Editors' note: On Nov. 7 the Vatican confirmed that Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin has been named as the new archbishop of Newark.
For American church watchers, Pope Francis’ decision earlier this month to make Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin a cardinal was something of a surprise. But maybe we should have seen it coming. The two men have known each other for more than a decade and Francis gave a papal nod of approval to the archbishop two years ago.
They met in Rome in 2005 when they were assigned to the same working group for the Synod on the Eucharist. Archbishop Tobin was the superior general of his religious order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, when he and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio struck up a conversation about the newly elected pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. They talked about how happy they were to have a new leader, but Archbishop Tobin told Cardinal Bergoglio that back in the states, his mother had been rooting for the Argentine Jesuit. Surprised, the future pope asked why.
“Well, she read in the newspaper that you pick up after yourself and you cook your own food and wash your own clothes,” Archbishop Tobin recalled telling him. “She’s had it up to here with the sort of monarchic church!”
The future pope laughed, and the remarks apparently made an impression.
“Whenever I’ve seen him since, one of the questions he immediately asks me is, ‘How’s your mother? Is she still alive? Does she pray for me?’” the archbishop said in an interview on Oct. 14 with America, conducted at the University of Notre Dame.
The cardinal-designate discussed a range of topics: his experience with Catholic sisters during their Vatican investigation, his hopes for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, his thoughts on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and, of course, the inescapable U.S. election.
Ordained a priest in Redemptorist order in 1978, Archbishop Tobin, who speaks five languages, worked in parishes in Detroit and Chicago. By 1997 he was head of his religious order, based in Rome, and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI promoted him to archbishop, assigning him the task of managing the Vatican office that oversees religious life.
Around this time the Vatican had launched two investigations of Catholics sisters in the United States, apparently the result of the dissatisfaction among some church officials at what they saw as a drift away from traditional church teaching on contentious social issues among U.S. women religious.
For his part, Archbishop Tobin emerged as an advocate for the sisters, ruffling the feathers of some church leaders. After serving just two years of a five-year term, he was promoted to serve as archbishop of Indianapolis, traditionally not a premier post in the American church.
Archbishop Tobin told America that the investigation of Catholic sisters has helped Americans understand the vital role that the women have played in the U.S. church.
“It got people asking questions about the role of women religious in the history of the United States church,” he said. “I think they immediately understood, or maybe understood in a more profound way, just what an important, critical role sisters play.”
Today in Rome, the archbishop said there is there is a sense of “appreciation and gratitude” toward American sisters among church officials.
Two years after he was assigned to Indianapolis, Archbishop Tobin was asked by Pope Francis to advise the church on religious life once again, naming him a member of the department he previously ran.
When he is elevated to the rank of cardinal on Nov. 18, Archbishop Tobin will join Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley as the second American member of a religious community given the honor. He said the pope, a Jesuit, understands the different perspectives members of religious communities can offer.
“I think Redemptorists always like to look on the other side of the tracks and care for people that maybe the church isn’t able to care for,” he said. “Our founder spoke of the most abandoned poor and that can take different form in different areas. The way I hear it, and the way I would speak of it when I was superior general, was basically we must go where the church isn’t able to go.”
One of those areas is online. This summer, Archbishop Tobin joined Twitter, tweeting occasionally from the handle @JoeTobin. He said he finds social media appealing because it can introduce people to ideas and perspectives they might not otherwise find—if they resist the temptation to create an echo chamber for themselves.
“What I find is really important in positions like mine is being able to listen,” he said, and Twitter has been helping him do that. “Maybe not if you just select people who you think agree with yourself. I think that’s the real seduction of social media and the Internet, is what should have been a marketplace of ideas becomes even more divisive because it isolates people from other opinions.”
When he is made a cardinal, Archbishop Tobin will be one of the most influential members among the U.S. hierarchy, one that has sometimes struggled to find its footing in the Francis era.
When asked what he would like to see in the future for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which meets next month to elect new officers and consider a new strategic plan, Archbishop Tobin said he is “still learning,” noting that he was in Rome for the better part of two decades and has only been a U.S. bishop for four years. “I was kind of on the outside looking in on a lot of things,” he said.
He said one of the challenges facing the roughly 400 American bishops, however, is communicating with one another.
“I think our Holy Father places a great value on discernment in a synodal way, synodal meaning people who are on the same path,” he said. “We can learn from the Eastern churches a little bit more about that.”
Archbishop Tobin said it would be helpful to “develop a spirit of discernment among us, reading the signs of the times and places in the light of the faith, and being able to talk about that and asking ourselves, what is God’s will? Where is God opening a door?”
Some of the areas where Archbishop Tobin cited the need for dialogue included the question of women being ordained as deacons, the rights of openly gay church workers and how to implement the pope’s apostolic exhortation on family life, written after an at-times contentious two-year meeting of bishops from around the world about family issues.
Some bishops believe the exhortation, “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”), provides a route for divorced and remarried Catholic to be welcomed back to Communion, a position that Francis himself reportedly endorsed. Asked if he agreed, Archbishop Tobin reflected a bit.
“If we reduce that reflection, which is really the product of two synods, to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this question or that question,” he said, “we’ve done violence to the text.”
But, he said, “What the Holy Father is proposing is a process of discernment as pastors with the people of God.
“That isn’t a fancy name for relativism or changing timeless doctrine,” he continued, “but a way of thinking of what it means to follow or lead a life of discipleship today.”
Earlier this year, the pope announced the creation of a panel to study whether the early church ordained women as deacons, which, depending on the group’s findings, could open the door to the practice today. Archbishop Tobin the church has “no fear” in studying the question and said it should be a “church-uniting issue.”
Ultimately, though, the decision on allowing women to enter the diaconate lies with the pope.
“If the study provides the pope with what’s needed to say this is a way of serving in the church, I’d say that’d be fine,” he said.
On another front, the church in the United States has struggled with how to deal with openly gay employees in recent years, especially during the push for same-sex marriage that culminated with a Supreme Court ruling legalizing it in all 50 states last year. Last month, for example, a church musician in the Diocese of Providence, R.I., was fired after he married his same-sex partner.
Archbishop Tobin said he was not sure if a national policy that applied across dioceses, where responses to openly gay employees tend to vary, could work. He said that while he has not faced these issues in Indianapolis, he would deal with them on a case-by-case basis if they ever came up.
“If I have someone who is a teacher, I think that’s a little different than someone who is a [chief financial officer],” he said. “I would want to speak with the person about it, and ask, ‘Do you find any sort of dissonance within yourself teaching faithfully what the church teaches and the choices you make in your life?’”
Archbishop Tobin made national headlines late last year when he defied a request from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence not to resettle a Syrian family through the local Catholic Charities office. Mr. Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, cited security concerns as the reasons why he did not think certain refugees should be settled in Indiana.
The archbishop refused and Catholic Charities resettled the family. Since then, some Catholic bishops have accused Mr. Pence’s running mate of promoting xenophobic policies, such as building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or banning Muslim refugees from entering the United States.
The archbishop said Catholics must resist these kinds of proposals and consider them as they cast their votes next month. He said fear drives much of the support for such policies.
“People feel like their own culture is disappearing, that it’s being taken over by other people and not only that, but some of these people want to kill them,” he said. “Well, I think you challenge that and say, ‘No, that’s not true.’”
He also addressed the recent claims of anti-Catholicism among senior Hillary Clinton staffers, the result of hacked emails released by Wikileaks earlier this month. Without referencing the contents of the emails themselves, Archbishop Tobin said he “thinks there’s some” anti-Catholicism in certain political circles but said the key is “to challenge that with truth.”
In addition to helping the pope run the global church, a cardinal’s key role is to elect a new pope.
The archbishop declined to elaborate when asked what qualities he would look for when it comes time to pick Francis’ successor, noting he was still processing the news that he may someday help pick a pope.
But he did offer praise for Francis, saying he thought one the pope’s most admirable traits is his sense of humor, which naturally leads to “a sense of humility, a genuine awareness of himself.”
If Archbishop Tobin is still grappling with what it means to be a cardinal, maybe it’s because he wasn’t given much of a heads up.
The pope made the announcement that he had selected 17 men to serve as new cardinals in Rome on Oct. 9 around noon, very early in the morning in Indiana.
“I got up in the morning and I was going to use my iPad to pray, with the iBreviary, and I saw all these tweets and messages,” he said. “And that’s how I found out. I had no idea.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters.” Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.