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Congressman Langevin responds to Bishop Tobin on abortion rights legislation

Langevin said Pope Francis has called for bishops and priests to be “shepherds,” not disciplinarians

US Representative James R. LangevinHandout

PROVIDENCE — Democratic US Representative James R. Langevin this week responded to Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s criticism of his support for an abortion rights bill, saying he is guided by the Constitution.

And while Bishop Tobin has castigated other Catholic politicians for supporting abortion rights, Langevin said Pope Francis has suggested that bishops and priests need to be “guides and shepherds” rather than “disciplinarians.”

Last month, Langevin announced he had changed his stance on abortion rights and would back federal legislation that would enshrine a nationwide right to abortion.

“Although I remain personally opposed to abortion, as a matter of public policy, my position has evolved,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Providence Journal. On Sept. 24, he voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act, aiming to codify the protections afforded by the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.


Bishop Tobin, the highest ranking Roman Catholic Church official in Rhode Island, blasted Langevin. “We are so tired of hearing Catholic politicians say, as Jim Langevin does, ‘Although I remain personally opposed to abortion...’ and then go on to support abortion,” he said in a statement. “That pathetic excuse doesn’t fly anymore.”

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. TobinJOSH REYNOLDS/FR25426 AP via AP

Langevin responded this week, saying he has “deep respect” for the bishop and that church teachings are “important in my personal life.” But, he said, “In my public life, I am guided primarily by the Constitution. I represent people of all different faiths, and those with no faith at all. And for that reason, the Constitution has to be my my guide.”

In years past, Bishop Tobin has criticized other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. For example, in 2007 he asked then-Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy to stop receiving Holy Communion because of his stance on abortion. And in 2020, when now-President Joe Biden, a Catholic, chose Kamala Harris as his running mate, Tobin tweeted that this marked the “first time in a while that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”


When asked about Tobin’s approach to Catholic officials who back abortion rights, Langevin said, “The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has said himself that bishops and priests — as I recall, I’m paraphrasing — need to be guides and shepherds and not disciplinarians. And so, I try and look to the wisdom of Pope Francis, and hopefully all of our theologians and priests and bishops throughout the church will hear that message.”

Langevin appeared to be referring to statements that Pope Francis made in September. During a flight from Slovakia, the pope said while there is no question that “abortion is homicide,” bishops must look take a pastoral approach rather than wade into the political sphere.

“If we look at the history of the church, we can see that every time the bishops did not act like shepherds when dealing with a problem, they aligned themselves with political life, on political problems,” Pope Francis said. “And what should a shepherd do? Be a shepherd. Not going around condemning.”

Langevin reiterated that “My personal stance in opposing abortion has not changed.” But he said he changed his stance on abortion legislation because “right-wing state legislatures across the country” are passing bills to limit abortion access “that are too extreme.”

For example, he noted Republican Governor Greg Abbott in May signed a law that prohibits abortions in Texas once cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks, which is before some women know they are pregnant, and he noted the Texas law does not allow for abortions in cases of rape or incest.


“It looks like the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe vs. Wade, which has been settled case law now for four decades, and I just see this heading in a very dangerous direction,” Langevin said. “I just don’t believe that, as a matter of public policy, the government should be coming between a woman and her doctor on perhaps one of the most personal decisions that she will make in her life.”

Langevin, who next year plans to seek re-election to a 12th term representing Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, rejected the idea that he changed his mind as part of a political calculation.

He noted he does not yet have a Democratic primary opponent. “So it’s not about politics,” he said. “We’re looking at a very complex issue, and, by the way, the issue of abortion has always been very troubling for me.”

Langevin said he has always focused on trying to reduce unwanted, unintended pregnancies. “That has not changed. That won’t change,” he said. “What has changed is these right-wing conservative state legislatures that are driving the country and driving the states into a very dangerous direction.”

In 2019, Rhode Island passed the Reproductive Privacy Act, aiming to protect abortion rights in this state in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Langevin noted. “But in other states, women would not have those those protections and those options,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.