PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — In May, after years of leading a statewide effort to bar same-sex "marriage" from Rhode Island, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence watched as "marriage equality" forces finally attained political victory.
"I have been in the trenches," Bishop Tobin acknowledged during a June 8 address at the Portsmouth Institute’s conference on "Catholicism and the American Experience" in Portsmouth, R.I.
Yet the defeat has not shaken this shepherd’s commitment to the defense of Church teaching on marriage, even as opinion polls chart a steady increase of support for same-sex "marriage" among Catholics and the public at large.
Bishop Tobin recounted an exchange between Pope Benedict XVI and a journalist, who had asked what Catholics could do "to make the Church more ‘attractive’ to the modern world."
"The Holy Father responded: ‘I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path. Because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power,’" Bishop Tobin said.
"In other words, the task of the Church is to proclaim the truth — whether easy or hard, popular or unpopular, ‘convenient or inconvenient,’ as St. Paul charged."
Bishop Tobin’s emphatic defense of Church teaching arose during a conference that offered a snapshot of an intense and urgent debate among self-identified Catholics about the U.S. bishops’ proper response to same-sex "marriage" and the federal contraception mandate.
In the weeks ahead, similar debates are likely to surface across the country, as the U.S. Supreme Court issues its ruling on two landmark marriage cases and Catholic nonprofits are forced to respond to the Aug. 1 deadline for compliance with the Health and Human Services mandate.
The bishops gathered in San Diego in mid-June for their annual spring general assembly, and Bishop Tobin predicted that there would be further discussion and updates on the status of HHS legal challenges and ongoing efforts to negotiate an acceptable solution with the White House.
The Obama administration has offered several "accommodations" for religious employers who oppose the mandate on moral grounds.
But the bishops’ conference formally rejected the modifications as inadequate. The conference is still seeking a broad religious exemption and conscience protections shielding for-profit business owners as well.
The bishops’ San Diego gathering, Bishop Tobin said in response to a question about the mandate, would likely provide a forum for discussing related "moral questions" dealing with whether the mandate would constitute "material, formal cooperation, direct, indirect."
Such matters are still being evaluated, he said.
During the 2012 campaign season, the bishops’ consistent opposition to the mandate was attacked as a "war on women." That harsh partisan rhetoric has faded since the election.
But it may surface again if the Aug. 1 deadline for compliance arrives without an acceptable solution, forcing a showdown over the issue.
According to Bishop Tobin, relief from the mandate may ultimately rest in the courts, as judges rule on the dozens of lawsuits filed against the Health and Human Services Department.
"Our best hope is that the Supreme Court will overturn the mandate and let us do our work," he said.
The church-state mandate dispute also has raised questions about effectively engaging a culture formed by hostile, secular currents.
"The drama of the last year ... has accelerated fundamental questions" dealing with "the Church’s role in public life," said George Weigel, a conference speaker and the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.
Weigel has remained a steadfast supporter of the bishops’ assertive stance on the mandate.
But opinion polls suggest that many Catholics are skeptical about the need to resist the federal mandate or the legalization of same-sex "marriage."
During the Portsmouth Institute conference, Peter Steinfels, the former editor of Commonweal magazine, pointed to the steady decline in church attendance and priestly vocations and argued that it was past time for the bishops to modify unpopular teachings on sexual morality or risk alienating more Catholics.
Steinfels asserted that the Church’s engagement with the faithful and with American culture should incorporate "new lessons … about human sexuality and about bringing faith into a secular world of relatively religion-neutral zones."
He suggested that the Church should avoid sweeping denunciations of the culture and adapt, when possible, to a world that had shifted on its axis.
"It seems that life … must be lived on slippery slopes," he said, in an apparent reference to the moral problems posed by Catholic institutions’ compliance with the mandate.
"It is very important to make our case morally and propose legal limits at points that are likely to hold," he added, in what seemed to be a veiled critique of the bishops’ unified refusal to accept the White House’s accommodation.
Bishop Tobin, for his part, offered no sign that he was headed for the "slippery slopes."
"Is an easy Church, devoid of any moral imperatives or challenge, being faithful to its mission? Is it contributing anything of value to the moral well-being of the world?" he asked in his address.
He did not deny that the bishops were in a weakened position, and he offered a string of anecdotes illustrating the personal attacks he routinely experienced during the political fight for same-sex "marriage."
But he viewed the personal attacks as a fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction that his followers would be vilified for proclaiming the Gospel, and he viewed public confusion and hostility as an opportunity to resume the task of the New Evangelization rather than an excuse to retreat.
Reflecting on the teaching of Blessed John Paul II, Bishop Tobin said that effective evangelization is not based on a "program," but on sharing the fruits of a "personal encounter with Jesus Christ."
Evangelization needs to be "clear, challenging, compassionate and convincing," he added, noting that many had left the Church because they never learned the faith or were treated in an un-Christian manner.
Bishop Tobin said it was "instructive to recall the many personal encounters Jesus had — with the poor, the outcast, the sick and the sinner.
"He was a listener, a counselor, a companion. And while he clearly challenged individuals to repent of their sin and to live a moral and upright life, his starting point was the human condition."
Said Bishop Tobin, "Effective evangelization is a combination of words and deeds. It is in our works of charity that our words are fulfilled, that we convince people of the authenticity of our message."