One of the most interesting aspects of how the historic visit of Pope Francis resonates in Rhode Island is how Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence reacts to the message of His Holiness.
Rhode Island’s bishop has carved a reputation as a staunch and outspoken defender of conservative, traditional teachings. Tobin has often been vitriolic and rough in his criticism of liberal positions on such social and cultural issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Tobin has called for resistance to same-sex marriage and praised a Texas county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Tobin said the country needs "people of courage who will abide by their conscience, protect their religious rights, and not support or enable the furtherance of this moral aberration –so-called same sex marriage."
The bishop is a prelate of deep convictions, on matters large and small. He is to be applauded for this. But he has to understand, that while the Catholic Church is not a democracy, Rhode Island and the rest of the country is. How can a democratic society function if government officials, such as county clerks, can decide which laws they obey?
Tobin battled vigorously against Rhode Island’s approval of gay marriage. In a letter to the diocese, Tobin said same-sex marriage is "clearly contrary to God’s plan for the human family, and therefore, objectively sinful." He also said that Catholics should examine "their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex marriages or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others."
Gay marriage has been labeled "immoral" and a sign that the state has entered a "post-Christian era."
When the state approved civil unions in 2011, Tobin ordered Catholics to refrain from participating in same-sex unions. He called the law, "a social experiment that promotes an immoral lifestyle, is a mockery of the institution of marriage as designed by God, undermines the well-being of our families and poses a threat to religious liberty."
Now, contrast Tobin’s rhetoric with the Pope’s message at a prayer event attended by Tobin and other Catholic clergy in Washington, D.C. Wednesday. Francis instructed bishops to engage more with their flock and those who disagree with them to "dialogue fearlessly" but with respect and humility.
"Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart," said Francis. "Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains convincing."
Will this engagement with the Pope give Tobin pause and lead him to dial down his rhetoric? Time will tell. ‘’ But it does seem that the Pope is emphatic about taking the rhetoric of war out of American political and cultural wars.