Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., sparked headlines after he told a local group of Young Republicans Aug. 13 that he had ended his long affiliation with the Democratic Party and had recently joined the Republican Party.
“The aha moment for me was the 2012 Democratic Party Convention. It was just awful,” Bishop Tobin told the GOP gathering, while noting that he had been a Democrat since 1969. “I just said that, 'I can’t be associated structurally with that group,' in terms of abortion and NARAL and Planned Parenthood and [the] same-sex 'marriage' agenda and cultural destruction I saw going on.”
In an Aug. 21 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Bishop Tobin discussed his decision to change his party affiliation, his belief that his baptismal certificate matters more than partisan loyalties and his past efforts to engage self-identified Catholic politicians like Patrick Kennedy.
What triggered your decision to announce that you were changing your political party affiliation?
That announcement was intended as a sidebar to a much larger presentation I gave on Catholics’ involvement in the political process. As part of that presentation, I mentioned that I had recently changed my longtime affiliation with the Democratic Party.
Historically, party affiliation itself has not been terribly important for me, because, regardless of your affiliation, you can still vote your conscience. But my concerns about the Democratic Party did build up over the years.
Then there was last year’s Democratic Party Convention. Abortion and same-sex "marriage" and the involvement of Planned Parenthood were not only accepted — they were promoted. The party has become more aggressive in promoting activities and commitments that are foreign to me. Finally, I decided that I could not in conscience maintain my party affiliation.
How have Rhode Island Catholics reacted to the news?
The reaction has been stronger than I expected, but it has been fairly predictable in Rhode Island, which is strongly Democratic. I am amused by the reaction because the whole subject of my talk was on Catholic involvement in the political process, and I made a point of saying that, as a Catholic, my baptismal certificate was more important than party affiliation.
Some applauded my move because of abortion and same-sex "marriage," but others said I should not be involved in partisan politics or align myself with a party that is slow to embrace immigration and other current issues.
In an age of rising secularism, polls suggest that more self-identified Catholics are likely to vote according to party affiliation than a faith-formed conscience. How do you respond to that trend?
During my presentation, I quoted from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ "Statement on Religious Liberty." It says that: “We are Catholic, we are Americans, and we are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of liberty and faith.”
Party affiliation is important for some. We live in a divided country, and politics does divide people. And there are many important issues — abortion, same-sex "marriage," taking care of the poor and immigration — that draw people to either party, depending on where they come down on these matters. Neither party is perfect, and both have their virtues and limitations.
Some might say that your announcement reflects battle fatigue from fighting for years against efforts to legalize same-sex "marriage" in Rhode Island, only to finally witness defeat this year.
I have to confess to being discouraged when same-sex "marriage" was approved in Rhode Island. I had expected better of our state political leaders. Some of our Catholic politicians abandoned us. It was a key moment for moral and political courage, and they turned their backs on us.
But the state Republican Party caucus also unanimously approved same-sex "marriage."
I have had to remind myself and other members of the Church that we need to do our best to preach the Gospel of Christ and be the salt of the earth — even when it’s discouraging. That is our mission and task. That is why I held up my baptismal certificate. My baptismal certificate represents my ultimate affiliation, not my party affiliation.
Some national Republican leaders have signaled that it is time to retreat from the party’s opposition to same-sex "marriage." They argue that the policy has turned off young voters. Meanwhile, libertarian values have become increasingly important. Does this concern you?
We have to remind people that, in these cultural battles, moral issues are central. Our discussion of public life has to transcend purely economic and budgetary questions. Other issues — abortion, right to life, the nature of marriage, the obligations of family life — are important, and we should not discount them.
I told the Young Republican group: “You have to believe in something, and you need to be faithful to what you believe. You need to have moral courage, even if it contradicts public opinion polls.” They need to be profiles in courage, and that is something I find sadly lacking in most of our political leaders these days.
Some Republicans have urged you to call out self-identified Catholic lawmakers who back abortion or same-sex "marriage." Have you privately dialogued with such politicians, and have any been responsive?
I can’t say we have had much success in dealing with Catholic politicians on these issues. In my limited experience, they will listen respectfully, but they are more likely to be driven by political expediency and a desire to influence the outcome of the next election rather than abiding by the teaching of the Gospel. That is a frustration.
We need to challenge political leaders, and not just Catholics. The prophetic voice of the Church is not partisan. I have challenged our former governor on immigration, and I have done battle with Patrick Kennedy on pro-life issues, and I have struggled with Gov. Lincoln Chafee as well.
If the religious community doesn’t speak truth to power, who will do it? We have the right and obligation to bring that religious perspective and moral voice to the public discussion — and not just on abortion.
Evangelical Christians appear to be more unified in their stance on marriage, life and religious-freedom issues, while many Catholics appear to vote with the general public. Is that a failure of catechesis or a sign that Catholic social teaching spans both parties’ policies?
The Church is a big tent. We have Democrats, Independents and Republicans. In my talk, I asked, “Would Jesus Christ be a Democrat or a Republican?” My answer would be: all of the above. It is hard to characterize me as well.
There is no single way for Catholics to address all these issues and come up with a single solution. We need to call people back to the teachings of Christ and the Gospel and see them in all their richness and then try to apply them to political life. That’s why political affiliation isn’t ultimately important.
Your dispute with Rep. Patrick Kennedy in 2009 on abortion made headlines. How would you describe the long-term legacy of his uncle, John F. Kennedy — a Catholic leader who pledged not to let his faith influence his policies as president?
It is common for people to shield themselves, and it goes beyond the Kennedy legacy. Our nation and state is filled with Catholics who have accepted the bogus argument that they must not impose their values on other people. All of us should be informed and motivated by our conscience.
In our discussions on same-sex "marriage" in Rhode Island, those who were pursuing a homosexual agenda had no trouble saying that this was something they believed in, maybe they were involved in a homosexual relationship. But when someone of faith takes a different position, they are criticized for violating the separation of church and state.
The key for people of faith is to be part of the discussion. Catholics should bring their faith into daily life, whether they are politicians, CEOs, involved in higher education, art or entertainment. Nothing is more important than our relationship with God, as defined by faith. That is the choice we have to make these days.
You said you were “discouraged” about the outcome of the political battle over same-sex "marriage." Has that altered your priorities or sense of mission?
With the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith, our challenge is to make God present in the world — to bring the spiritual vision into all aspects of our life. Increasingly, we will be in a minority. Blessed John Paul II said that we are living in a time of practical and existential atheism. As believers, we must do our best to make God present, alive and relevant in our world. Sometimes we will win particular battles, and sometimes we will lose. We do our best, and God will take care of the rest.
Pope Francis has called on the faithful to reach out to people on the fringes of the Church and of society. Should he be a model for engaging the culture at this time?
What is strikingly different about Pope Francis is his tone and demeanor more than the content of his message. His tone is open, vis-à-vis the world. It is very encouraging and refreshing for people. The message hasn’t changed, but the messenger has. If there is something we can learn — terrific. The challenge is to present a warm, welcoming presence, while also maintaining the fundamental teachings of Christ and not watering them down.
My episcopal motto from St. Paul’s Letter to Timothy is: “We are called to be strong, loving and wise.” To be strong in the teaching of our faith, to be loving to other people and to have the wisdom to do both simultaneously. Pope Francis has found a way to do that.