By G. Wayne Miller, Journal Staff Writer, Apr 17, 2018
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Often criticized for bringing his voice into the political arena, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin on Tuesday defended that practice, saying he is compelled by his faith to speak on issues of morality. And that, he said, is in line with the teachings of Pope Francis, who regularly addresses hot-button topics.
His comments do not always win him support from liberals — or conservatives — the bishop said in a wide-ranging interview with The Providence Journal Editorial Board. The response depends, he said, on the topic in question, with the church’s strong support for refugees drawing critics, and its support for pro-life causes also evoking protest.
“I’ve often thought it’s funny if I’m speaking about whatever — immigration, gun control — conservatives will say, ‘Stay out of it, it’s not your business,’” the bishop said. “If I’m talking about abortion or same-sex marriage, the liberals will say, ‘Stay out of it.’ So sometimes I’m accused of being too conservative, and sometimes I’m accused of being a raging liberal. What we try and do is take the Gospel, the basis of our faith, and apply it to the issues of the day.”
Asked about the argument by some that clerics should avoid politics, the bishop said he and other religious leaders have an obligation to weigh in.
“If you want moral, ethical, spiritual, religious input on something, I don’t expect necessarily the unions to do it or the political leaders or the corporate world,” Bishop Tobin said. “That’s our job. Now, some people will like it, some people won’t like it; some will agree, some will not. I think we have not just a right but the need to be involved in these public conversations.”
The bishop has found a new means of involvement. In February, he opened a Twitter account, which in two months, as of mid-afternoon Tuesday, had grown to 1,309 followers. Unlike his Facebook account, which is managed by someone in his office, Bishop Tobin posts on his own to @bishoptjt
“I do it,” he said, laughing. “That’s why everybody is so nervous, because there’s no filter there!”
“You’re not being wishy-washy, that’s for sure,” said Journal publisher Janet Hasson.
“I’ve done some devotional things, some spiritual things, and some liturgical things and some prayerful things,” said Bishop Tobin, whose religious teachings are well-known, as is his professional football allegiance. “I’ve also put some things up about the Steelers and about my dog and about some political things and about the weather and April Fools Day,” which also happens to be the bishop’s birthday.
“I thought, if the president can do it and the pope can do it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be doing it,” the bishop said. “So, yeah, hold your breath and say a prayer for my prudence!”
During his hour with the editorial board, Bishop Tobin spoke about many other topics, including:
— The declining number of Catholic churches in the state, a development that is also occurring in much of North America.
“We’re in the middle of some parish reorganization work, with parishes affiliating, merging, and churches closing,” Bishop Tobin said. “That’s going to be an ongoing part of the life of the diocese, I think, as our numbers change and the numbers of priests change.”
He added: “So what do we do? Well, I think our community is becoming smaller and we have to downsize, we have to right-size. … It’s just an historical change, I think, and that’s what we have to navigate our way through.”
— The continuing shortage of priests, which Bishop Tobin called “our biggest pastoral challenge.”
Of the approximately 220 priests in the diocese, the bishop said, 90 are retired, and in the last seven years, 64 priests have left active ministry.
“We’ve only had 20 ordained at the same time, so we’ve had a net loss of 44 priests across the state in just seven years. That’s huge, and it’s mostly driven by age.”
More foreign-born priest have helped, Bishop Tobin said.
— Weekly attendance at Mass, which a recent Gallup poll showed has declined to 39 percent among Catholics, down from 45 percent in the 2005-to-2008 period, and about half of the 75 percent recorded in 1955.
“That’s challenging, of course, and, again, it’s not unique to our part of the world or the United States even,” Bishop Tobin said, and not confined to his faith. “I think the decline in church affiliation and worship-service attendance — that’s across the board, Catholics, mainline Protestants, other faith communities as well.”
Still, he added, “we still have a very, very strong Catholic presence in the state,” with certain parishes, largely Hispanic, especially popular. “We recognize some of the churches are empty these days, but some are packed and filled with joyful people.”
— Catholic schools in Rhode Island.
Some 11,500 students are being educated currently, the bishop said, but a decline in the numbers of all children in the state, referenced in this year’s Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, which the bishop cited, will have an effect.
“The schools we have are doing well and they’re important, but there will be some more closings and mergers in the future just because of the [overall statewide] numbers.”
— Helping people.
The bishop said he finds fulfillment in such initiatives as the diocese’s “social outreach ministries,” its approximately 70 food pantries and kitchens, the annual Keep the Heat On heating-assistance program, its Emmanuel House homeless shelter, and “the immigration ministry and refugee program welcoming refugees,” among others.
“We just have tons of great things going on every day that I’m very aware of and very proud of,” the bishop said.