Cardinal Tobin’s real-life approach to faith

Let your faith be how you see the world, says this newly appointed cardinal.

Faith, says Joseph Cardinal Tobin, is not what you do on Sunday mornings. It’s who you are. It’s how you see. It’s how you act.

“A joke I use sometimes to illustrate this is the one about the priest who’s reading his breviary on a plane,” he says. “At one point the flight attendant comes out of the cockpit rather ashen-faced and says, ‘The pilot informs us we can’t get the landing gear to descend. Make sure you’re strapped in and assume the crash position.’ The priest snaps his breviary shut and says, ‘Oh my God, I’d better pray.’ ”

He’s got an easy sense of humor, but Cardinal Tobin takes his role as a leader of the faithful seriously. He’s one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s most prominent voices against deportations and immigration bans. As the previous archbishop of Indianapolis he challenged Vice President Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, when Pence proclaimed Syrian refugees would not be resettled in the state. More recently he accompanied Catalino Guerrero, a Mexican immigrant faced with deportation, to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center after Guerrero was summoned to appear there in March.

His model of leadership is notable—one of accompaniment that does not shy away from reminders that our gospel mandate is to serve the common good—and it’s earned him a reputation as a “Francis bishop.” Cardinal Tobin says the association is inevitable (the pope named him a cardinal and appointed him to the embattled Newark archdiocese late last year). “Personally, I think that ‘Francis bishops’ are going to look different, and I hope so,” he says.

You said at your installation as the archbishop of Newark that the biggest challenge the church faces today is the chasm between life and faith. What did you mean by that?

We’re encouraged to compartmentalize faith. Faith is seen as equivalent to worship and thereby reduced to an hour on Sunday morning, if that. It really impoverishes the notion of faith, of which the biblical image is a type of vision, a different way of looking at things.

Faith is not an opiate or belief in the pie in the sky and the great by‑and‑by. It’s about the great drama of human existence and seeing something differently. I think that part of ministry and the life of the church is to help people make that connection, to see something differently.

Faith tells me that my life with God is not simply about me and Jesus, because if it’s just me and Jesus, then it’s mainly about me. Faith impels me to have the vision to see other people not as objects or people who will do things that will meet my needs but as fellow daughters and sons of God, as brothers and sisters, as fellow pilgrims.

I ask Catholics to reflect: Do we identify predominantly with a political school or a personality or a label? Or primarily as disciples of Jesus?


This notion of “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious,” is really another way of saying, “I want to separate the faith part of me from everything else.” But religion is a lifestyle. It means that what I believe influences the way that I live. I think that’s true in politics as well.

How can we bridge the chasm?

One way to do that is with the gift of forgiveness when you’ve been grievously harmed by somebody. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, the members of the church community and the families of those slain by Dylann Roof said, “We forgive that fellow, even though he broke our hearts and took our loved ones.” It was a very difficult position for people to understand. In fact, they were criticized. People asked, “Do you have a right to forgive something like that?”

It reminded me of something I read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in prison. One day he looked out his cell window and saw that the guards were constructing a scaffold on which they were going to execute his best friend. Bonhoeffer wrote, “I realized at that moment that if I didn’t forgive them, if I couldn’t forgive them, I’d never be free.”

That’s a connection that you can make only by faith, especially in an environment that prizes vindictiveness, like our society today.

You mentioned politics. Do you think it’s important for Catholics to engage in political life?

Absolutely. If I could change anything it would be to restore the luster to the word politician. It comes from the Greek polis, which originally meant “the people.” A politician is somebody who works for the common good.

That wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to people’s minds today.

Is there a danger when we disengage from politics?

I think Catholics—certainly if they’re unreflective or they’ve got a lot of other things on their mind—can follow a trend unquestioningly. There’s pretty good evidence that the American people are disengaged from the political debate and from the political process. There’s been low turnout for elections, and qualified people are reluctant to get into the political arena for a lot of reasons.

What about “hot-button” issues? Should Catholics move away from them?

Those issues are issues. The problem is that we use them as litmus tests to say, “I want to know what you think about this, and then I’ll decide whether I’m going to talk to you anymore.”


I like what Pope Francis is saying: Talk. Or, even better, meet each other doing good. He’s fostering a culture of encounter. You’ll be able to talk about the other things as you go along. The hot-button issues are used to forgo any sort of dialogue.

Do you think that we, as a church, got something wrong when we started categorizing all political issues in terms of what’s pro-life and what’s not?

One of the great services of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, was how he talked about the seamless garment. There’s a certain coherency that the life ethic brings us to. We may have gotten off the track when that coherency was reduced to a couple of areas.


We don’t sound coherent to other people when we take a very proactive stance in one area and then are silent or quite contrary on other life issues. But I think if we understand the life ethic as Cardinal Bernardin tried to teach, then “pro‑life” can mean something. Right now it’s heard as just having to do with one very narrow area. We need to be able to say, “It’s just all. It’s all.”

Do you think it’s difficult for bishops to talk about politics in the United States?

Yes, I think it is. I suppose one of the lenses I see life through is the experience of being the eldest child in a large family. I have 12 siblings. I think that gives you a sensitivity to try and keep everybody out of the street, meaning to not run in front of cars.


I recall once we had an ice storm in Michigan. We had a backyard that was about as big as a dining room table, but we could skate. We’re all out there on a Friday night, and one sister thought she’d lick the fence.

She got stuck. I go get a glass of warm water, go over to her, get on my knees, and carefully pour the water over her tongue. Another sister came to see how this could happen, so she licked the fence. All of a sudden I’ve got two sisters stuck on the fence. I was a little less gentle with the second sister.

My point is, as a bishop what you want to do is keep everybody in the tent if you can. Keep them from licking the fence or running out in the street. That isn’t always easy. In regards to politics, people make up their minds, and they should, but as a bishop I have to say, “This is what I think the gospels call us to.”

You were the archbishop of Indianapolis when Vice President Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana and announced a ban on Syrian refugees. What was your response?

It really began in November of 2015 with the terrorist attacks in Paris. Most of the terrorists that police could identify were European-born. But near the body of one dead terrorist was a Syrian passport. I think for political reasons people seized on this and said, “This is a way that we can also oppose the Obama administration.” About 30 governors, including Governor Pence, but not all of them Republicans, then said, “No Syrians will be allowed in our state.”


The church in Indianapolis was just about to settle a new Syrian family. We’d been resettling families from Syria and other places. And this particular family—a mom, dad, and two little kids—had been in the pipeline for about two and a half years. They’d been in a refugee camp in Jordan. The family in question also had connections in Indiana, since some of the relatives were already there.

The other agency in Indiana that was resettling refugees was a group called Exodus, which is associated with the Episcopal Church, and they went to court to fight the ban. They were going to bring a Syrian family in and then diverted them to Connecticut, I believe, which welcomed the family.

Really, the federal government has the responsibility to make decisions about who will and won’t be let into the country. Once the government has admitted somebody to the country, states don’t have much of a say about whether they can come or not. So then-Governor Pence said, “We won’t pay for them.” OK, if you’re not going to pay for them, we (the church) will find the money. The refugee families weren’t going to be a burden on the state.

In early December 2015 I went to Governor Pence with the director of Catholic Charities, Indianapolis but also with this wonderful woman named Heidi Smith, the director of the Refugee Resettlement Program. We brought along an Iraqi refugee who we had resettled a decade before and is now an American citizen. He has a university degree and was working at one of the big hotels in Indianapolis, working as the coffee director.

Why did you bring him?

What I always feel is important, especially with big political issues such as this one, is to put a face on it. Let people see that this is who you’re talking about. Ali was just so proud to tell the governor he was an American citizen and that he was hoping one day his family could join him.

The dominant rhetoric or narrative that we have to protect ourselves from terrorists is not only promulgated by politicians but also by very irresponsible media outlets, such as cable news channels that have lost the plot and use phrases like “sleeper cells.” Speculation promotes this unreasonable fear.

The governor asked me to think about the issue, and I did. I prayed about it, and I informed him what I thought. I also said to him, “Look, I’m not going to talk about this to the media, because I think polemics have to be fed. You and I know what we said. If you choose to polemicize it, that’s your business, but I’m not going to.”

I didn’t, and he didn’t either. We still talk to each other. We don’t throw punches or anything.

You’ve recently talked about your life in a religious community and the idea of fraternal correction. What does that mean? Can it apply to the life of lay Catholics?

I remember bishops saying that they were really upset with Pope Francis because they thought that he was discouraging bishops and priests by criticizing them all the time. I said, “I don’t feel that way. I feel he’s offering us an examination of conscience. If it’s yours, own it. If it’s not, let it go.”

The gospels call us to fraternal correction, to care for our brothers and sisters. We have a responsibility to at least carry a message. What our brothers and sisters ultimately do with the message is their choice and their responsibility.

My experience of fraternal correction is someone saying to me, “Do you realize that you dominate conversations,” or, “You talk past me,” or, “When I talk to you, I don’t feel you’re listening to me.”

An example I’ll use from my own life: I don’t have a really good eye for certain things. I worked for a while as a tool and die worker when I was in college. I used to admire these fellows who could look at a piece of metal and see the angles. They’d look at a print and could see exactly what they had to do, the cuts they’d have to make.

I’d look at the print, and then I’d have to get a ruler and a stylus and score it out on the metal. Then when I started to cut it, I could cut only a little bit at a time. I’d have to step back and keep looking at it because if you keep going and you’re wrong, it’s harder to correct. Same thing if I have to sew my pants; I can put in a few stitches, but then I have to look.

Fraternal correction is an invitation to contemplation. It’s an opportunity to step back from your life and look and ask, “Is that true? Am I being inauthentic?” It’s not simply just jumping on somebody and correcting what they’re doing wrong.

It’s fraternal. You invite the contemplation because you’re a brother to somebody. You’re not a cop or the dean of discipline. You’re a brother. You’re a sister. That’s why you’re doing it.

I think spouses can do this for each other. It isn’t always pleasant, but they can help each other discover the good that’s in them: “I think you’re better than that, than what you’re doing.” It’s in the service of a greater good and in the service of relationships.

Some have labeled you as a “Francis bishop.” What does that mean to you?

I suppose some of that association is inevitable. Of all the speeches Pope Francis gave when he was here in the United States, one of the most impressive statements he made was the one that was attributed to him on the plane going back to Rome.

They had one of these impromptu press conferences. As I was packing my bag the next morning in Philadelphia, listening to the news, I heard a reporter say, “I asked him how he felt now that he was practically a rock star in the United States.”

The reporter said the pope got very serious and said, “That’s a dangerous place for me to be. I have to make sure that I do what I do for the right reasons. Stars are beautiful, but they fade. My job is to be the servant of the servants of God.” He was referring to the ancient title of the pope, servus servorum Dei.

The thing it told me about Francis is that he knows something about himself, that the adulation can be addictive. That’s a dangerous place, and it could cloud his motivation. It’s a self‑knowledge and then a choice: “This is why I do what I do, for the right reasons.”

This article also appears in the July 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 7, pages 18–22).

Image: Via Wikimedia Commons