BALTIMORE — Days before this month’s midterm elections, Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin suggested that Rhode Island Catholics not vote for either Democratic or Republican gubernatorial candidate because they both favored abortion rights — “a pathetic spectacle.” Write in the name of Mother Teresa instead, he said.
As the Synod of Bishops on the Family wrapped up at the Vatican last month, he raised eyebrows when he wrote that a room full of bishops debating and voting on Church matters seemed to him “rather Protestant.”
And in a letter to Rhode Island lawmakers last year, he dubbed same-sex marriage a “grave risk to our spiritual well-being and the common good of our society.”
As the leader of the most Catholic state in the country (54% Catholic), Thomas Tobin is not shy about making his opinions known.
“I suppose it’s just an expression of my own style. I don’t use a lot of filters. I just try to speak candidly and openly and personally, but hopefully never in a way that’s offensive,” the Pittsburgh native told Crux during an interview at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting Tuesday.
Although viewed as part of the conservative wing of the Church, Tobin does agree that the synod, which meets again next October, must take some action to welcome divorced and civilly remarried Catholics fully into the life of the Church. The notion of welcoming remarried Catholics who have not gotten an annulment to receive Communion has been advanced most vocally by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has emerged as a leading liberal voice under Pope Francis.
“A lot of folks, a lot of really good folks who have found themselves in difficult sacramental situations, the Church has to be able to do something in a very positive way and proactive way to help these people,” Tobin said.
Some bishops, and perhaps even the pope, seem to favor reforming a sometimes expensive and unwieldy annulment process so that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion.
Tobin said he “wouldn’t settle on any one proposal necessarily,” but pointed out that “the alternative is just to leave them alone and do nothing. To me, that would be a shame.”
He has reached out in other areas, as well. When RI Democrat and Catholic Gina Raimondo won the governor’s race, Tobin said he looked forward to “building bridges” with her.
Regarding the “rather Protestant” description of the synod, Tobin said he meant no disrespect, to the pope nor to other Christian denominations in which ordained and lay leadership vote on matters of faith and morals as well as church discipline.
“I understand that the Catholic Church has a long history, and a noble history, of having synods and councils, and that’s part of the history of our Church as well,” he said. Rather, he said he isn’t sure how the final documents from the synod will be implemented at the local level. Other bishops have said they are waiting for further instructions from Rome before consulting Catholics in their dioceses.
That his comments are perceived to be critical of Pope Francis surprised Tobin, who was installed as bishop in 1995.
“I guess when I offer these comments, I’m doing what I think the Holy Father himself has encouraged us to do, which is to be open, to be candid, to be transparent, to share our thoughts and our feelings without fear of any retribution or strong reaction,” he said.
As for his letter condemning same-sex marriage, Tobin acknowledged that gay Catholics seek “a sense of welcoming” in the Church. He said that he believes the Church is open to them, but “have we always expressed that very clearly? I’m not so sure.”
The question for bishops in the aftermath of the synod, he said, is how to approach Catholics who find themselves in family situations at odds with Church teaching.
“How do we maintain those teachings while at the same time welcoming people in who deal with that issue, in a very warm and welcoming and really genuine way? That’s a tension for us,” he said. “Very often the Church finds itself in that dialectic, in trying to maintain our teachings and our principles, while also welcoming people who are in different places. So it’s not unique to the question of gay Catholics, but it’s a question that the Church often finds itself in the midst of.”