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Is it a sin to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?

Bishop Thomas Tobin told Catholics in Rhode Island that if they want to eat meat on St. Paddy’s Day, they had to ask for permission.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.Gretchen Ertl

While I would never turn down a good corned beef sandwich at a Jewish deli, the idea of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day strikes me as some kind of anachronistic, Faith and Begorrah, ah-Jayz-look-at-the-leprechauns kind of ritual.

But to each his own. There are many people who like a good plate of gray meat and soggy cabbage on Paddy’s Day. God love ’em.

For observant Roman Catholics, this year presents a meaty dilemma. St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday, when Catholics are supposed to abstain from eating meat during Lent.

During this century, whenever St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday, the vast majority of Catholic bishops in the United States issued a general dispensation, saying it was OK for faithful Catholics to indulge in some corned beef in honor of the saint who introduced Christianity to Ireland.

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And so, as in past years, this year the bishops of every New England state issued a general dispensation, with one notable, if predictable, exception: Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence.

Tobin told Catholics, who comprise more than 40 percent of Rhode Island’s population, that if they want to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day, they have to get approval from the diocese first.

Since Tobin was installed as bishop in 2005, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday twice before, in 2006 and 2017, and on both occasions he granted a general dispensation.

So what changed this year? What led him to put the onus on individuals to ask for permission?

I wanted to ask the bishop but, alas, he’s not taking my calls.

“Nothing personal,” the bishop’s spokesman, Michael Kieloch, assured me. Just very busy.

As for eschewing the general dispensation, Kieloch said, Tobin’s aim was “to highlight the importance of Lenten observances,” including fasting, penance, prayer, and helping the poor.

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Kieloch said that as of Thursday, the diocese had received 135 requests for dispensation, not just from individuals, but groups, including one holding a parish fund-raiser.

So, they’re not exactly beating down the doors looking for dispensations.

This is hardly the first time Tobin has staked out iconoclastic, some would say uncharitable, territory — for himself and for his flock.

While Pope Francis has advocated for greater tolerance, especially for the LGBTQ community, Tobin has promoted the kind of judgmental, dogmatic Catholicism that has been fading since Vatican II.

When Patrick Kennedy was a Rhode Island congressman, Tobin said he should be denied Communion because he supported abortion rights. As the world grieved in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, Tobin chose to denounce Mandela’s “shameful promotion of abortion” in South Africa.

In 2019, he advised Catholics to avoid Pride events, noting that “they are especially harmful to children.” This from a guy who refused to meet with survivors who as children were raped by a priest in the diocese.

After Joe Biden won the nomination in 2020, Tobin took to Twitter to sarcastically express his disappointment that the Democratic ticket didn’t include a Catholic. In Tobin’s view, Biden, a devout Catholic, is not a “real” Catholic because he supports abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Resisting change has been Tobin’s trademark, and his take on meat on St. Patrick’s Day fits the mold. Some Catholic hardliners agree with him. Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing.

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In a piece for America, a Jesuit magazine, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Tobin’s hometown, noted that in 2017, when he issued a general dispensation for Catholics who wanted to eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, “my inbox was swamped with nasty responses in the aftermath, accusing me of destroying Catholic tradition, purposely undermining the faith, and paving someone’s journey straight to hell.”

I can think of many reasons someone might go to hell, but eating corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t one of them.

Alas, we won’t have Bishop Tobin’s ultra-conservative edicts to kick around much longer. On April 1, he turns 75 and is required to submit his resignation to Pope Francis. The pope has already appointed a successor.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.