybody,” said Patrick Kennedy, who now lives in New Jersey and is an active participant in his parish. “I love hearing our new Holy Father. I believe it marks a new day for Catholics who want to be a part of the church and not feel alienated . . . and castigated for being sinners.”
Nor has the bishop endeared himself to gays, says state Representative Frank G. Ferri of Warwick, an openly gay lawmaker who helped lead the fight for same-sex marriage.
“His tone is not very Christian-like — he says that gay people are indecent, immoral, and going to hell,” Ferri said. “Then Pope Francis comes along and expresses a more tolerant view. Bishop Tobin doesn’t realize what his negative tone can lead to. The church still has a lot of influence in Rhode Island.”
Tobin responded in an interview that “we reject any unjust discrimination against people who are homosexual . . . but at the same time we’ve been very clear that homosexual acts are beyond God’s plan and therefore sinful and immoral.”
Meghan Smith of Catholics for Choice, calls Tobin “one of the more rightwing bishops” in the United States. His style is at odds with the new pope, she says, as well as his flock in the one of most Catholic states.
But the Rev. Bernard Healey, the Providence diocese’s longtime State House lobbyist, praises Tobin’s fearlessness in speaking out on issues important to Catholics.
“If you met him, you would be surprised that he’s not the figure he seems to be on paper,” Healey said. “He’s portrayed as outspoken because he speaks the truth . . . but while he speaks the truth powerfully, he has the heart of a pastor.’’
Sitting in his spacious office in the chancery in downtown Providence, Tobin defended his controversial approach and his criticism of Francis.
“I suppose there is some difference in style,” he said. But while Tobin says he has spoken out strongly against abortion and gay marriage, “I’ve also spoken about immigration reform, gun control, homelessness, affordable housing, a variety of issues.
“I said lots of nice things about the Holy Father, and they were sincere. . . . But I also had a couple of little concerns that I expressed, and that’s of course what people picked up on.”
In August, Tobin told a meeting of the Rhody Young Republicans that he had changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican because he was disgusted with President Obama’s and the Democrats’ position on abortion. He also criticized Rhode Island’s Catholic politicians who “abandoned the ship” on gay marriage, and defended his involvement in politics.
“Separation of church and state does not mean that we will scrub every reference to God . . . from public life,” he said in the interview.
Two prominent Rhode Island Catholic legislators, who say they suffered a backlash from the church after supporting same-sex marriage, welcome Francis’s words as a balm to Tobin’s style.
Representative Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston, the Democratic House majority leader, says that he was asked to take a break from serving as a lector at his church after changing his position and publicly supporting same-sex marriage.
“I do think it’s time to concentrate on what unifies and brings us together, what makes us merciful rather than judgmental,” Mattiello said. “The pope’s views are more appropriate than what I’ve been hearing for years.”
State Senator William J. Conley Jr. of East Providence, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the marriage bill, says a diocesan official asked him to resign as a trustee of La Salle Academy in Providence. The pastor of the East Providence parish where he was baptized, Conley says, denounced him from the pulpit as a “Judas.”
Conley says he found Tobin’s criticism of the pope “disappointing.”
“Nothing Francis has said changes the teachings of the church . . . but the pope is saying that the church needs to communicate to people that love and mercy is still available to them, and that has not been communicated for some time now, in Rhode Island and elsewhere.” Conley said.
Tobin said he did not order those actions — they were up to Mattiello’s pastor and the La Salle chaplain. “But I certainly support the decision they made,” Tobin said.