Catholics Need To Stand Strong With Courage And Conviction!
Interview by Jim Graves of The Catholic World Report:
Edited for Length. Read entire interview here.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, was born and reared in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the youngest of four children from an observant Catholic home, and his father was a manager at Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Tobin was attracted to the priesthood from a young age, and remembers pretending to celebrate Mass at home as a small child. “God was interested in having me be a priest,” he recalled. “And it was nourished by the Catholic faith in our household.”
Tobin has fond memories of the priests and Benedictine nuns who were his teachers at the Catholic schools in which he was enrolled as a child. He attended seminaries both in Pennsylvania and Rome, and was ordained a priest in 1973. In 1992 he was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and went on to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio from 1996 to 2005, when he became the eighth bishop of Providence.
Bishop Tobin has been an outspoken defender of Catholic teaching, and has tangled with prominent political figures over such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. He regularly pens a column, “Without a Doubt,” for his diocesan newspaper, and has written two books on faith, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life and Effective Faith: Faith that Makes a Difference. He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: You have been a leader against the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in your state of Rhode Island. Who is behind this effort, and what arguments do you make in opposition to them?
Bishop Thomas Tobin: Rhode Island is a very liberal state politically. The vast majority of our General Assembly in both houses are Democrats. The question of gay marriage has been on the horizon for many years. Fortunately, in recent years, we had a governor, Governor Donald Carcieri, who promised to veto it. Governor Carcieri is a practicing Catholic. Also, both our previous Speaker of the House and the president of the Senate kept the lid on same-sex marriage in the General Assembly.
That scenario has changed.
Our newly elected governor, Lincoln Chafee, is an Independent. He made promotion of same-sex marriage one of his priorities, even mentioning it in his inaugural address. And the new Speaker of the House, Gordon Fox, is an openly gay man who has also made it one of his priorities.
The arguments we’ve been making against same-sex marriage are well known. While the Catholic Church has respect, love, pastoral care, and compassion for people with homosexual orientation, we believe that homosexual marriage is wrong because it gives state approval of an immoral lifestyle involving immoral sexual activity.
Also, it is an attempt to redefine the institution of marriage as it has been understood since the beginning of time. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman and is meant to foster life and love. Homosexual marriage can never do that. It is an ill-advised attempt to redefine something God has given us and what is one of the building blocks of human society.
Additionally, the passage of homosexual marriage presents a challenge to religious freedom and conscience protection, as has been the case in other places in the country. Our neighbors in the Archdiocese of Boston in Massachusetts, for example, had to get out of the adoption business because they were being forced to place children in situations where there were two gay people living in a home in an alleged marriage. The Archdiocese of Washington had to stop giving family medical benefits because they were being forced to provide them to gay couples who tried to get married in civil marriages.
And there are situations where ancillary Catholic facilities such as reception halls must be made available to gay couples as they attempt to marry. All these things are on the radar screen if you go down this road of approving homosexual marriage.
CWR: How has the Catholic community in Rhode Island responded to efforts to legalize same-sex marriage?
Bishop Tobin: Historically there has been some apathy about it among the citizenry of Rhode Island, including among the Catholic population. But recently, because our political landscape has changed, we’ve done a better job in getting our pastors involved, rallying the Catholic faithful against it. I’m proud of what our pastors and people have done, both in reaching out to our legislators and making their voices heard in the media, saying this is not something that is acceptable to us.
We need our people to understand that this is a serious issue. Our greatest danger as a Catholic community is apathy. If we’re not aware of the situation, don’t care about it or make it a priority, gay marriage will pass in Rhode Island. But if we’re galvanized and make our voices heard, we’ll keep it out of our state.
It is important to emphasize that this is not just an exercise in partisan politics. This is an expression of our faith. We have to be involved in this issue as disciples of Christ and members of his Church.
Recently, the Providence Phoenix, a liberal-leaning, gay-friendly newspaper here in Providence, ran a lead story by David Scharfenberg, “Will the Catholic Church kill gay marriage?” They gave us a left-handed compliment by saying that we’ve been rather effective in our opposition. We have a long road ahead of us, and a tough fight. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But we’re doing our best.
CWR: What have people said to you about your leadership on this issue?
Bishop Tobin: I get both support and criticism. From practicing Catholics, as well as members of other religious communities, I’ve been getting a lot of support. They say, “Thank you for leading the charge,” “Thank you for speaking out,” or “This is what we expect the bishops to do.”
There are also those on the other side of the issue who are upset and angry that the Church is so visible and vocal about this issue. They talk about separation of church and state and say we shouldn’t be involved in it, or that we’re “homophobic,” bigoted, and interfering in other people’s lives. These are all the predictable reactions that you hear surrounding this issue, and they’re leveled time and again against me and the Church. I’m sure such complaints will continue.
CWR: You also spoke out against the Obama administration’s decision in February not to defend traditional marriage.
Bishop Tobin: The Obama administration directed the Justice Department to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, and I did as well in response to a media inquiry, saying that the president overstepped his authority and abdicated his role and sworn duty to uphold the laws of our nation. It was just another attempt to impose a liberal, politically-correct agenda on our nation. It was disappointing.
CWR: How should a bishop best approach a Catholic politician who publicly opposes Church teaching?
Bishop Tobin: The teaching of the Church should be public and the issues should be discussed publicly. But in regard to someone’s personal sacramental practice, I think a personal, confidential approach is the best way to begin.
CWR: Many people admire you for the leadership you’ve provided to the Church. Who do you admire and who has been an influence in your ministry?
Bishop Tobin: My strongest influence has been our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. For a good part of my priesthood and my life as a bishop, he was our pope, the Vicar of Christ. He is also the one who chose me to be a bishop; I have a photograph of him presenting me with my pectoral cross when I was first appointed.
Not only am I impressed by his life and ministry, but I’ve been greatly influenced by all that he has written. He gave us a blueprint for approaching the world from a perspective of faith. I often, for example, refer to Pope John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae [a 1995 encyclical concerning the value and inviolability of human life] and Pastores Dabo Vobis [a 1992 apostolic exhortation concerning the formation of priests]. And Pope John Paul’s writings have been beautifully complemented by Pope Benedict, who has given us some wonderful reflections about many things, including charity and hope.
As far as saints, the one I refer to often is St. Thomas the Apostle. The title of my column and first book, Without a Doubt, is derived from the fact that we call St. Thomas “doubting Thomas.” I often think about how he worked through his doubts to become a faithful and effective witness of Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. I also like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who gave us many wonderful writings and modeled a holy Catholic life.
When people ask me why I’m getting involved in public debates with politicians, I think about St. Thomas More, how he professed his faith and challenged the government of King Henry VIII, which had become immoral. I also think of St. John the Baptist standing outside the palace of Herod, challenging Herod on his immoral lifestyle. Both ended up giving up their lives for their witness to the truth.
Saints who challenge an established political order in witness to the truth of the Gospel and a common, decent morality appeal a great deal to me. We need to rediscover this courage and conviction in our own time.