When Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin took on the responsibility of leading the Diocese of Providence (encompassing the entire state) in 2005, he stepped into a society self-endeared with its own quirkiness. Rhode Island is simultaneously the most Democratic state in the union and the most Catholic. Not that long ago, such a condition wouldn’t have resonated as a contradiction, but traditionally religious voters have increasingly migrated toward the Republican Party as the Democratic Party has solidified its position on issues, such as abortion, that are irreducibly inimical to Catholic and other traditionalist beliefs. In that limited context, Rhode Island can be seen as one of the final reserves for old alliances and may therefore provide fertile ground for changing minds through mutual understanding.
Bishop Tobin’s reception has been suitably mixed. On matters of social welfare and immigration, Rhode Island conservatives often see him in line with his more activist counterparts in progressive denominations. On abortion and same-sex marriage, his stance has been so stalwart as to inspire as vicious a response as any right-wing pundit could manage. When the conservative blog Anchor Rising (of which I remain administrator) compiled a list of the most influential conservatives in the state (as distinct from the most conservative people in the state), the bishop came in at #2, just behind the Republican governor.
However, the answers that he gave when fielding questions from a different perspective than normally posed to public figures in Rhode Island prove that the bishop, like the Church, does not fit conveniently into partisan, or even ideological, categories.
Part 1: Welfare and Charity; “A Global Authority”; Solidarity and Subsidiarity; Giving Authority Over to the State
Ocean State Current: I’m going to jump right in with a question that I’ve actually been asked in the past several times: Does it take away people’s opportunity to choose to be charitable when the government forcibly takes their money for welfare programs and, essentially, charitable purposes?
Bishop Thomas Tobin: Does it take away their opportunity to be charitable?
The Current: To make that choice. For example, on Ash Wednesday, one of the readings was Matthew 6:3, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.” Some people think there’s a conflict between that and forcing charity through government.
Tobin: That’s a very broad question to begin. I think what the Church has tried to teach — tried to demonstrate — is that there’s a complementarity between justice and charity. As the Church has taught, and I make reference here especially to Pope Benedict’s letter Deus Caritas Est. The relationship between charity and justice: They tend to complement each other.
It’s the primary role of the state, of the political order, to ensure a just society — what’s often referred to as a safety net — so that people who are in desperate need, people who don’t have the basic necessities of life, people who don’t have the natural rights that they are entitled to. It’s the job of the state or political order to guarantee that, to ensure a just society.
So, that’s one half of the equation, I think — that sense of justice — and it’s primarily the role of the government to ensure that. And we do it in lots of different ways.
Now, to complement that is the role of charity, of almsgiving, of love (whatever you’d like to call it). So I don’t know that one would necessarily take away from the other. Unless, if you were to say that the rate of taxation is so high, for example, that it deprives people of their own resources, so that they cannot give to charity. If that’s the argument, I suppose that could be explored.
But charity and justice shouldn’t be opposed to each other; they should complement each other. And I think that’s what the social teaching of the Church is all about.
The Current: So at some point, there’s a line where it’s no longer about justice, potentially, and the confiscation of resources is actually doing more damage than the justice requires?
Tobin: I suppose that’s possible, at least in theory, but again, they should not be in competition with each other, charity and justice. They should complement each other. One of the things that Pope Benedict makes the point of saying, even in the most just society — one in which everybody has the basic resources they need and there is a strong safety net — there will always be room for charity, because there are other functions, for example, that the Church can give or that individuals can give that the state cannot give. So there should always be room for both.
Now, I suppose, again, that in theory it’s possible that the demands of the state or taxation would be so severe that people have nothing left to give to charity, but that’s only if you define charity purely in monetary means. There are other things in charity a person could do. So, there should not be, at least in theory, a conflict between the two. There should be room for both.
The Current: In the autumn, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Global Economy released a document addressing “international financial and monetary systems in the context of global public authority” that caused quite a bit of stir among advocates for free markets in the United States. First, could you give me a sense of where this kind of pontifical council would fit within the organization of the Vatican and the Church?
Tobin: The Vatican bureaucracy (if I can use that phrase), the administration, is comprised of congregations and pontifical councils. Congregations tend to have a little bit more weight. They’re a little bit more traditional; they have a little bit more authority, I would say, in very general terms.
Pontifical councils tend to be more recently established. They’re newer on the scene. And often don’t have the same entre, the same authority, that congregations would have.
When we were in Rome in November for an ad limina visit, a visit to the Vatican, we visited some of both. We visited some congregations, but also some pontifical councils. So, it’s all part of the rather large and complex Vatican administrative unit.
The pontifical council you’re referring to, they had apparently (and I didn’t follow this real closely; I read about it but didn’t delve into it a lot), apparently they had a workshop or a seminar in which one paper was presented by one official, talking about this concept of an intergovernmental association or society or bank or however they were referring to it. It did cause a lot of stir, as you say.
But in retrospect, and even in the immediate reaction, people who knew what was going on — I don’t think they were concerned about that. It was an opinion. It was a theological opinion that was presented at workshop, at a seminar, that raised some questions more than answers.
It does raise some good issues, but it certainly was not a pronouncement by the Pope. It was not an official document of the Vatican or any of the councils. It was a position paper. It was a reflection that was offered by one individual in the context of a workshop or a seminar.
The Current: So it’s sort of like an academic paper among academic specialists.
Tobin: Yes, I think it was meant to generate conversation, and it certainly did that. It raised a lot of red flags about whether or not this was becoming overly socialistic or even communistic. But it certainly didn’t have the kind of weight to deserve that kind of emotional reaction.
That was my take on it anyhow.
The Current: It has seemed to me that, controversial headlines aside, there’s a disconnect between what the Church intends to say on these sorts of matters and what people outside the Church hear. Obviously, if you’re not very familiar with this particular paper, you wouldn’t know the details, but could you fill in a bit what the Church would, in general, mean by something like “a global authority” built on “reciprocal trust, autonomy, and participation”? What would that mean to describe?
Tobin: I think in general the Church has always encouraged international cooperation. I think the Church has always encouraged international dialogue, recognizing that we are indeed in a new age of global communications and world markets and a global economy, and so forth. We know so well that what happens in Europe or in Greece affects our stock market here, and that multiplies around the world.
In general, the Church has encouraged us to take a broader view, to think beyond national boundaries, and to recognize the needs and the resources of people around the world, and how that feeds into and plays in the world economy and banking systems, for example.
Somewhat off the track, but to the same point, the Vatican participates in the United Nations as an observer. Now, a lot of things happen in the United Nations that the Church wouldn’t necessarily endorse or support. Indeed, the Vatican often finds itself in a minority position, if the United Nations is speaking out against particular policies or programs or initiatives. But that sense of international cooperation and dialogue is something that the Church encourages and fosters.
In the economic sphere, in the economic realm, I think the Church has encouraged an awareness of the global economy and an increased sense of fraternity and solidarity— international cooperation and conversation. Any particular announcements that come out have to be seen in that specific context.
Pope Benedict also, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate talked about the need for global cooperation and the need to have some sort of a body to oversee and to cooperate and to promote that kind of understanding. So, it’s a very broad concept, but I think that would be the general context in which the Church would approach these issues.
The Current: To get to the differentiation I see in it, are we talking more of a UN-type organization or something more like, say, an American model of dispersed power, with (in theory) limited central authority.
Tobin: See, I don’t think the Church would become that specific about fostering a specific model. I think what the role of the Church is on these global questions, these international questions, is to foster certain principles and let the details fall to someone else — exactly what a body would look like or what the statutes would be like or what the rights and responsibilities and obligations would become.
I don’t think the Church, at least as far as I know, has pronounced on any specific kind of a governing body or statutes or bylaws. I think the Church tries to pronounce on virtues and on principles. In this case, too, the principles they would try to participate in or encourage would be that sense of solidarity, that we do have concerns for one another, starting with our own families and then our extended families and then within the state, within the nation, and in a global sense — that we do have a concern for one another, and the needs of my brothers and sisters around the world are indeed my concern and my needs. It’s the parable of the good Samaritan — who is my neighbor? Well, everyone is my neighbor in a sense.
So the Church encourages that sense of solidarity — human solidarity — with one another. But also strongly encourages that sense of subsidiarity — that whatever can be done at the local level should be done at the local level, and that can never be eroded. That kind of principle, kind of strength, can never be taken over by a larger body. That sense of subsidiarity, even in the Church, but in public affairs, too, I think is an important principle.
So, again, when the Church tries to balance those two, we have solidarity on the one hand, being concerned for one another and helping one another. That sense of subsidiarity and personal responsibility is also part of that.
The Current: Why do you think the more general public perception would be of the Church’s emphasizing the solidarity as opposed to the subsidiarity?
Tobin: I suppose because of the issues that we deal with, today, whether it’s something like the world economy or international charitable relief or in questions of immigration. Any of these questions. I think the Church often finds itself in a position of trying to broaden the horizons of individuals.
There’s a very natural tendency in human beings — in all of us — to be somewhat subjective, somewhat selfish. We always tend to take care of ourselves first, whether it’s individuals or the nation. And we need to be reminded, we need to be prodded, I think, to broaden the horizon and be aware of and responsive to the needs of others.
So, I think the Church often finds itself in that prophetic role, saying to people, saying to nations: “It’s not just about you. You have to expand your vision. You have to expand your response.” So, I think there’s a natural human instinct to close in and circle the wagons.
I don’t think the Church has to promote that, too much, that sense of subsidiarity or self-concern. I think the prophetic role of the Church is to expand that, so that people remember, it’s not just about you. There are other people in your human family that you have to have some concern about.
The Current: So, in a sense then, in general circumstances, you would expect the individual already to be inclined to elbow their own space, whereas what’s needed to be said more often is that they have to work together — even though that might not be the larger emphasis of the two.
Tobin: Yes, I don’t think the Church would often find itself in the position of encouraging people to take care of themselves, because people tend to do that anyhow. It’s instinctive.
I think the position of the Church is more prophetic in reminding people to expand our borders, and that’s why we speak about things like justice and charity and fraternity and solidarity and compassion. That’s where I think the greater need is, and that’s where the teaching and preaching of the Church becomes very important.
The Current: Do you think the Church has maybe been a little too comfortable with the notion of a centralized statist authority?
Tobin: Give me an example.
The Current: Well, a good one blends into the next question. There’s a demographer named Charles Murray who’s just put out a book called Coming Apart. He theorizes that class differences are not only economic, now, they’re cultural, and in the lower class, there’s been a huge falling away of traditional norms, such as marriage. Reviewing the book in the Weekly Standard, Yuval Levin states, “The institutions of American Christianity are falling down on the job, as their attention is directed to more exciting causes, in no small part because the welfare state has overtaken some of their key social functions.” His point is that the Church’s moral authority erodes as the government steps in to provide similar services, so to speak, and that often happens with the encouragement of the Church, looking for solidarity and justice. Does that create a vulnerability, and also a messaging issue, that the Church is in favor of a centralized, statist authority.
Tobin: I’m not sure. I suppose the reality is one thing, and the perception is something else. I agree that sometimes people perceive the Church as being too socialistic, embracing socialism.
I can see where that perception would come from, because again, we’re trying to take care of people. We’re trying to encourage justice — a just society and the sharing of goods, the sharing of wealth, and the sense of charity and compassion and outreach. So, that’s again the teaching and preaching role of the Church.
The reality is somewhat different, because if you look at the documents of the Church, the official teachings of the Church, as you know, they tend to be very highly nuanced. They don’t lend themselves easily to headlines.
Church documents are written in a specific theological, pastoral language. They’re written for an international audience, not just for local consumption in Pawtucket or Woonsocket or wherever. It’s meant for the whole world, so people in South Africa and Central America and in Africa and in Asia and in North America, they’re all reading the same document.
So, it’s very hard, I think, for the Church to take these very nuanced concepts and virtues and principles and present them to a worldwide audience in a multitude of languages and have them always well received and understood at the local level.
So if the Church says something about solidarity and international cooperation, international concern, very quickly sometimes that’s translated into something like: “Pope Supports World Bank.” Well, there’s a big difference between those two things. Yet, that’s often what happens, so I do think there’s a difference between the reality and the perception, but I understand where that perception would come from.