Verbally, bishop isn’t turning cheek

R.I.’s Tobin welcomes tussles with politicians

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 12, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - The bishop from America’s most Catholic state, and increasingly one of the church’s most provocative prelates, has provided a rather concise explanation for his willingness to clash with politicians: Christians are not supposed to be nice, at least not all the time.

“In confronting moral evil, Jesus wasn’t nice, kind, gentle, and sweet,’’ Thomas J. Tobin, the bishop of Providence, wrote in his diocesan newspaper column earlier this year. “He lived in a rough and tumble world and He took His message to the streets.’’

Tobin has followed his interpretation of Jesus’ demeanor most devoutly, and he is quickly positioning himself at the national forefront of a renewed debate over the role of Catholic orthodoxy in the public square, most recently in a very personal feud with Representative Patrick Kennedy. As the abortion issue has taken on prominence in the national health care debate, Tobin has insisted Catholics get involved in the rough world of politics - even if it means tangling with prochoice Catholic legislators. And he has led by example.

Since his installation in 2005, he has challenged the Republican governor’s crackdown on illegal immigration, inserted himself into last year’s Republican presidential primary with a rebuke of Rudolph Giuliani on the abortion issue (in which he addressed him familiarly as “Rudy’’ in a commentary), and took on President Obama in a mock interview published in another of his columns (in which he facetiously quotes Obama advancing the rights of foreigners “to kill their children and use abortion as a form of birth control.’’)

His commentary, published regularly in the Rhode Island Catholic, is titled, not surprisingly, “Without a Doubt.’’

“He speaks his mind. He has his convictions,’’ said Beverley Smith, a 59-year-old nurse who attended lunchtime Mass at the gold-accented downtown cathedral in Providence yesterday.

Tobin and Kennedy, a member of one of America’s most prominent Catholic families, have been exchanging fiery words for weeks. But the rhetoric may have reached a climax in Tobin’s most recent column, in which he disputes Kennedy’s contention that disagreeing with church hierarchy makes him no less of a Catholic.

“Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does,’’ Tobin wrote. “Your position is unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the church.’’

A planned meeting between the men, scheduled for today, has been postponed indefinitely. According to the diocese, it was by mutual agreement. In a news conference Tuesday, Kennedy said he was willing to meet with Tobin but not willing to discuss his faith in public anymore.

“I had initially agreed on a meeting with him, provided that we not debate this in public, in terms of my personal faith or things of that sort,’’ Kennedy said, according to the Associated Press. “And, unfortunately, he hasn’t kept to that agreement. And that’s been very disconcerting to me.’’

Earlier, Kennedy had questioned why church leaders would oppose the opportunity to insure millions of poor Americans because the bill could possibly provide coverage for abortions.

“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care?’’ Kennedy told the Catholic News Service last month. A health care bill was passed by the US House of Representatives over the weekend, with a controversial amendment restricting federal funding for abortion - considered a major victory for the nation’s Catholic bishops and other abortion opponents. Kennedy voted against the amendment but supported the final bill.

Kennedy, through a spokesman, declined an interview request for this article. Tobin’s spokesman could not make him available, but the bishop said in a radio interview yesterday that it was Kennedy who started the fight by making an unfortunate and ill-advised attack on church leadership.

But Tobin, a 61-year-old from Pittsburgh, has entered the debate with apparent relish. His office has been quick to send out responses and commentary as the debate has continued. His folksy yet pointed writing was singled out for praise by the Catholic Press Association in 2000, for columns he wrote for his former diocese in Youngstown, Ohio.

“I admit it; I’m a political junkie,’’ Tobin wrote in a column this month. “I follow political news pretty closely and if I weren’t a cleric, I’d probably run for something or other. In His wisdom, though, and perhaps to protect the public, the Lord has led me down a different path.’’

Even in Rhode Island, where church estimates put the Catholic population at 58 percent of the state, bishops have not always entered the public sphere so readily. The church was chastened by its effort in 1986 to pass a nonbinding referendum that called for severe restrictions on abortion. Much to everyone’s surprise, it failed miserably, said Maureen Moakley, a University of Rhode Island political scientist.

“After that defeat, the church kind of stepped back, and the next bishop was this live-and-let-live’’ leader when it came to the political establishment, Moakley said. “But the arrival of Tobin has been a very different attitude, a willingness to be confrontational about issues.’’

Moakley said the political impact remains a question that will not be settled until Kennedy and other members of the delegation face reelection. Tobin also has something at stake: a test of the church’s clout in a modern world where many in the flock disagree about abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues in which the leadership has taken an uncompromising stance.

On the streets of Providence yesterday, opinions seemed divided on the Tobin/Kennedy issue, though some self-identified Catholics said they had little knowledge of Tobin or his commentaries.

“He was ordained to uphold the Catholic doctrine. That’s what he’s doing,’’ said Fran Whitworth, the 42-year-old owner of Old World Cigar on Federal Hill.

But Janelle Ploude, who said she attends Mass weekly and keeps a large portrait of Jesus near her station at a downtown beauty parlor, said Tobin has taken things too far.

“I feel like church and state should be two totally different things,’’ said Ploude, 31.

Still others managed to find a middle ground in a debate many find irreconcilable.

“I can see both sides,’’ said Jim Aceto, a 59-year-old accountant from North Providence.

The bishop, who needs to set a tone for all Catholics, had no choice but to address the actions of a congressman who holds himself out as a Catholic, Aceto said. But the congressman, Aceto noted, needs to represent more than one group of people in his public role.

“Abortion’s always a topic of discussion,’’ said Aceto, who does not support Kennedy. “I know some very good Catholics that feel the way Kennedy does.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at