Tobin becomes third American member of Vatican bishops office

News: Vatican appointments

Cardinal Joseph Tobin will become the third American-born bishop sitting on the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican press office announced on Thursday. The three American-born bishops on the Vatican congregation are expected to have considerable influence on the appointment of bishops to U.S. dioceses.

Tobin joins Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, and Chicago-born Bishop Robert Prevost, an Augustinian currently serving as a diocesan bishop in Peru, at the congregation charged with recommending candidates to the pope for vacant dioceses. 

The congregation also handles cases involving accusations of negligence or abuse of office against bishops under the terms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 law issued by Pope Francis in the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the global summit on clerical sexual abuse.

Until 2013, Cardinals Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali both served on the Congregation for Bishops. Pope Francis replaced them with Cardinal Donald Wuerl that year, and added Cupich to the congregation in 2016. Wuerl’s appointment ended in November 2020, when the cardinal turned 80, and the pope appointed Prevost in the same month. 

When a diocese is in need of a new bishop, the names of priests under consideration for appointment are generally forwarded to the Congregation for Bishops by apostolic nuncios— papal representatives serving in countries around the world. The staff of the congregation vets and prepares dossiers on the potential bishops. The bishops who serve on the congregation — now including Tobin, Cupich, and Prevost — are involved in discussions about which candidates to forward to the pope for selection. 

The presence of three American-born bishops on the congregation will give them considerable influence on which priests are appointed to become bishops in the U.S., and which American bishops are selected to be appointed when large U.S. dioceses become vacant. Tobin, Cupich, and Prevost are all generally regarded as theologically and socially progressive, suggesting that future appointments to U.S. dioceses will likely reflect a similar theological outlook.

While the theological approach of those bishops is now the minority position among U.S. bishops, their influence at the Congregation for Bishops could over time reshape considerably the makeup of the American episcopate. Some observers have suggested that Prevost’s posting in South America, and his rapport with Tobin and Cupich, could also give him considerable influence over the congregation’s work to fill South American diocesan vacancies.

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Cardinal Tobin, 68, was ordained a priest in the Redemptorists, and was made Archbishop of Newark by Pope Francis in 2017. Before that, Tobin was Archbishop of Indianapolis for five years, and became a cardinal while in that position. 

Before he led the Indianapolis archdiocese, Tobin worked in Rome as secretary at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and he continues to have a reputation for quiet competence in Rome.

In January, The Pillar reported that Tobin has been asked to broker a resolution between his former archdiocese in Indiana and a local Catholic school run by the Jesuits. Curial officials told The Pillar that Tobin’s opinion is “very trusted” in the Vatican on the matter.

Within the U.S. bishops’ conference, Tobin has sometimes appeared to act as a voice of moderation, even while he is generally perceived to take a progressive theological line.

On Inauguration Day, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez issued a statement reiterating the Church’s “preeminent priority” of ending legal abortion, and highlighting the inconsistency of President Joe Biden’s Catholicism with his stated policy aims. After an initial attempt to have the statement blocked by the Vatican failed, Cardinal Cupich issued a public critique of Gomez’s  statement and called for an investigation into how it came to be released. 

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Cardinal Tobin was widely reported to have shared Cupich’s concerns, but instead of engaging in public criticism of the conference leadership, Tobin struck a conciliatory line:

“Even people who would be well disposed to the president find it difficult to understand [how President Biden] can conjugate his stance on [the abortion] issue—which is so important to Catholics—and this faith that has been so important to him all of his life,” Tobin said in an interview. “What I don’t understand are people who use very harsh words and want to cut off all communication with the president because of this.”

Tobin similarly appeared to act as a peacemaker among his brother bishops following an acrimonious exchange on the floor of the U.S. bishops’ November assembly in 2019, after San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy told the assembly that calling abortion the “preeminent priority” of the bishops’ social policy agenda was “discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent.”

While McElroy’s comments provoked visible and audible anger from the conference floor, it was Tobin who attempted to reconcile the situation at a subsequent press conference. While affirming the bishops’ preeminent concern with abortion, he attempted to rehabilitate McElroy’s fractious interjections, saying the bishop “was warning against exclusive choices – either/or – or highlighting something to the point that other issues disappear. And I think, if I have understood his intention correctly, he was right.”

While often appearing to act as a moderating voice among U.S. bishops, Tobin nevertheless has a reputation as a theological and social progressive within the conference. 

He has, for example, championed “Building a Bridge,” Fr. James Martin’s controversial book on how the Church should engage with the issue of homosexuality. While some U.S. bishops have been critical of Martin’s book, and the priest’s public voice on the issue of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, Tobin called the book “brave, prophetic, and inspiring.” 

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During the 2020 presidential election, Tobin discussed his own political leanings with candor. “There are serious reasons to not consider either party as being representative of the Catholic tradition," he said in an interview. The cardinal stoked controversy when he added his view that Catholics could vote for Biden in good conscience, and that he himself would “have a more difficult time with the other option,” namely Donald Trump.

Tobin leads a diocese that was for 14 years overseen by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, in which McCarrick is now known to have sexually abused and harassed seminarians and young priests. While Cardinal Tobin has said he is conducting an archdiocesan investigation into McCarrick’s activities in the archdiocese, he has not yet released to the public any results of the investigation, including records of McCarrick’s alleged financial misconduct. 

Tobin has claimed he is not able to release any material on McCarrick until the conclusion of an investigation by New Jersey’s attorney general, but has pledged transparency of records, including financial transparency, after that investigation is resolved.