Part 2: No Political Box; Healthcare and Political Lessons; School Choice
Ocean State Current: With the document about the central bank, having read it, one of my impressions was that it was actually kind of pulling away from the feel of socialism. Do you sense any kinds of trends among the hierarchy, or is it just sort of a position that’s been?
Bishop Thomas Tobin: I think it’s hard to characterize that, especially from one document or one position. I can’t say, though, I sense a trend.
One of the interesting things I see as a bishop, locally, but as someone who participates in the Bishop’s Conferences and so forth and tries to keep up with the major documents: Sometimes the Church is accused of being too conservative, you know, if we talk about sexual issues or cultural issues or marriage or human life. It’s: “You are so out of touch. You are too conservative. You’re reactionary.”
On the other hand, if we speak out about social concerns, about immigration, about charity, about relief, about foreign aid, all these issues, some others would say, “You’re much too liberal. You’re following a Democratic platform, and you’re socialist.” The Church can be accused of either position, depending on who is making the statements.
I think the approach of the Church is to try to take the Gospel values, the teachings of Christ, the teachings of the Bible, the teachings of the traditions of the Church, and apply them to the contemporary situation wherever that leads us. Some will say it’s too conservative, old fashioned, and reactionary. Others will say it’s too liberal, too socialistic, too Democratic.
Often the Church will find itself in the middle on those issues, I think. It all depends who’s critiquing.
The Current: On healthcare, another quotation, this from Gerard Bradley, writing in National Review: “The contraception mandate is a pressure point created by broad and powerful social currents, but there are many such points because the tectonic plates that underlie the mandate extend way beyond the Pill.” This particular mandate was so stunning that it united religious political factions (liberal, conservative, however you want to put it) to a degree that’s unusual.
The Current: Have religious authorities in America learned any lessons from this experience, do you think?
Tobin: Well, first of all, you say “religious authorities.” That’s a very broad group.
The Current: We can narrow it down to just the Conference of Bishops.
Tobin: OK. That’s a little bit more specific, but even that is fairly broad. Have we learned anything? I don’t know that we’ve learned anything new. I think it probably reminded us that we need to be involved in these conversations early on and not to presume too much good will on the other side.
That sounds a little bit harsh, but my own perception is that the Church over the years, I mean recent decades, in a way has lost its prophetic voice. I think in some ways, we’ve tried to be too cooperative, too gentle, too kind, if I could use all those phrases.
I think we need to bring the voice of the Church, that prophetic voice of the Church, into these issues. And I think that we need to be more challenging and more direct and get involved in the conversations early on.
Now, again, that’s my own view. I don’t think it would be shared by a lot of the bishops in the conference, because they tend to be a little bit more gentle and a little bit more subtle than I am sometimes.
But sometimes the dialogue will only go so far, especially when you’re dealing with an administration that we know has visions and values that are different than ours. So, are we guilty in a sense of being too compliant? Of being too understanding? Perhaps, but I think, again, that comes from that well, that font good will that we presume in people.
But sometimes I think we have to be more direct, more prophetic, and involved in the game early on. I think perhaps we’ve learned that finally from this particular issue around the HHS mandate. But it’s been present before whether it’s about abortion or gay marriage or whatever. Sometimes we’ve sort of come late to the game, and when we’ve come into the game, we’ve been too gentle and too nuanced, I think.
The Current: To get real specific, if you look at a lot of the documents from the U.S. Conference of Bishops around the time that the healthcare reform was passed, this sort of regulation was clearly identified as a potential hazard in those documents and in legal reviews of what the law would do. But the emphasis there, and this like the two emphases that seem to apply to everything, was to carve out exemptions for the Church or religious organizations, not to rethink the government’s role. Is there any trend toward rethinking what government ought to mean in these matters.
Tobin: Certainly in some circles. Again, if you start talking about the role of the federal government, automatically you’re going to be labeled “conservative Republican.” That’s what the whole Republican primary election is about now — resisting and opposing the federal government and the mandates and the intrusion and all of those things.
The whole healthcare debate has been and continues to be interesting, because it goes back to basic principles — what we were referring to before. The Church, I don’t think, wants to be in the position of espousing particular organizations or statutes or bylaws or even details of the law. That gets very complicated when we try to do that.
I think the role of the Church is to try to espouse principles and virtues and basic moral teachings, guidelines, and I think that’s what the bishops tried to do with the healthcare debate.
For decades, not just in the last few years, for decades the Church in the United States has been encouraging the availability of healthcare for all people. We see it as a basic human right. People have a right to fundamental healthcare, much as we have a right to food and water and housing and clothing.
Healthcare, per se, is a human right. I think what the bishops have been saying, what the Church has been saying, is that we need to encourage that. And it’s one role of the government — again going back to what the Church has taught — to create that kind of just society that allows for availability of healthcare.
Now, in this particular debate, when President Obama started to promote his own healthcare reform, which we know is enormously complex and intricate, but I still don’t think most people understand what’s going to happen as a result of it. Even those who’ve studied it don’t understand the consequences of it.
Early on, the Church was pretty clear about enunciating some principles: that any healthcare reform has to respect human life, that the rights of conscience have to be respected, that the right of religious practice, freedom for religion (not just freedom of worship, which is something else, but freedom for religious practice), conscience exemptions for anybody who in some structural way was opposed to some of these mandates, again the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
I think those principles were enunciated pretty early on in this debate. So, it wasn’t just a question of cooperating with the Obama Administration and then later on saying, “Oh, by the way, we oppose this, this, and this.” I think early on, in many different ways, the Church was involved in the healthcare debate, even prior to Obama, to say, “here are the principles involved.”
Now, when the final law with 2,000 pages, or whatever it was, finally came out, and some of these things were indeed included, the Church wasn’t so much surprised. I think the Church was in a position to say, “I told you so.”
Now, when we talk about “the Church,” there are the bishops, and there are other alleged representatives of the Church who have supported that. But this is where, again, there’s some internal conflict in the Church.
The Current: Expanding on that question, you mentioned the government’s role to ensure a just society. I guess a lot of my questions come down to whether the government is capable of doing that, or to what degree you can tolerate the government’s trying to do it. Where would the Church lay in answering that kind of a question?
Tobin: The starting point is that it’s the role of the government to do that, but the government, composed of human beings, will always be imperfect — local, state, national, international. The government will always be imperfect, so the creation of a just society will always be imperfect and incomplete on the part of the government. It’s an ongoing process.
I don’t think we can ever reach a point where we say that the government now has perfectly fulfilled its role or to say that the government tried and didn’t do it right. Those things are always on the table, I think. But it does not minimize what the role of the government should be. I think it’s a work in process.
What issues we deal with today, we might be dealing with again in ten years or twenty years, or it might be different issues or new issues. Who knows? It’s a work in progress. And it will never be done perfectly, so we keep trying, and I think government has that role to play.
And in this experiment, in this attempt, sometimes does government overreach and overstep? Yes, probably. And I think that’s what we have in the Obama healthcare: probably an overreach. Probably stepped too far. Maybe tried to do too much and trampled on some rights in the process of doing it
So, that’s where the tug-of-war comes. Now, I think legitimately, the government has to rethink that and pull back so that in trying to ensure some rights of this group, they don’t trample on the rights of this group. And I think that’s what’s happened.
The Current: For Catholic Schools Day at the State House, the keynote speaker was John Elcesser, executive director for the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. He spoke about the need for broad school choice, in fact citing, I think, Africa, where he adopted a child, and the father almost looked at it like international school choice in a sense, including private and religious schools. Is this an area in which we can expect more Church advocacy in Rhode Island and across the country?
Tobin: Well, it certainly has been an issue across the country. He cited some of the states that already have broader school choice and support for school choice than we have here.
Will that continue to be an issue? Yeah, I think so. It’s an area that I don’t have a lot of personal expertise in, so I was interested in his presentation, as well.
But it has been a thrust in different states, as he cited, as he gave some examples of. And we have just the beginnings of it here, in Rhode Island. Can we do more? Yeah, I think so. Should we do more? I think so.
Exactly what form that would take, I’m not sure at this point. I don’t know how much support there would be locally for expansion of school choice and, to follow that, school funding.
We think it’s legitimate, because it’s allowing parents to fulfill their role as parents and sending their children to the kind of school they think best. If indeed they choose a private school for their children, in our case a Catholic school, we think their tax dollars should be able to follow that stream.
Some countries do that; some states do it. I think it has a lot of logic to it and has a lot of benefits, not just for those kids and those families, but for the whole state. I think education competition is a very good and healthy thing.
We know there’s enormous pushback from the other side — public schools, unions, and so forth — and I understand that. But everybody would benefit, I think, from more school choice and the funding to follow that.
The Current: Has the diocese looked at the new funding formula as any kind of opportunity, in that regard?
Tobin: I don’t know that we’ve gotten real involved in that particular issue at this point. I know Fr. Healy at the State House is always involved in those particular issues. The funding formula you’re referring to, that of course is basically about public schools.
The Current: Correct.
Tobin: But we have these other tuition tax credit benefits and so forth. We certainly hope that stays there, and hopefully, it can be expanded someday. It’s probably not going to happen right now because of the severe economic limitations on what the state has.
But someday could that be expanded? Yeah, I hope so. And are there other ways we could build upon the funding that already comes from the state for textbooks and busing and nurses and so forth? I think we have the beginnings, there.
And again, it benefits the kids, it benefits the families, who are the taxpayers. It’s not benefiting the specifically religious mission of the Church. It’s benefiting the kids and their parents, who pay the taxes.
In a sense, their tax is double, because they have to pay for public education, and they have to pay for private education. But private education benefits the state.
We saw at that event last week all the money that Catholic schools save the state. $184 million, I think it was. That’s a benefit to the state, and a sense of competition I think makes everybody sharper — public schools as well as Catholic schools.