If the bishop of Providence, Tom Tobin, didn't exist, we'd have to make him up. The guy is what we in my business call good copy.
While Pope Francis is doing his best to promote what Elvis Costello used to call peace, love and understanding, Bishop Tobin is doing his level best to remind everybody that dogma trumps all, including good PR.
The pope is trying to drag the church into the 21st century.
Tobin and his fellow travelers are quite comfortable in the 15th, thank you.
Ah, the good ol' days, when heretics like Joan of Arc were burned at the stake and troublemakers like Galileo were banished for polluting the masses with those inconvenient secular theories called science.
The pope was just named Person of the Year by Time magazine. Of course, that secular accolade will only convince Tobin and his ilk of the poisoned chalice that awaits any bishop who courts popular opinion.
While the pope has been busy selling his soul to all us heathens, Tobin used Nelson Mandela's death as an opportunity to denounce Mandela's "shameful promotion of abortion" in South Africa.
I was hoping Tobin would throw in Mandela's "shameful promotion of condoms" for good measure. You know, the condoms that helped shrink the spread of AIDS in South Africa. Tobin is, in keeping with church teaching, opposed to contraception, even if there is incontrovertible evidence that condoms save lives, even if there's incontrovertible evidence those condoms reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in abortions.
It's that kind of Dark Ages reasoning that allows bishops like Tobin to believe that in cases of a life-threatening pregnancy, women should die rather than have an abortion.
A few years ago, Tobin proclaimed that Patrick Kennedy, then a Rhode Island congressman, should be denied Communion because Kennedy supported abortion rights. The reactionaries in the pews cheered, and Tobin was so busy congratulating himself for standing up for the sanctity of life that he never got around to denying Communion to all those pols who support the death penalty and unnecessary wars fought by other people's kids.
At the same time Tobin was casting Kennedy out of his church, he was turning over the op-ed page of his diocesan newspaper to Bishop John McCormack, one of the worst enablers of child abuse. At the same time Tobin was denying a sacrament to a politician whose political views he doesn't share, he was denying diocesan records to men and women who were raped as children by priests.
Tobin's obsession with judging people narrowly, almost exclusively on whom they fall in love with and whether they support abortion rights, is exactly what the pope has been trying to get away from. The pope hasn't and won't change Catholic teaching on these matters, even the risible claim that gay people are "disordered." He merely wants bishops to stop obsessing about abortion and homosexuality and divorce and contraception because so many who do come across like a bunch of mean-spirited, self-righteous jerks. The pope knows his church is a lot bigger than a couple of hot-button issues, that compassion goes a lot farther than condemnation.
To be fair, Bishop Tobin is a merciful guy. Just the other day, he wrote a letter asking a judge to go easy on one of his church's biggest benefactors, a guy named Joe Caramadre.
Prosecutors want Caramadre sent to prison for 10 years after he was convicted in a $46 million investment fraud that preyed on the terminally ill. So what if Joe Caramadre was using unsuspecting dying people to make a buck? It's not like he's gay or in favor of abortion.
Did I mention Caramadre used to advertise his services in the diocesan newspaper?
Pope Francis seems like a genuinely decent guy. If he ever gets to Providence, I’d suggest he take seriously the advice the wise guys used to offer first-time visitors to Federal Hill: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.