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Providence and Political Parties


The Catholic bishop of Providence, R.I., has been in the news lately for announced that he’s officially a registered Republican, after four decades as a Democrat. I think it’s important to note: a) that his primary identification is not a political one, b) that he did not wake up this week or this year and realize something was gravely wrong in the Democratic party.

In remarks earlier this week, he did talk about the shamefully dire spectacle of the Democratic convention. Yes, there was the crass cheerleading for abortion under the guise of women’s freedom and health. Yes, there was the weird God-platform vote. And there were the self-professed Catholics, including the mother of HHS’s assault on religious liberty, Kathleen Sebelius, and Caroline Kennedy making the case that is it because she is Catholic that she is a advocate for legal abortion.

This is not the first time Bishop Tobin has felt the need to respond to a Kennedy. When Patrick Kennedy was in Congress, he very publicly made a mess of “social justice” in justifying some of his public positions, most notably on unborn human life. In response, Tobin took the opportunity to teach. In a letter to Kennedy he said:

What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don’t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?

also says that your faith “acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.” Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category – it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an “imperfect humanity.” Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.

Tobin didn’t speak to a Republican group (when invited) to say, “Jesus would be a Republican.” He, in fact, made clear that the message of his appearance was nothing close to that. He was trying to shine light on a scandal, to remind all believers of our civic responsibilities, and to challenge anyone who claims to be Catholic to take Catholic social teaching seriously in politics and policy life as much as in the more personal matters.

His was a position of both admonishment and even contrition. As the Providence Journal reported:

Addressing a wide range of issues posed to him Tuesday night at a meeting of the state’s Young Republicans, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said he was not only deeply disappointed by the passage of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, but that he felt a sense of personal failure on his part as well as a failure of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island to keep it from becoming law.

“I was profoundly disappointed that the state moved in that direction and that so many Catholic politicians abandoned ship on this issue,” the bishop said, speaking to about 40 people at the Holy Rosary Band Hall on Gano Street in Fox Point. “This was a critical issue, and they let us down.”

During the last presidential election cycle, Philadelphia archbishop Charles J. Chaput made the point that he would have never predicted that the Democratic party would become the defenders of abortion — there were too many Catholics in the party! We know how that went, of course. In holding up his baptismal certificate this week, Bishop Tobin echoed this refrain of Chaput’s: 

We are Catholics before we are Democrat, we are Catholics before we are Republican, we are even Catholics before we are Americans, because we know that God has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us.

A week or so ago now, I was speaking at the Napa Institute conference, a gathering of Catholics focused this year on the future of America and the role Catholics might play in shaping it. During a bishops’ panel, Denver archbishop Samuel J. Aquila relayed that he was asked by a young person during World Youth Day in Rio for his opinion on same-sex marriage. His opinion? He is a priest in a Church that has a claim to truth. I want to hear him make his case, not ask his opinion!

We don’t value teaching and teachers, do we? We don’t welcome a little wisdom, do we? It seems it would be . . . wise to. Let teachers be teachers and help us rise to the challenges of real charity and justice in the public square. But we have to give them a little room to and stop asking for opinions. There are some countercultural answers to questions that plague the human condition. That’s worth a hearing.


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