Hooray for Bishop Tobin!

Hooray for Bishop Tobin! September 14, 2013

Okay, maybe I am overstating things.  Here is what happened.  As part of the media hype over Pope Francis’ six month anniversary in the Chair of Peter,  Bishop Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, gave a fairly extensive interview in his diocesan paper in which he reflected on Pope Francis.   During the interview he made two mild criticisms of the pope.  The first for the “unintended consequences” of his new simplicity:

One of the things we have to get used to is dealing with some of the unintended consequences of his freewheeling style. For example, when he chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace, but instead at Sanctae Marthae. That’s a very worthwhile gesture to be sure, but as I’ve commented to others, for the sake of simplicity and humility, he has now occupied two buildings instead of one. That has caused some security concerns around the Vatican I know. When he decided not to go out to Castel Gandolfo for the summer, which he has every right to decide, that’s had an impact on the local population at Castel Gandolfo, the shopkeepers and the people who own restaurants and tour buses and souvenir shops and so forth.

The second, more controversial passage, criticizes Pope Francis for not speaking out as clearly as the Bishop would like on the subject of abortion:

The other thing I want to say though, is that I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that. I think it would be very helpful if Pope Francis would address more directly the evil of abortion and to encourage those who are involved in the pro-life movement. It’s one thing for him to reach out and embrace and kiss little children and infants as he has on many occasions. It strikes me that it would also be wonderful if in a spiritual way he would reach out and embrace and kiss unborn children.

The response to this has been predictable.  Michael Sean Winters at NCR said that Bishop Tobin must be “either very brave or very reckless.”    He then goes on to criticize the Bishop for not understanding the Pope.    CatholicSensibility drew a link between this criticism and Bishop Tobin’s recent decision to publicly leave the Democratic party and become a Republican.   Fr. Z, equally predictably, took MSW to task for asking the nuncio to name episcopal candidates who “get it” (as opposed to Bishop Tobin):  somehow, this was a call for reconfiguring the Vatican along the lines of the North Korean communist party.  And a couple conservative blogs (here and here) read the tea leaves to see in this evidence of a conservative backlash against the Pope.

For the record, I don’t agree with Bishop Tobin:  I think the Pope has made himself abundantly clear on the dignity of all human life, from conception to death.  I am not sure that we really need him to single out abortion to establish his credentials as “really” pro-life.

But what I am more intrigued by is the fact that a sitting bishop has publicly criticized the Pope, and has done so very deliberately:  as MSW notes, this is not an off-the-cuff remark at a press conference, but an interview with his own diocesan newspaper.  MSW indeed ends his blog post by saying, “Still, it is stunning to see such a clear, precise criticism of the pope by a bishop.”  I want to go beyond this and say that I think it is a really good thing.   Over the past 30+ years, bishops have been cowed into always following the “party line” to the point that bishops were seen as “yes men” who would never deviate from what emanated from the Vatican.  The handful of bishops who did so (Bishop Gumbleton in the US comes to mind) were marginalized by their fellow bishops.

If we are going to move away from a monarchical papacy and embrace notions of collegiality, then we are going to need bishops who are willing to speak out on matters they think are of concern, even if this means, perhaps especially if this means criticizing the Pope.  And this means that “conservative” bishops get to criticize a “liberal” Pope, just as for years many of us were wishing that “liberal” bishops would stand up to a “conservative” Pope.  (Sorry for the scare quotes, but I am not sure how else to represent this dichotomy in the Church.)

As much as I disagree with Bishop Tobin, his remarks are thoughtful, nuanced and respectful:  the strongest word he used was “disappointed,” which is hardly a call for disobedience and obstruction.    Of course, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander:  Bishop Tobin must now be willing to accept similar public criticism from his priests, his laity, and his brother bishops.

One objection to this is that allowing such criticism of the Pope by a bishop detracts from the authority of the Papacy and is damaging to the unity of the bishops with the Pope.   I think such fears are misplaced.   Respect for papal authority should not be confused with obsequiousness; we can criticize someone even if we love and respect him/her.  And I think unity is better served by an honest expression of disagreement than by a facade of unity that cloaks disagreements.

So, in the end, I think my title is a good one:  hooray for Bishop Tobin for speaking his mind.  Let us pray that all bishops have both the courage to speak openly and respectfully, and that they have the humility and openness to listen and reflect when they are on the receiving end of similar critiques.


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