By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin revealed Tuesday night that he recently became a registered Republican, but he also emphasized that the church and its mission shouldn’t be viewed through a narrowly partisan lens.
“The a-ha moment for me was the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It was just awful,” Tobin, 65, told the Rhody Young Republicans during an event at the Holy Rosary Band Society Hall in Providence. The leader of Rhode Island’s roughly 621,000 Catholics said he had been a registered Democrat since 1969.
“I just said I can’t be associated structurally with that group, in terms of abortion and NARAL [Pro-Choice America] and Planned Parenthood and [the] same-sex marriage agenda and cultural destruction I saw going on,” Tobin said. “I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Tobin switched his affiliation to the Republican Party effective Jan. 5, according to voter records reviewed by WPRI.com. He is registered to vote from a house on the 140-acre grounds of the diocese’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence.
“I’ve changed my party registration now, but the fact is that the registration itself doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” Tobin said.
About 60 people who attended Tobin’s nearly two-hour discussion on faith and politics gave him a standing ovation before and after he spoke. He made the disclosure about his affiliation by holding up two pieces of paper – his letter from the East Providence Board of Canvassers confirming his Republican affiliation, and his baptismal certificate.
“My thesis tonight is that the two of these are related, and can be related very comfortably, and frankly if I had to choose between the two – between my party affiliation and my baptismal record – this is the one that will bring me to eternal life,” Tobin said, pointing to his certificate of baptism.
“Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative?” Tobin asked. “I’m going to punt on that question and say: all of the above and none of the above. Labeling Jesus or labeling the church or labeling me depends on the particular issue.”
Pope John Paul II appointed Tobin as the eighth Bishop of Providence just three days before the late pontiff’s death in April 2005. He could be a part of Rhode Island public life for many years to come: bishops are not required to submit their resignations to the pope until they turn 75, which for Tobin will not happen until 2023.
“I’m very excited about being here,” Tobin told the group of activists. “It’s a little bit different from the things I normally do – I’m a little bit out of my element.”
Meg Rogers, chair of the Narragansett Republican Town Committee, told Tobin she was disturbed to see some Rhode Island lawmakers explain why they were voting in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage last spring by pointing to their Catholic faith. She singled out Sens. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, and James Doyle, D-Pawtucket.
Tobin reiterated his disappointment that Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage, describing it as “a failure” on the part of him personally and the Catholic Church statewide. “I was profoundly disappointed that some of our Catholics who were trained to be faithful and well-educated Catholics … abandoned the ship on this issue,” the bishop said. “We needed them.”
“Ultimately, their judgment will be up to God,” Tobin said. Asked if he was still in dialogue with them, the bishop said: “Not anymore.”
Yet Tobin shied away when state Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, and others in the audience suggested he should look for ways to punish Catholic politicians who take votes that contradict church doctrine, saying his options were limited. “It’s a complex world and a complex church,” Tobin said, adding that on other issues some of those same lawmakers “are very good and very supportive.”
One attendee questioned why Rhode Island’s evangelical Christians seemed to be more active in opposing same-sex marriage than the state’s Catholics were, which led the bishop to some introspection.
“Did we get outworked on this? Yeah, probably,” Tobin replied. “The other side – if I can use that category very respectfully – on this issue, for them, this was their issue. And God bless them for their persistence.” By contrast, he said, Catholics were also concerned with other issues during the legislative session such as abortion, homelessness, payday lending and immigration.
Ironically, Tobin’s own district is represented by state Sen. William Conley Jr., D-East Providence, a freshman who was successfully lobbied to back same-sex marriage as a crucial swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Conley is also on the Board of Regents of LaSalle Academy, the prestigious Catholic high school.
The event’s organizers made abortion a focus of Tobin’s discussion. “Personally I think the abortion issue is really key, but it’s not the only issue, and there’s a balance there,” the bishop said, though he called opposition to abortion “the linchpin, the foundation, around which all our discussion of human life has to be built.”
Tobin expressed some sympathy when Barbara Ann Fenton, the Young Republicans’ chairwoman, raised concerns about abortion opponents who hold up graphic images of aborted fetuses outside abortion clinics. “Just in terms of tactics, it turns people off more than it helps,” he said. “I think tactically and strategically, it doesn’t really help the cause. But I admire those people.”
Tobin also downplayed Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s decision to veto a bill that would have allowed “Choose Life” license plates in Rhode Island.
“I did not get overly worked up over that issue,” he said. “I was not surprised the governor vetoed it – I would have been surprised if he had not vetoed it. It just was not a major issue for me. There are so many more really, really important pro-life issues that we should focus on.”
The bishop strongly defended his personal involvement in Rhode Island’s political debates during the wide-ranging discussion Tuesday evening, saying his approach is to “take the gospel of Christ, the teachings of the church and apply it to the current issue, and let the chips fall where it may.”
Tobin ticked off a number of times he’s clashed publicly with politicians from both parties in recent years, citing his disagreements with former Republican Gov. Don Carcieri on immigration, former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy on abortion, and Chafee – who recently became a Democrat – on a wide range of topics.
“When we involve ourselves in the public debate, it’s about issues we think transcend being Catholic and transcend being Christian – these are issues of concern to the whole human family,” he said.
Tobin cited a long list of other policies beyond abortion and same-sex marriage on which the Catholic Church articulates strong views, including euthanasia, the death penalty, “just wages for employees and workers,” school choice, unions, “the dignity of the working place,” and the environment.
“That’s why the popes write so many letters and the bishops write so many letters, because we talk about so many things,” Tobin said.
Travis Rowley, a local Republican activist, questioned Tobin’s expression of support for “social justice” and organized labor, and asked how Jesus Christ would have reacted if Rowley proposed abolishing the welfare state and encouraging private charity in its place.
“I think Jesus would say that’s terrific,” Tobin replied.
Tobin also quoted Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, a vocal advocate inside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in favor the church taking strong political stands. “The separation of church and state is not meant to scrub every religious reference, every reference to God, from our society,” Tobin said.
Tobin drew applause when he urged the group of Republican activists: “Don’t change your beliefs, your moral convictions, for the sake of your polls, your surveys, the most recent surveys that come out somewhere. Believe in something.”
Tobin said about 110,000 people attend Mass at 140 parishes across Rhode Island on an average Sunday, yet too many people treat God like “a fire extinguisher,” only turning to prayer and their faith when they find themselves in a personal crisis.
“Regardless of your religious perspective or your own faith tradition … whatever that faith commitment is, make room for God in life – make sure he’s at the center of your life,” he said. “And be involved in your own faith communities.” He reminded those in attendance that this Thursday is the Feast of the Assumption, which is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics.
The Rhody Young Republicans have invited a number of guest speakers to address them as the group reactivated in recent months, among them Gregory Angelo, director of the Log Cabin Republicans, and state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, R-North Kingstown. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is planning to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year, was in attendance Tuesday.
Fenton, the Young Republicans’ chairwoman, said she invited Tobin to focus in particular on social conservatism and pro-life issues. She said most of the young Republicans in Rhode Island oppose abortion, though many are also open to same-sex marriage, which received support from some GOP state lawmakers.
While the event with Tobin on Tuesday was free, the Young Republicans collected boxes of food and cash donations for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank from those who attended.