Does Bishop Tobin deserve our support, or do we deserve his?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 05, 2019

Here’s the narrative, as I’ve seen it presented:

  1. An American bishop made a bold statement against the celebration of Gay Pride Month.
  2. When he was denounced and abused for doing his job, the bishop expressed regret that his statement had created controversy, but held firm on its content.
  3. So now lay Catholics should support the embattled bishop.

Sorry—I know that I’m going to upset some friends and allies—but I feel obliged to dispute every one of those points.

1. The statement by Bishop Thomas Tobin was not particularly bold and should not have been at all controversial. The entire statement, as it appeared on his Twitter account, is as follows:

A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.

You can, if you like, argue that the bishop was imprudent to make this statement. But you can’t plausibly argue his point: that Gay Pride events encourage homosexual activities, in violation of Catholic teaching. And if you’ve ever attended Gay Pride events—or seen accounts that had not passed through the filters of politically-correct media censorship—you would not contest the bishop’s caution that these demonstrations are unsafe for children.

In one sense, then, what is remarkable about Bishop Tobin’s tweet is that it was so unusual—that other bishops and pastors have not routinely issued similar cautions. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, remarked that Bishop Tobin was “simply speaking for one truth of the deposit of faith.” Therefore it is still more remarkable, indeed scandalous, that no other American bishop came to Tobin’s defense when he came under attack.

That attack was immediate, and it was vicious. Actress Mia Farrow was widely quoted as calling Bishop Tobin a “hate-filled hypocrite, whose statement reflected “pure ignorance and bigotry.” The mayor of his city (Providence) and governor of his state (Rhode Island) issued public statements rebuking the bishop. An angry crowd assembled outside his residence, demanding his resignation. It wasn’t a lynch mob, but the atmosphere was similar.

2. So Bishop Tobin issued another statement, in which he said that it was “not my intention” to cause such controversy. He insisted that the Church “has respect and love for members of the gay community, as do I.” Regarding the rally against him, he voiced the hope that it would be a “safe, positive, and productive experience for all,” and offered his own prayer for “mutual understanding.”

True, in this second statement Bishop Tobin did not back away from his original statement that Catholics should not attend Gay Pride events. But he did make concessions to the mob mentality, adopting the favored language of the people who were condemning him: thus his reference to the “gay community” and to the “diverse community.” The follow-up statement was universally, and rightly, seen as a retreat in the face of the mob.

I cannot blame the bishop for making that tactical retreat; he was trying to maintain peace and unity within his diocese. But neither can I applaud Bishop Tobin for standing firm, because unfortunately he didn’t.

About now you might be tempted to ask: “How would you like to step into the bishop’s shoes?” But you’d be asking the wrong question. Better, ask the bishop how he felt, when he stepped into my shoes.

Because you see, I’ve been fighting this battle for years—not as a bishop, obviously, but as a parent and as a citizen. I can distinctly recall the first time I spoke out against the establishment of what was then called a “gay-straight alliance” at the high school in the town where we then lived. That was 25 years ago, and of course I wasn’t alone. There are countless thousands of Catholic lay men and women who have been involved for years in the same battles.

And that’s as it should be. As parents we should be fighting to protect our children; as lay Catholics we should be working to advance the faith in a secular society. The role of bishops is not, in the first place, to fight these battles in public life. These are primarily our battles, and lay Catholics have been, quite properly, on the front lines. Bishop Tobin wasn’t taking the lead; he was joining us.

Unfortunately, the bishop’s involvement in this case has left us worse off than we were before he took to Twitter. He roused the dangerous ire of the politically correct, and now I have no doubt that fashionable politicians will go even further out of their way to curry favor with homosexual activists; the mainstream media will take even more care to avoid conveying the ugly reality of the lewd exhibitions at the Gay Pride events.

Wasn’t this outcome predictable? Wouldn’t it have been better if Bishop Tobin had never posted that original tweet?

3. Nevertheless thousands of earnest Catholics have now signed a petition in defense of Bishop Tobin, in the belief that we Catholics should defend our bishops. I fully understand this impulse; I can almost applaud it. But wait.

Isn’t there something backward here? Should lay Catholics defend their bishops? Shouldn’t it be, rather, that the bishops defend lay Catholics? Shouldn’t we be out on the front lines, and shouldn’t the bishops be ensuring that we receive the spiritual sustenance and the moral guidance that we need? If only our bishops were doing that job well, the political and social battles would take care of themselves.

Let me put my point differently, in language that Catholics should recognize. It isn’t the role of the sheep to protect the shepherd.


Lest readers think that I am being too rough on Bishop Tobin, let me say that I admire him for showing his concern, even if I believe that he went about it wrongly. I wish other bishops showed as much concern.

At Mass yesterday we heard a reading in which St. Paul said that “I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” [ACTS 20; 26-27] By that standard, even if Bishop Tobin’s tweet is ill advised, at least he is innocent of the blood of the faithful in Providence, because he did not shrink from teaching, even at the risk of unpopularity. Would that other bishops could say as much.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Jun. 08, 2019 8:17 AM ET USA

    I, too, and my late husband, have watched the erosion, not “just” of faith, but common sense, for years. I am pessimistic about tactics in the short run. None is unambiguously right. IOW: “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” I think Bp. Tobin was right to tweet as he did, but pusillanimous in his reply to the inevitable attacks. So what’s to support?

  • Posted by: Cory - Jun. 07, 2019 8:28 AM ET USA

    Bravo!!!!!

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Jun. 06, 2019 8:21 AM ET USA

    It is vital for bishops to teach and proclaim the truth. When they are attacked for doing so, the faithful have an obligation to defend them. Bishop Tobin should not have backed off his original statement, but he should be encouraged to "stand firm." Lay Catholics who are fuzzy on Catholic teaching regarding homosexuallity need to hear from their bishops. This carries more weight than the laity can provide. And the faithful laity in the trenches need the support of their bishops.