A Diocese In Arms

by by By Doreen St. Félix

illustration by by Robert Sandler

On February 22, hundreds of Rhode Island’s Catholic faithful filled the pews of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, located on 30 Fenner Street in Cathedral Square, to attend Ash Wednesday mass. Consecrated in 1889, the cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. The Most Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the ecclesiastical district, celebrated the mass. During his homily, Bishop Tobin reminded the congregants of the spiritual significance of the then-impending Lenten season, encouraging them in the practices of devotion.

Mary Antoine sat in the second row. She says the Bishop’s “tone changed” when he told them that Lent was also “a time to reorder their priorities.” From his green marble pulpit, Bishop Tobin warned the church to “repent for the sins of our community, for the sins of our nation.” The office of the Providence diocese views the renewed effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island as a state sin. It considers the passing of the Obama Administration’s Health and Services Mandate, requiring all employers to provide contraception services to their employees, to be a national sin. The Diocese’s positions align with both the official teaching of the Catholic Church and with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But Antoine, who has been registered at the North Kingstown parish of St. Bernard for more than two decades, doesn’t agree with them. “He’s the leader of our community; he has the interests of our faith at heart,” she says, “but his statements sound more like an angry politician’s than a Church servant.”

Mary Antoine is one of the 700,000 Rhode Island residents affiliated with the Catholic Church. Established by Pope Pius IX in 1872, the Diocese of Providence was originally composed not only of Rhode Island but also four counties in Massachusetts. Today it spans the state of Rhode Island. There are just over 150 parishes; after forced closures in 2009, only nine Catholic high schools remain. Compared to other dioceses, its geographical size is small.

Yet Rhode Island ranks as the most Catholic state in the United States, with the Catholic community accounting for 59.5 percent of its population. And Rhode Island Catholics are also some of the most politically liberal. A July 2010 study conducted by David Walker, Vice President of the research firm Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner in Washington D.C., finds that 63% of the participants who identified as Catholic support same-sex marriage. Although efforts toward same-sex marriage have been defeated in the Rhode Island legislature yearly since 1997, Walker says that “largely because of Catholic voters, marriage equality is inevitable in Rhode Island.”

When Bishop Tobin accepted the canonical duty to lead the diocese of Providence in 2005, he made a sacred vow to “teach, sanctify and govern” the fractured church. In the ‘90s, allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop Louis E. Gelineau had racked the community’s conscience. In the early 2000s, the Bishop Louis Edward Mulvee’s $36 million molestation lawsuit settlements had affected its pockets. As the diocese’s eighth bishop, Tobin sought to revitalize trust in the community’s disillusioned relationship with its leadership. “I was not ordained to be irrelevant,” he said at the time of his installment. His choice of coat of arms intertwines representation of the church with symbols of the state. A blue background signifies the Virgin Mary, while silver anchors refer to Rhode Island’s maritime importance.

Like the bishops who preceded him, Bishop Tobin considers his leadership to represent the Church’s commitment to Rhode Island. And Bishop Tobin does champion some of the social justice concerns of the largely liberal diocese in his support of certain progressive programs and policies. The Rhode Island Catholic Conference (RICC), which serves as the vehicle for the Church in the public policy arena, operates under his direction. The organization supports a progressive tax system and fair labor practices by employers. Bishop Tobin and the RICC have also publicly opposed the enforcement of federal immigration laws while fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Rhode Island. The RICC sponsors Mandiemento Nuevo, a not-for-profit corporation that provides financially feasible housing for qualifying families. Dozens of families have found affordable housing at one complex, Renaissance at Plain View, in Pawtucket.

As an official arm of the Church, the RICC also directs much of its energy toward opposition to abortion and gay marriage. The majority of Bishop Tobin’s speech in the public sphere is directed toward these issues. Bishop Tobin publishes a weekly column titled “Without a Doubt” in the Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper, in which he expresses the conservative social positions of the diocese with rhetorical force unusual for a church leader in a liberal state. His February 10 column against the federal HHS Mandate closes with the declaration, “This is the United States, not North Korea.” Even parishioners who agree with his arguments may dissent from his manner of public expression. “I don’t support the mandate. But I was shocked when I read Bishop Tobin’s statement,” says Kevin Johnson, who attended the Ash Wednesday mass. Bishop Tobin’s similarly combative March 14 column, “Five Problems with Homosexual ‘Marriage,’” anticipates a renewed effort by advocates of same-sex marriage, denouncing their proposal as “an ill-advised social experiment with unpredictable outcomes.”

Bishop Tobin’s approach often precludes sustained engagement with his opponents in the public sphere. His same-sex marriage column describes the proposal as an attempt to “[enshrine] into civil law immoral activity.” But according to Protestant Reverend Gene Dyszlewski, Chair of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition in Support of Marriage Equality, “the effort to pass marriage equality in Rhode Island is driven by a belief that all of our families deserve equal rights.” Dyszlewski says that he and fellow liberal religious leaders were “disheartened…at the Bishop’s missive.” The level of public visibility in Bishop Tobin’s criticism of liberal Catholics is also beyond the norm. One of the most notable instances of this took place in 2009, when Bishop Tobin’s opposition to Catholic pro-choice Congressman Patrick Kennedy, former U.S. representative for Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district, escalated to the level of a public feud. Bishop Tobin encouraged Rhode Island priests to deny communion to Congressman Kennedy.

Antoine, who is pro-choice, finds the Bishop’s entrance in the political fray obtuse. “Sometimes he’s Senator Tobin,” she says. “If the state doesn’t belong in the Church, then the Church shouldn’t be in the state.” Antoine and other liberal Rhode Island Catholics are not alone in such sentiments. Millions of Catholic Americans are choosing political sides in their religious affiliation. And these sides are often to the left of their leadership.

But “the problem with Bishop Tobin,” according to Michael Sean Winters, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, “is that he is so entirely defensive. [Using his office], he has declared a cultural war.” In fact, Bishop Tobin employs this martial metaphor in his own speech. In his gay marriage column, Bishop Tobin says that he is prepared for the diocese to be “fully engaged in the battle,” from his headquarters in Cathedral Square. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bishop Tobin has said that had he not been ordained, he would likely have gone into politics.

Winters, who opposes abortion, argues that Bishop Tobin’s approach to public engagement is detrimental to the health of the Church in Rhode Island. Winters says that it reduces “the forgiving culture of the Catholic faith to moralism.” “It’s really bad theology,” he says, because it turns “the altar rail into a battlefield.”

DOREEN ST FÉLIX B’14 is a sin of the community, a sin of the nation.