“Right now we are the national champions of Pope Francis.” So Crux’s John Allen quotes the organisers of a conference on the Holy Father at Villanova University last week. Similar events took place under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They helped to define the theological and political line taken by their supporters in academia, media and the episcopacy. An invitation to address these symposia marks one out as a “champion” of the Vatican agenda, as the organisers put it. And Villanova’s speakers’ list included some of Francis’s most ardent apologists, including Massimo Faggioli and Fr Antonio Spadaro.
Then there was Cardinal Joseph Tobin – or “Joe”, as his friends at the gym know him. (He’s an avid weightlifter.) The Archbishop of Newark does not look like a stereotypical intellectual. With his rough features and large frame, he seems more like a pugilist than a prince of the Church. But Tobin is one of the Pope’s strongest and most trusted allies in the American hierarchy.
In his speech, the Newark archbishop took aim at those “small enclaves” who “safeguard the treasure of the Christian tradition in its purest form from the corrosive intrusion of a corrupt society”. “Even from ancient times, there have been individuals and movements who have tried to define and delimit what it means to be a Catholic Christian,” Tobin said. “Nevertheless, the Universal Church has always repudiated such attempts. It is only the Lord who ultimately judges who belongs or does not belong.”
Here he echoes Francis’s new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service,” the Holy Father wrote.
But Tobin is also at odds with Pope Benedict XVI, who has speculated that the Church may be reduced to a faithful remnant – a Church “characterised more by the mustard seed,” as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger phrased it in 1997.
During the question-and-answer session, Tobin addressed another fresh controversy. When asked about the recent sacking of gay teachers from Catholic schools, he admitted that the Church had been “somewhat marginalised” for what non-Catholics viewed as her “preoccupation with sexual ethics”.
To his credit, he affirmed that “the Church cannot reverse itself on its sexual ethics”, while stressing that “Pope Francis has shown that there are other issues on which the Church and world can work together”.
This is yet another point of division among Catholics, particularly in the United States. Conservatives generally agree with the Catechism in saying that gay people ought to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”. But they fear that many gay outreach ministries ultimately aim to validate homosexual unions. The most common example they use is Fr James Martin SJ, who has refused to condemn same-sex relationships.
Tobin walks a fine but essential line between upholding orthodox moral theology and empathising with gay Catholics. But his endorsement of Fr Martin’s book Building a Bridge brought him into conflict with yet another heavyweight prelate: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. Last year an article in the New York Times contrasted Tobin’s support for Fr Martin with Dolan’s endorsement of Daniel Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, which urges Catholics who experience same-sex attraction to reject a “gay identity”.
Dolan, who received his first episcopal see from John Paul II, was widely seen as the Vatican’s key American ally during both John Paul and Benedict’s papacies. It is unclear whether any personal acrimony exists between the two. John Allen – who knows both men personally – said their relationship was “deeply respectful”, which is not exactly the warmest descriptor. Indeed, Francis’s decision to place Tobin in Newark, right across the Hudson River from New York, could very well signify his intention to grant him the pontifical favour Dolan has enjoyed since the early 2000s.
This may be the reason Francis made Tobin a cardinal in October 2016 and gave him Newark the following month. His sudden, rapid promotion is not unlike that of Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was promoted to Archbishop of Chicago in November 2014 and given the red zucchetto two years later. Cupich is another staunch supporter of Francis’s agenda in the overwhelmingly conservative American hierarchy.
Since his elevation, Cupich has been widely perceived as Pope Francis’s de facto spokesman in the United States, but he has made few friends among his fellow prelates. Last year, he was defeated in a bid to succeed Dolan for the coveted chair of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life committee – a humiliating blow to the “Francis party” among the bishops.
Cupich was conspicuously absent from the Villanova speakers’ list; and Tobin giving the keynote speech suggests he may be the Francis party’s new leader. So far, he has maintained a lower profile than his Chicago counterpart, and is not burdened with nearly as much animosity from traditionalist quarters. The question is whether he can avoid the Cupich’s divisive tone and reluctance to affirm orthodoxy. If his address to the Villanova conference is any indication, Tobin is well on his way.
This article first appeared in the April 20th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here