By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
ROME – After Ireland voted overwhelmingly last month to legalize abortion, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, took to Twitter to ask why people seemed surprised.
“The Western world has lost its moral compass; it is adamantly atheistic and amoral,” he tweeted out to his followers.
A few days later, more Twitter commentary appeared – this time it was lighter fare, with a tongue-in-cheek swipe at New England Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady:
“It’s being reported that Tom Brady will skip the Patriots OTAs [Organized Team Activities] again. Is that because: a) He’s so good he doesn’t need the practice; b) He avoids Coach Belichick whenever he can? Or, c) He’s attending the monthly meeting of the AARP?” Tobin mused.
(Tobin, for the record, is an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan.)
Since joining Twitter this past February, he’s become arguably the U.S. Church’s most active Catholic prelate to use the social media platform. While an increasing number of bishops have adapted to using Facebook and Twitter, many accounts are managed by diocesan staffers or, if they do manage them for themselves, are used for strictly Church-related purposes or causes.
In an interview with The Tablet, Tobin said he was hesitant to join the online community because he initially felt it was trivial and a waste of his time.
While he’s long used his diocesan newspaper column and an official Facebook page to communicate with his flock, he decided to take the plunge and join four months ago, and in that time he’s managed to fire off nearly 400 messages.
“Eventually, I came around and thought: the president is using it and the pope is using it…it has an impact,” he told The Tablet.
Describing has foray onto the platform as an “experiment,” he’s all too aware of both its virtues and its vices.
“Its chief virtue is that it’s immediate, and its network is enormous…I suppose that’s what President Trump finds so useful, too,” he said with a chuckle.
But in recognizing its downside, he says that anyone, including himself, can say anything.
“I need a heavy dose of prudence in things that I post, because I don’t use a lot of filters,” he added.
While recognizing that he’s not infallible in what he decides to post, he does see the platform as “an opportunity to expand the teaching office of the bishop,” through reflecting on scripture passages, offering commentary on the Liturgical seasons, explaining the backstory of the life of a particular saint, or expanding on something Pope Francis has recently said.
Yet while those tasks are essentially part of the job requirements for being a bishop, Tobin told The Tablet that using Twitter has also been an occasion for “humanizing the office of the bishop.”
“Most people don’t know bishops personally, but if I tweet something about my dog, or about the weather, or about my family, or the Steelers or the Patriots, it helps people to see the bishop is a real person and he has a life too outside of the realm of the Church,” he said.
And he clearly seems to be enjoying that aspect of it.
Earlier this month, he took to Twitter to ask for prayers for ongoing back pain – prayers, which he told The Tablet he received from all corners of the globe, which he found both humbling and encouraging.
But, in asking for those prayers, he added this wry disclaimer: “The good news is that my tweeting finger is working just fine. Infidels, heretics, atheists and apostates: beware!”
While some bishops prefer to shy away from neuralgic topics and seek to focus on broad principles of applying Catholic teaching to public life, Tobin hasn’t been one to hold back from speaking his mind.
In 2013, he made headlines by announcing that he had switched his party affiliation from the Democratic party to the Republican party following the 2012 Democratic convention, which he described as an “aha moment” over their official support for abortion and gay marriage.
Those are issues about which he’s been quick to weigh in on Twitter too, and he specifically mentions in his bio that he is “ardently pro-life.”
Yet although he’s known for his strong opposition to abortion, he’s also taken to Twitter on numerous occasions to support stricter gun control laws, a national debate that some bishops have been reluctant to get involved in.
“I just try to take the teachings of the Church and apply them to a variety of issues,” he said.
While there are certain issues that Tobin believes are closed and not up for debate, on other matters, he’s using Twitter to solicit feedback.
After the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced earlier this month that it would allow outdoor Catholic weddings to take place – becoming only the second place in the country to allow the practice – Tobin took to Twitter to solicit responses.
“I have mixed emotions about that. If it keeps some young couples involved in the Church, that’s excellent. Or, does it risk losing even more the sense of the sacred surrounding Holy Matrimony? Your opinion?” he tweeted out.
To date, the question has garnered 392 replies.
While he says the issue isn’t on the table for his own diocese at the moment, he told The Tablet it’s been discussed before and will likely be revisited in the future, and he simply wanted to hear what people thought about the matter.
Similarly, just last week, he created a Twitter poll to ask: “What is the best thing to do with a permanently closed Catholic Church?”
In all of these matters – be they substantial questions about spirituality, hot-button policy debates, or even side commentary about sports – Tobin believes it shows a level of engagement that the Church should always be seeking to provide.
“It helps the Church, and me in particular, to be relevant to things going on in the world,” he said.
Yet despite the fun he’s having with Twitter – and the authentic value he believes it can provide – he says he hasn’t lost sight of what matters most.
“It just occurred to me that if I spent as much time with my Bible as I do with my smartphone, I’d be a much better Bishop,” he tweeted last month.
Perhaps, it’s an honest reminder to both himself and his followers that while the Good News can be found and shared in multiple mediums, it’s still the message that matters most.