ORLANDO, Florida – Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, often is styled as among the most prominent “Pope Francis bishops” in America, and he’s indeed a Francis enthusiast. Tobin praised the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders” in Orlando, for instance, as “the first time, at least that I’m aware of, on a national scale, that Church leadership is discussing Pope Francis” due to its focus on Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s 2013 document on “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Yet if anyone suspects his backing for Francis comes at the expense of Catholic orthodoxy on matters such as the Church’s pro-life teaching or its sexual morality, Tobin has some surprises in store.
Asked about his outspoken support for immigrant rights, for example, he quickly connects it to the 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing abortion as a further chapter in the “brutalization of the American heart,” one that “affects not only the immigrant population but all of us.”
On his recent decision to welcome a LGBTQ pilgrimage to the Newark Cathedral, Tobin made clear it was not a prelude to challenging traditional sexual ethics.
“I don’t presume that every person who identifies him or herself as LGBTQ is sexually active,” he said. “If they’re attempting to live a chaste life, then they certainly need the support of the believing community, a chance to pray, and to know that they’re welcomed within the body of Christ.”
The bottom line, according to Tobin, is that “I preach what the Church preaches, and teach what the Church teaches, and believe it with great serenity.” At the same time, he said, “I feel it’s my job to welcome people.”
Tobin spoke to Crux during the convocation in Orlando, which brought together almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious, and laity to ponder how to implement Evangelii Gaudium in the contemporary American context.
On other matters, Tobin said:
- Bringing Catholics together in the convocation was a good move, in part because “people who take their faith seriously, and also want to make a lifestyle out of it, can feel like the odd people out if you listen to enough messages from other sectors of society.”
- There are real threats to religious freedom in America today, including “the fairly persistent attempt to reduce our faith to worship, and then privatize the rest of it. It’s not acceptable, for many religious people, but particularly for Christians who believe in the importance of worship, and where worship is connected to your life.”
- A “climate of fear” is spreading among immigrants today, including “parents who will tell me that when they kiss their kids going to school, they’re not sure they’re going to be home when they come back, because they could be taken.”
- Pope Francis, Tobin insisted, does not emphasize the centrality of the poor because of his politics or background, but because it’s core to the Christian faith. Tobin said he was once listening to the radio and “almost drove off the road.” He heard a fellow bishop say Francis uses that sort of rhetoric because he’s a Latin American. ‘Whoa, no,’ Tobin recalls thinking. ‘He reads the Gospel, that’s why he talks that way.’
- He said he’s still getting used to the intense media spotlight surrounding him in Newark, including a recent spread in the New York Times featuring a picture of him lifting weights. “Sometimes I console myself with the wisdom of Andy Warhol, who said ‘Everybody has 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime,’ so I think maybe I am at 14 minutes 35 seconds, and they’ll grow tired and move on to the next new thing,” he said.
The following are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Tobin, which took place on July 4.
Crux: What kind of vibe are you picking up at this convocation?
Tobin: Well, I think something like this is always immediately useful to the participants, because it gives you a feeling of solidarity. People who take their faith seriously, and also want to make a lifestyle out of it, can feel like the odd people out if you listen to enough messages from other sectors of society. You can feel that that isn’t the case here, and that’s good. I think a crucial moment is this morning, when the diocesan delegations gather together and decide [what to take back with them to implement at home].
How many people do you have here?
I just have about ten, but we didn’t come as a delegation. You know, I’ve only been in Newark for about six months, and I didn’t have a feel yet about the people in the diocese, to do what the organizers expected. But I didn’t just want to bring my staff.
We spoke with one of your brother archbishops yesterday, who defined the convocation as a ‘World Youth Day for adults but without the pope,’ in the sense that every WYD has a lofty rhetoric about what they’re supposed to achieve, but when you talk to people, what they’ll tell you is they mostly liked being together with so many Catholics from so many parts of the world, and feeling like they’re not alone.
Most bishops maybe wouldn’t tell you this, but no matter how good or bad the agenda is at the bishops’ meeting, there was the benefit of being with other bishops. We can kind of talk shop, and cry on each other’s shoulders.
Other than that, how do you see the importance of this event?
I want to say what I think is really novel about this meeting, which is that it’s the first time, at least that I’m aware of, on a national scale, that Church leadership is discussing Pope Francis. I think this is a noteworthy event. It’s taken a document that came out almost four years ago and studied it.
That document is Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, which came out in 2013, described as the Magna Carta of his pontificate.
It’s his programmatic statement, and I think subsequent actions and publications and words of the Roman Pontiff has been consistent with what he laid out in ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ I’ve been very pleased with the way people have engaged that.
This event is taking place at the end of the Fortnight for Freedom. When the bishops got together recently and there was a debate on whether to make the Ad-hoc Committee on Religious Liberty that organizes it permanent, you argued against it. You weren’t saying that there aren’t real religious freedom issues in the country, so where were you coming from in terms of why you thought that’s not the best way for the Church to engage religious freedom issues?
Yes, there are issues of religious freedom. One big one is the fairly persistent attempt to reduce our faith to worship, and then privatize the rest of it. It’s not acceptable, for many religious people, but particularly for Christians who believe in the importance of worship, and where worship is connected to your life.
In fact, the authenticity of your worship is connected to the way you live your life, isn’t it?
Exactly. My issues, questions, at the conference, and I think the conference thought it over and at least a majority decided not to agree, was whether at this stage of the game that concern [for religious freedom] had to be addressed by a single committee, especially if it was going to be restricted to the national level, when it’s a much deadlier concern for Christians in lots of other parts of the world.
In Iraq and Syria, they’re not worried about contraception mandates but about staying alive.
Exactly, and really, the systematic depravation of property. If you have a chance to talk to Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, who was in the country recently, you’ll hear how the blasphemy laws are turned against Catholics and Christians not only to deprive them of their lives, which often happens, but also of their businesses that they’ve worked hard to build up.
We have some standing committees already that could deal with that. But, I think, my concern was also coupled with the fact that the Ad-hoc Task Force on Immigration was being disbanded. So those two events, it wasn’t only bad optics, but it was a bad message going to the world and to the people.
On immigration, you along with many other bishops, have been increasingly raising your voice. You’ve made a point, for instance, to accompany immigrants scheduled for deportation to their hearings. What have you picked up from them in terms of where they are now?
Certainly the fear is quite real. Thanks be to God, there’s not been a fall in people coming to Church. I take the Spanish Mass often at the Cathedral, and there’s about 1,000 people coming each Sunday. But parents will tell me that when they kiss their kids who are going to school, they’re not sure they’re going to be home when they come back, because they could be taken.
I think that beyond the undocumented, what I worry about pastorally, is how this is a further brutalization of the American heart. The heart has been brutalized in so many ways. Look at what’s happened in the wake of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the 1973 decisions, I think have had an incredibly brutalizing effect on the American heart, and in the way we speak. I think this current dehumanization of the undocumented, and the name-calling and rhetoric, it affects not only the immigrant population but all of us.
What you’re really talking about is the ‘throw-away culture,’ to use Pope Francis’s term.
That’s a good way of summarizing it, yeah.
Recently you made headlines for welcoming an LGBTQ pilgrimage to your Cathedral. Why do you think it was important to do that?
The request came, I believe, during Lent. A priest, a member of my order, who serves LGBTQ people, said, ‘If a pilgrimage came to your cathedral, not only from the archdiocese but also New York and Connecticut, would you welcome them?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I would certainly welcome them.’
As I understand it, it was a lovely celebration. I had a youth Mass in southern New Jersey that afternoon, so I had to push off. But I got to shake a lot of hands, and say something. People were very moved to be there. I think it’s engendered some questioning by some people and actually some pretty awful words, but also a lot of encouragement from other folks.
My intention was to welcome. I would justify that with the words of somebody like Benedict XVI, who would frequently say: ‘If we proclaim the Gospel first and foremost as a moral code, then we’ve destroyed the Gospel, it becomes something else.’ It doesn’t mean that our moral choices aren’t important, but they’re a response to the previous announcement of good news, the encounter.
Secondly, I don’t presume that every person who identifies him or herself as LGBTQ is sexually active. If they’re attempting to live a chaste life, then they certainly need the support of the believing community, a chance to pray, and to know that they’re welcomed within the body of Christ.
What makes some people nervous about these initiatives is that the end-game might be going soft on the Church’s moral code. Not your intent?
No, certainly not. If anybody asks me, I preach what the Church preaches, and teach what the Church teaches, and believe it with great serenity. But I also feel that it’s my job to welcome people. When I received the crozier in St. Peter’s in Rome, what I did was say a prayer that says, ‘You’re to be attentive to the hearts of the people entrusted to you.’ I feel these people were entrusted to me too.
One of the aims of the convocation was to take Evangelii Gaudium as a point of departure and figure out what the pastoral implications of that are in the America of here and now. If you had to pick up two or three points from Evangelii Gaudium that you think are critically important for the U.S. right now, what would they be?
I think the first one is an experience of Jesus Christ. I think that makes Catholics nervous sometimes, because it sounds like happy-clappy stuff, and ‘I don’t do religious experiences,’ but that’s key. It’s key for Francis himself, who talks about his own experience of the mercy of God, and that’s why he seems to make such a fuss about it.
The second point is, that experience naturally will help people to want to share it, if it’s authentic. As a friend of mine says, ‘If my spiritual life is mainly me and Jesus, it’s mainly me.’
The third and last thing I’d say, I think the part of Evangelii Gaudium when it came out that didn’t get much play here, but when it came out caused a lot of problems for some Americans, was chapter four. It’s the one that examines the effect of this experience of Jesus and the need to bring it to others on the way we structure ourselves in society. Particularly, what we do to and for the poor, who Francis maintains have a privileged place in the economy of salvation.
It was that chapter four that began the ‘Francis the socialist’ narrative…
I almost drove off the road once. It was Christmas Eve in Indianapolis 2013, a month to the day after it was published, and it was already kicking up some dust. I heard a brother bishop on the radio say ‘Well, he’s from Latin America, he’s gotta talk that way.’
And I said, ‘Whoa, no. He reads the Gospel, that’s why he talks that way.’
You’ve worn a lot of hats in the Catholic Church. You were the superior of the Redemptorists order, then the number two official in the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious, then you were the archbishop of Indianapolis, all of which are important, valuable positions of leadership, but none with an intense media spotlight. Now, you’re in the New York media market and you’ve become a cardinal. How are you coping with the new media scrutiny, knowing that everything you say or do will be put under a microscope and studied for hidden political significance?
I have to admit that as I was departing Indianapolis, my media guy there said this was a different ballgame, but I’d yet to experience it. Now I realize what an intense spotlight it is. Sometimes I console myself with the wisdom of Andy Warhol, who said ‘Everybody has 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime,’ so I think maybe I am at 14 minutes 35 seconds, and they’ll grow tired and move on to the next new thing.
Ever thought a shot of you lifting weights was going to end up in the New York Times?
God no! I was back to Indianapolis for the bishops’ meeting, and they actually have that picture on the wall. I never thought of that. Honestly, I have a lot of defects, but being in the New York Times has never been one of my career goals. Sometimes they want to talk about something, and I have to say, ‘I won’t talk about that.’
That’s why I write my homilies, so when people ask if I said something [that they heard about in the media], I can just point at it and say, ‘Read this, this is what I tried to say.’
Have you been able to carve out a zone of privacy?
I know that I need the quiet time. I used to read a Spanish philosopher by the name of Ortega y Gasset, and he talked once about his regimine in Madrid. He would have his lunch at 2:00 PM, and he had a very healthy habit called the siesta [nap], and then he would take a walk, often go to the zoo. This was back in the 30s, when the first serious stuff on psychology based on Darwin came out. He would go in front of the apes cage, where he would have an existential crisis. He would stare at those apes and say, ‘What’s the difference?’
He said that one day it occurred to him the ape could never be quiet. He had to be jumping and fighting and doing ape-like things. But when he tried to be quiet, he fell asleep. Silence is a requirement for our humanity. Otherwise, we become something else. I find my quiet generally about 5:00 AM, because I can pray for a while, then do a few exercises and hit the bricks.
Have you found a place to play hockey yet?
No, I’m waiting to be invited to play in the Rockefeller Center … But I did find a gym, so I’m still lifting. And I have perfect anonymity. So far, they don’t know and don’t care about what I do for a living, and that’s great!