Ri's Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin Draws Fire for Tweets, but Feels His Role Is to Teach

By Mark Patinkin
Providence Journal via
October 30, 2020

I sat with Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin in the gracious conference room of downtown’s Diocese headquarters and asked him a question that might be on the minds of many lately.

The Providence Journal Thomas J. Tobin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, is not afraid to make waves — including questioning the pope's support for civil unions among same-sex couples.

“Why do you keep causing trouble?”

I meant his recent statement that same-sex unions were “objectively immoral.”

It got global reaction, a lot of it negative.

Tobin, who looks far younger than his 72 years, laughed.

He said making trouble is not his intention.

Then he paused and added, well, maybe a little bit.

But he does so in the spirit of his mission — to publicly teach and preach.

His comment on same-sex unions achieved something else most wouldn’t dare do.

Tobin publicly disagreed with his boss.

That would be Pope Francis.

The one in Rome.

The guy Tobin has answered to during his 15 years as bishop here.

The pope made big news this month when his comment supporting same-sex civil unions surfaced in a documentary.

That’s when the Providence bishop caused trouble.

Tobin allowed that those with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God.

“However,” he added, “the legalization of their civil unions, which seek to simulate holy matrimony, is not admissible.” And “objectively immoral.”

He was one of few prominent Catholics to so blatantly contradict the boss.

People piled on him for being out of step. Intolerant. Prejudiced.

One Boston Globe columnist called Tobin a “troglodyte.”

I asked the bishop if that was true.

Tobin laughed again.

“I’d probably have to look up troglodyte,” he said.

But he doesn’t think he is one.

“I’m considered a conservative bishop in a church with traditional moral values in a state that is extremely liberal and progressive.”

And increasingly secular.

Which has been a problem — Mass attendance here is down around 60% since the year 2000.

But Tobin believes in standing firm with church teaching, and tradition

Which brings up another recent statement of his that made some trouble.

It was a tweet, actually, in August:

“Biden-Harris. First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

He meant Biden, a baptized Catholic, didn’t qualify as one because he’s pro-choice.

The tweet drew 15,000 comments, many beating Tobin up.

Such as:

“Have you been in a coma the last 50 years?”

“Keep up the good work recruiting for atheism.”

“For heaven’s sake stop it, bishop.”

And many that are X-rated.

Today he says he might have worded that one differently, but being pro-life is a core church teaching — like opposing stealing and killing — and he needs to be true to that.

Still, I said, couldn’t he do it quietly instead of sticking his chin out?

“I firmly believe the role of the faith community is to be the conscience of the community.”

But with controversial global coverage?

“I will say I enjoy being involved in the public conversation. I was not ordained to be irrelevant.”

Ironically, Tobin considers himself introverted by nature. He enjoys relaxing home alone with his dog Annie, a cocker spaniel-poodle mix.

I was surprised to find where home is.

“In a cemetery,” Tobin said, smiling.

Historically, bishops here lived downtown in the cathedral rectory, a big house with four or five apartments.

But when he arrived, Tobin asked if there was a place with green space.

Yes, he was told — the former supervisor’s house at East Providence’s Gates of Heaven Cemetery.

That’s home now.

“People say, ‘We know you’re in a big mansion with chauffeurs and servants,” says Tobin. “It’s just me and the dog.”

At night, he’ll read religious periodicals or books and relax by being a serial channel flipper – from weather to local news to politics.

Then I brought up an even more controversial tweet he put out June 1, 2019.

He said Catholics shouldn’t support “Pride Month” events.

“They promote a culture … contrary to Catholic faith,” he wrote. “They are especially harmful for children.”

That drew 88,000 comments, millions of impressions and, again, global coverage.

He regrets any hurt to the gay community, but stands by his concern with some Pride marches.

“I was talking about the rather vulgar sexual displays and mocking of religious figures,” he said.

I told him the head of Rhode Island Pride accused him of spewing hate.

“I know these are sensitive issues,” the bishop said, “but I’m not a hateful or angry person.”

Indeed, Thomas Tobin does not come off as a fire-and-brimstone personality.

Carolyn Cronin, Diocese communications director, was with us at the interview, and said Tobin is both an extrovert and introvert — engaging, but he likes his quiet time.

Though his tweets might imply to some that he’s confrontational, she said that’s not his personality.

Given her church spokeswoman job, I asked if the tweets ever throw her.

“Probably ruins her weekend,” the bishop cracked.

Does she ever tell him to knock it off?

“I think I’ve said maybe it could have been different,” she ventured.

Other bishops have told Tobin they wouldn’t dare speak out like that, he said, but they're glad he does.

None, he said, have told him he’s crazy. But Tobin laughed and said he’s sure some think it.

The comments he gets are often direct.

“You’re a fat, old conservative bigot,” one letter said.

Tobin wrote back this reply: “I’m not fat.”

Some, he said, have been vile.

He recalled one telling him, “I know you’re against abortion but I wish your mother had aborted you.”

So why not stop statements that draw such anger?

“If I don’t get people’s attention,” Tobin said, “even negative, I’m probably not doing my job.”

But isn’t his job to support the pope? Why oppose him on same-sex civil unions?

“The problem with what Pope Francis said,” he told me, “is it contradicts what has been the stance of the church.”

You can disagree with your father, he said, while loving and respecting him.

What if the pope declared the church officially endorses same-sex unions?

“I might not understand it, but I would be obedient to the pope.”

Until then, Tobin said the church deems same-sex sexual activity as wrong.

I told him I know gay married couples who would be hurt by his words.

“The goal is not to hurt people, it’s to share the teachings of Christ.”

I pointed out it’s not a choice — same-sex attraction is biological.

Tobin didn’t agree.

“It’s an open question whether or not it’s something that’s genetic, or learned culturally,” he said.

He added: “The role of the church is to lift people up and help.”

But wouldn’t many say they’re happy with who they are and don’t want such “help”?

“God bless them, but we still have our role,” Tobin said.

Mindful that he’d tweeted that certain Pride Day activities are harmful to children, I asked about church leadership having looked the other way as priests molested children.

“The church has a history of sexual abuse in its organization, as do a lot of other organizations,” said Tobin. “But we’ve worked hard to address that and correct it.”

He added: “I will never claim any personal moral superiority.”

Every preacher except Jesus, he said, is imperfect.

Thomas Tobin grew up in Pittsburgh – you can tell by the Steelers banner he hangs in front of his home.

His dad was a Sears salesman, his mom a homemaker.

His call to faith came early in Catholic school, inspired by the nuns and priests there.

He became auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh in 1992, bishop of Youngstown in 1995, and a decade later, began here.

Tobin, a Democrat most of his life, pointed out he has been attacked from the right, too.

“That’s the irony,” he said. “When I’ve spoken out about immigration reform and gun control and helping the poor, they say you’re a big liberal Democrat.”

Ultimately, though, the Democratic platform’s abortion support reached a point where he needed to switch to Republican.

After 24 years as a diocesan bishop, Tobin is close to traditional retirement.

But he sees himself continuing sacramental work here. He’ll always be a priest, he says.

That still leaves a few more years as bishop — will he continue controversial tweets?

His answer was that most bishops have a motto, and his is from the second letter from St. Paul to Timothy.

It counsels against timidity.

“God didn't give us a cowardly spirit,” it says, “but a spirit of power, love, and good judgment.”

That’s what Tobin aspires to.

I had asked for 45 minutes of the bishop’s day. He ended up giving me two hours.

By now the light outside was dimming.

It was time for Thomas Tobin to retreat to a quiet night at his cemetery home with his dog, Annie.









Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.