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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Don't feed the bears

Thoughts concerning bishops and bears

Bishop Tobin has politically positioned himself as a Republican and a Catholic, and his recent criticisms of Pope Francis, though mild to my ears, continue to provoke discussion among the faithful across the nation. Most of the discussion seems to revolve around Tobin’s politicization of his position as the Bishop of Providence Diocese.  I originally covered the National Catholic Reporter’s take on the issue here, along with Tobin’s comments.



Todd Flowerday, writing on the blog Catholic Sensibility, thinks that Tobin might be thinking locally while the Pope thinks globally:

Perhaps Bishop Tobin, recent Republican convert, is thinking too much in terms of American politics. US Catholics make up a single-digit percentage of the flock Francis now pastors. Is it realistic to expect that the man will conform to the American values of the political pro-life movement: confrontation, contention, fundraising, deception, and the striving to yell louder than the other side?

Supporting Tobin, Fr. Z’s Blog goes after the National Catholic Reporter writer Michael Sean Winters saying that “you don’t have to protect Popes from criticism” and “were the Michael Sean Winters types in charge, the college of bishops around Pope Francis would look like a meeting of North Korea’s Communist Party.”

David Cruz-Uribe, writing for Vox Nova, runs down some of this and also notes that some conservative Catholic blogs are seeing Tobin’s statements as a sort of conservative backlash against the current Pope. 

However, the main point of the Vox Nova piece is that Tobin has essentially opened the floodgates for sending criticism up the Catholic hierarchy. Cruz-Uribe thinks this is an unintentional and positive development of Tobin’s comments, noting that not inviting open, constructive and respectful criticism smacks of obsequiousness, saying “we can criticize someone even if we love and respect him/her.”

The Vox Nova piece ends with “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.”

Will Tobin be open to such criticism from the priests under his leadership? Tobin, in some way, seems to consider himself a prophet, and prophets historically are good at giving criticism, not taking it. Responding to a question about the heat he took in the aftermath of the passage of marriage equality on the opening episode of Dan Yorke’s State of Mind Tobin said,

Yeah, I did take a lot of heat but that’s part of the challenge of being a prophet. In some ways that is the prophetic role of the church to challenge evil where we find it, where we see it, to challenge those in positions of political leadership. The church has a long history even going back to the Old testament where prophets challenge the kings of Israel, and John the Baptist and Thomas More and many of the great apostles and prophets and saints throughout history have played that role of challenging evil where we think it exists.

I’m reminded of Second Kings, 2:23-24, when the Prophet Elisha was insulted by some children for being bald.

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.

And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

The lesson? Watch what you say about prophets or you might be targeted by wild bears.


Steve Ahlquist is a writer, artist and current president of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism and action. He also maintains the blog Caution Church Ahead, where he writes on the intersection of religion and politics. The views expressed are his own not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.