On Wednesday, bishops in the United States divided publicly over a statement by their conference president on the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Reaction to the letter highlighted a division which has been widening among conference members for some time.
Many have observed a growing rift between the elected conference leadership and those supporting Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who has been promoted by some as “Pope Francis’s man” in the Church in the U.S.
Less attention has been paid to Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who was also uncomfortable with the USCCB statement. But, while Tobin is often to be found on the more progressive side of debates among the U.S. bishops, the cardinal has shied away from the more dramatic statements favored by some of his peers.
As the veneer of consensus among American bishops continues to crack, the Newark cardinal may find he has to choose between two roles: either serving as the designated apologist for the dissenting minority, or emerging as a voice for genuine consensus in the conference.
While some bishops have privately accused Cupich of attempting to be the tail that wags the dog in recent conference assemblies, and of trying to scold his peers in public, Tobin has consistently avoided such confrontations.
The USCCB is, by its nature, a collegial institution, but it is not a guarantor of universal consensus. Differences of opinion are inevitable, but the tradition has been to keep them behind closed doors, and for the bishops to be seen to speak with one voice. That has changed in recent years, especially in the run-up to last year’s election and the fallout of the McCarrick scandal.
While tetchy, sometimes barbed, exchanges from the floor have become more common at recent USCCB meetings, a new breach was opened yesterday, with the delay and then eventual release of a statement from conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez.
Gomez’s inauguration day statement pledged the bishops to defending moral truths “in and out of season.” While stressing the many areas for fruitful collaboration with the Biden administration, it made explicit the Church’s “preeminent priority” of ending the genocide of abortion, especially under the administration of a Catholic who renounced his previous prolife leanings to seek the presidency.
While many bishops lined up publicly to support Gomez, at least one prominent bishop condemned the tone as unnecessarily confrontational and aggressive for a day of national unity.
In the hours before its release, Cardinal Cupich reportedly led an unsuccessful attempt to rally support among the bishops to tear up Gomez’s letter and replace it with an alternative text. Given the cardinal’s reputation for taking a somewhat high-handed tone with the conference members and leadership, limited response to his appeal is perhaps understandable.
Instead, Cupich took to Twitter to call Gomez’s letter “ill-considered” and said there was “no precedent “ for being “critical” of an incoming administration on Inauguration Day. Although Cupich said the document lacked “collegial consultation,” the majority of the bishops responding publicly to Gomez’s statement were overtly supportive.
Cardinal Tobin is widely reported to have shared Cupich’s complaints. And the Newark cardinal is by no means shy of voicing his opinions: Before the election he acknowledged that “there are serious reasons to not consider either party as being representative of the Catholic tradition," but that Catholics could vote for Biden in good conscience and that he himself would “have a more difficult time with the other option.”
But in contrast to Cupich’s “not my conference” moment on Twitter on Wednesday, Tobin struck a more diplomatic line.
In an interview Wednesday, Tobin acknowledged that “Even people who would be well disposed to the president find it difficult to [understand how] he 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.”
“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 continued, seeming to grasp for a via media that might appease all parties.
Many would find room to agree with Tobin on the need to keep open lines of communication with the White House, while also noting that there is, to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Cupich, “no precedent” for a Catholic president who ran for office while running away from his career-long, albeit tepid, support for limiting abortion.
As private divisions among the bishops become more public, the question becomes: Is Tobin’s stake in the middle ground genuine conciliation, or political triangulation? The former could open a path to providing a needed voice in the conference, while the latter will likely prove ineffectual - even unsustainable - if tensions continue to escalate.
It is, of course, not the first time Tobin has found himself speaking from the middle of episcopal disagreement on the subject abortion and politics.
Yesterday’s public spat echoed previous exchanges among the bishops over designating abortion as the “preeminent priority” for American Catholics. In November 2019, Cupich proposed inserting a long paragraph of text to contextualize the phrase in the bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
There followed a fractious debate, in which Bishop McElroy of San Diego - a close friend and ally of Cupich - spoke in favor of the addition, adding that “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not.”
McElroy also told the bishops their acknowledgement of the killing of nearly a million unborn children a year as a preeminent priority was “discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent.”
The comments were not well received on the conference floor, and appeared obviously at odds with the pope’s own statements on the subject. And it was Tobin who took the stage at the subsequent press conference to calm the fire.
Asked about the incident, Tobin responded: “The short answer is that yes, abortion is the preeminent concern and the vote [of the bishops] makes that obvious.”
At the same time, Tobin worked to rehabilitate McElroy provocations, 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.”
It is not unusual for Tobin to appear on both sides of an issue.
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 calling the work “brave, prophetic, and inspiring,” Tobin has also toed a narrow line on exactly how far such statements of support can go, backing a decision in his own archdiocese to fire of a Catholic school employee in a same-sex union.
Where Tobin’s thoughts and ambitions really lie can appear something of a mystery to many: Is he a calculating and cautious radical, who simply knows how far he can go in public, or is he a genuinely open mind of moderation, committed to defending the Church’s teachings? We may soon find out.
After Wednesday’s exchanges over the Gomez statement, many expect the U.S. bishops to become more visibly divided in their public engagement.
It seems clear that a minority of bishops like Cardinal Cupich are not prepared to follow the elected conference leadership. It seems equally clear that the majority of the conference are not prepared to be lectured in public or hectored in their assemblies.
This clears a space for someone to emerge as a voice of conciliation, helping to articulate the priorities of the majority while blunting the more confrontational tendencies of the minority.
Whether Cardinal Tobin wants that role is not so clear.