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.
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