I begin this post with the assertion that what follows is done with the utmost respect. Generally, I don’t like to single-out individuals, unless that singular identification is done for the purpose of praise and congratulation. There are times when responses are warranted and a conversation must be had, so I have found it necessary to do precisely that today.

This is necessary because it is a singular voice, a public and published voice, to which I would like to respond. In an opinion piece published in the January 29, 2011 issue of The Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Providence, RI, Bishop Thomas Tobin wrote about why he thought President Obama’s words of condolence in Tucson earlier this month were problematic and left the bishop “cold, unimpressed and unmoved.”

In the opinion column titled, “The President’s Speech; Why I Wasn’t Impressed,” the bishop wrote:

As I watched Mr. Obama, though, and later reflected on his speech, I sensed there was something missing; there was something that left me cold, unimpressed and unmoved.

And suddenly it became clear. The problem, at least for me, is that President Obama’s persistent and willful promotion of abortion renders his compassionate gestures and soaring rhetoric completely disingenuous. “O come on, Bishop Tobin,” I hear you say. “Abortion’s not the only moral issue in the world.” Correct, I respond. Abortion’s not the only moral issue in the world but it is the most important. And, I confess, abortion policy is the prism through which I view everything this president says and does.

In the wake of a violent tragedy, the condition for which was made possible due to a largely unaddressed culture of violence in this nation that extends far beyond abortion legislation and into the rhetoric of self-appropriating “pro-lifers,” the President of the United States delivered what commentators on both sides of the political aisle have recognized as a heartening and healing address.

Bishop Tobin, however, found that he could not stand for such unity amid divisive political discourse because his primary issue, abortion, was not addressed and apparently the President’s political platform — which now moves from what has commonly been referred to as “pro-choice” to “abortion promoter,” thanks to his excellency’s introduction of the term — preemptively prohibits any genuine compassion, edifying or healing words to reach their actual potency.

There are two issues that need to be discussed here. I realize that these are sensitive matters and that this post might engender some strong responses from a variety of opinions. In the Bishop’s op-ed we read of the discounting of the President’s remarks, suggesting that they were invalid or meaningless because of the President’s political affiliation. We also read that abortion is, and I quote: “not the only moral issue in the world but it is the most important.”

I think the first issue can be addressed rather succinctly. When one speaks words of prayer, healing, unity, peace, justice and comfort with sincerity, such words have inherent power and value. That someone could deliver such an address that touches the hearts and lives of so many is itself a sign of the working of the Spirit in our world at a time of great division, suffering and fear.

With the exception of the Incarnate Word of God, every single human being throughout the millennia of human existence has been imperfect. The Apostles were imperfect, the Saints were imperfect, I am imperfect, and you, Bishop Tobin, are imperfect. As is this president and every leader of any nation. One’s actions, as grievous as they might be (like, let’s say, denying Jesus Christ — I’m talking to you, St. Peter), cannot be the only lens through which we judge one’s entire life (like, let’s say, leading the nascent Christian community after Jesus’s death — still talking to St. Peter).

I’m not saying that everything President Obama has done or has been connected with is right and worthy of exoneration from moral culpability, but at the same time where was Bishop Tobin and others who toss these accusatory remarks in the face of the sitting president during the Bush presidency? The transgressions of that administration are too numerous to name here but certainly include promotion of torture (like abortion, an intrinsic evil), the waging of unjust war (x2), the infringement of citizens’ freedoms, the benevolence to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the hubris of power bolstered by fear, among others.

I suppose President Bush’s “compassionate gestures and soaring rhetoric” after the 2001 attacks, after hurricane Katrina and in other instances are also rendered “completely disingenuous.” Yet, I don’t recall the leveling of such accusations. But that’s right, President Bush’s political affiliation — the GOP — runs on a platform that, at least rhetorically, claims to be against abortion legislation. And that, we are told by Bishop Tobin, is the “most important” problem in the world.

Which leads me to the second point: how is it possible to make such a claim?

I would certainly agree that it is a problem here and abroad, and one that should receive attention, but it is not the most important problem in the world. At least, Bishop Tobin has not explained how in fact it is the most important problem.

It’s an easy problem to name, perhaps that’s why it gets such priority. It’s an invisible problem that draws on the discourse about babies, perhaps that’s why it gets such a priority. You don’t have to walk past abortion like you do with the homeless, abandoned and the mentally ill (although some politicians work hard to make that invisible too).  You don’t have to be educated as you do to understand different religions and cultures in a violent world split by these factors.  You don’t have to feel guilty — that is unless you are a would-have-been-unwed mother or a nurse who works at planned parenthood — about it like you do when you see the genocide in Africa, the daily hunger and starvation of 1/3 of the world’s population or the destitution of what people all over the world, like in Haiti or Bolivia, suffer.

Being pro-life is a responsibility far greater than simply being anti-abortion. It is very, very easy to be anti-abortion, to wear lenses that judge people and policies through the paradigm of unseen unborn. It’s not so easy to be pro-life when it means that you have to fight so that Jared Loughner doesn’t receive the death penalty (which AZ does have) because you believe in the dignity of human life. It’s not so easy to be pro-life when you are called “unpatriotic” or “disgraceful” for speaking the truth about the injustice of war and the sin of torture. It’s not easy to be pro-life when you have such conviction for the dignity of human life that you fight for healthcare for all and providing the basics of human flourishing for all people.

Those who dare to self-appropriate the title “Pro-Life” better think hard about whether it’s true or not. Curiously, the word “abortion” never appears in the moniker, suggesting that to be pro-life is to truly stand for all life, period.

I was disappointed to see omitted from the bishop’s opinion piece any explanation for why he feels abortion is the most important issue in the world — more important than hunger, disease (like AIDS), genocide, natural disasters and war, to name a few. He does, however, offer several points that he feels concretizes the President’s status as “the most pro-abortion president we’ve ever had.” How, without any statistical analysis or evidence to present, one can make that claim is beyond me.

I truly believe that Bishop Tobin is, at heart, a good man who entered ordained ministry to do the work of God. But I don’t see how he is living up to his own mission, as found on his diocesan website, and explained as “working hard to build the Church, spread the Gospel of Christ and proclaim the Kingdom of God,” while he ostensibly adds to the divisive and contentious polarization of our society.

The Kingdom of God means good news for the poor, freedom for captives and all that Christ announced following the mission spelled out by the Prophet Isaiah. How does the dismissal of the good news shared by the President in the wake of tragedy proclaim that Kingdom?



  1. Thank you for calling out this churlish bishop. Unfortunately there are many others like him, though Tobin’s lack of charity seems to break new ground.
    As for your references to the previous president, there are a lot of people willing to swallow absolutely anything from someone who declares himself “pro-life.” If abortion is the most important problem, there’s apparently a bottomless list of bad decisions that can be overlooked if an elected official is “pro-life.”

  2. Well said. The truth that is so often missed is that the wider culture of violence and consumerism deeply contributes to the trend of treating the unborn as something easily dismissed. You are right that it can be too easy to make such an issue so central, as it rarely personally costs people to take such a stand.


  3. Well said! And I agree! It is long past time that those who teach within the Church should criticize the myopic lens used by the USCCB in general and most individual bishops and the Vatican. Thank God for some Catholic Colleges with integrity.

    Congratulations and thank you from New Jersey.

  4. Brilliantly done Dan. The singling out of abortion- a terrible thing unto itself, and the re-prioritizing of the myriad ways of how dignity and life are torn asunder in our world is a constant problem. It is a problem for anyone who sincerely would like to have meaningful dialogue on the topic. I know this first hand. Recently I put up a post about economic justice, abortion, IVF and other culture/gender issues I had a firestorm break out. Very few read the link, most people went to the farthest extreme and both sides of the divide. 2 hours later I had a headache and 120 comments that were primarily spew.

    You bring to light the essential matter of a consistent ethic of life. That is sadly and sorely missing for many, Bishop Tobin among them.

    Thank you for your voice and your witness.

  5. Dan, Excellent points! I find it ironic that Bishop Tobin views abortion as the most important issue of our time, when studies show there is a strong link between the amount of people poverty and the number of abortions. A recent study from the Guttmacher Institute, states, “The proportion of abortion patients who were poor increased by almost 60%—from 27% in 2000 to 42% in 2008.” Thus, I find it safe to claim poverty is a larger issue than abortion, further more abortion could in fact be called a symptom of poverty.

    To Bishop Tobin’s credit, (the social service page of the) the Diocese of Providence website boasts a great deal of services to those who are low income…still…would the Bishop’s time not be better spent capitalizing on the unity felt after our Presidents speech? Could he not use this sentiment to inspire more social action and further inspire people to act in service? The end result hopefully then being- poverty can be reduced and in turn limit the number of abortions per year.

    I understand not all abortions are a symptom of poverty- but I think enough are to warrant a closer look at the social issues making abortion seem like a viable option to many people.

  6. He’s probably a bishop only for the notoriety. All forms of needless deaths are horrible and one should not be highlighted over any other. To base everything you stand by on one topic and one opinion is foolish and an insult to democracy. We should stop living in the Medieval philosophy of opinions without reasons.

    It is my own belief that it is the individual’s judgment and conscience that should make one’s decision on abortion. I am personally against it (and yes, I am a liberal). I am, however, not going to make the decisions for others. I am disappointed in some of my middle-classed peers who look at it as a means to conduct unemotional and untamed coitus. But, I restate my opinion that I am not here to make decisions for them.

    Although I agree with most of this article, I do have to say one thing: Please also criticize another misused moniker — Liberalism. The root of that name comes from the Latin “liber” which literally means free, open, and/or loose. Now, Liberalism by the nature of its etymology should mean an ideology that is to further free-will, rights, and tolerances. However, most of what I see in this cause and of the people I know who identify as liberal do not adhere to these principles. They are intolerant of people who have any views against their own and they favor a plethora of government regulation on their lives, which is contrary to the foundation of being free! As stated above, I, myself, identity as liberal, but not in the same way. I instead favor tolerance and less bureaucracy. Not much difference between the left and the right when it comes to ignorance, in my opinion.

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