Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has long been known as a forthright voice against the injustice of abortion in America. During presidential and off-year elections, he has openly stated that Catholics cannot, in good conscience, vote for candidates who actively support abortion. He criticized future-president Joe Biden for his pro-abortion views during his presidential campaign in 2020. In 2021, he released a statement expressing his disappointment and even indignation over 2nd Congressional District Rep. James Langevin’s (and other Catholic politicians’) stance on abortion in the U.S.
He often pointed out aspects of modern culture that are not aligned with Church teaching, particularly when it came to political life.
Of his candid words and actions, Lisa Cooley, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Family and Life Ministry, said: “… [Bishop Tobin] was always outspoken about the Church being pro-life and spoke out frequently on pro-life issues and Church teaching. … He spoke out when he knew it would bring backlash, but that did not stop him from speaking the truth.”
Cooley stated that Bishop Tobin demonstrated his pro-life convictions with his attendance at annual diocesan events such as the 40 Days for Life kickoff, the Day of Remembrance, Human Life Guild Day and Life Chain Sunday. Though she had only been in her position for the last three years of Bishop Tobin’s episcopacy, she offered her thanks to him for “being a good and faithful shepherd.”
Upon his arrival in Providence, Bishop Tobin founded the Human Life Guild. Longtime guild member and the Respect Life Ministry coordinator for St. Luke Parish in Barrington Jean Ernster describes the ministry’s work as an organization “which strives to build a culture of life through its members and is a conduit to programs that serve those in need of God’s mercy, such as the St. Gabriel’s Call pregnancy outreach and Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion healing retreats and counseling. The guild provides parishioners a path to become ‘People of Life’ by joining the guild and putting their faith into action.”
She continued: “The Human Life Guild board has inspired many ideas which have been implemented by our Respect Life apostolate to cultivate pro-life awareness and educational opportunities,” including presentations on natural death (the opposite end of the pro-life spectrum) and providing information to voters about legislative issues.
Their best-known contribution, according to Ernster, might be the annual St. Gabriel’s Call Baby Shower to benefit the diocesan Gabriel pregnancy outreach. This event is a cooperative, life-giving effort involving almost every ministry and parishioner in some aspect to collect, display and deliver countless contributions of material supplies, diapers, infant and toddler clothes, handmade quilts and gift cards to the diocese for distribution to parents of babies who need assistance.”
Additionally, each year the guild hosts a Mass whereupon individuals in the local community are honored for their defense of life and where “Bishop Tobin always uplifted his flock with words of encouragement.” Ernster also spoke of his presence at marches and prayer services, particularly those held in front of the abortion clinic.
“We are grateful that Bishop Tobin has been a courageous shepherd and steadfast role model in promoting and defending the Catholic teachings on the dignity and sanctity of every human life,” she concluded.
The bishop’s pro-life beliefs extended beyond the womb as well. Judy Costa, another member of the guild, spoke about Bishop Tobin’s “extraordinary” support of all those in need.
“He championed the practical issues of everyday life, like his support of food pantries, heat, mental health and a shelter for the homeless,” she told the Rhode Island Catholic. “He supported our efforts to walk with parents that received a poor prenatal diagnosis and those that struggled in abusive marriages.”
Throughout her 23 years working with post-abortive women through Rachel’s Vineyard, Costa has seen Bishop Tobin demonstrate comfort and compassion toward women who made the regrettable decision to abort their unborn children. “He never wavered in his financial and prayerful support for the individuals who sought healing from the pain and grief of their choice to abort.”
Spoken beliefs became action for the bishop in 2015. When an unborn child washed up in the Bucklin Wastewater Treatment Facility in January of that year, Bishop Tobin requested permission to offer a proper Christian burial for “Baby Francis.” After a five-month investigation, the infant’s body was handed over to the Diocese of Providence and a Mass of Christian Burial was held on June 10, laying the baby to rest in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence. Though little was known about the child, and nothing known about how he had ended up in the water filtration plant, the bishop firmly believed that “Every child bears the face of Jesus, this child does as well.”
“Baby Francis,” and whoever his parents were, deserved prayers. The bishop himself chose the infant’s name, in honor of the pope and his efforts to make abortion unthinkable in modern society. Boyle Funeral Home donated the small white casket adorned with a plaque saying simply “Baby Francis 2015”; the diocesan Office of Catholic Cemeteries donated the burial plot for the child.
Beyond pro-life issues, Bishop Tobin boldly defended traditional marriage and family life.
In a 2020 interview with the Providence Journal, Bishop Tobin stated that: “I know these are sensitive issues,” he said, “but I’m not a hateful or angry person.” He expressed his love for people with same-sex attraction, but his determination not to back down from Church teaching.
Regardless of the controversy his words could and did sometimes cause, Bishop Tobin understood well the full weight of his actions, his obligations to God and the people he served. “If I don’t get people’s attention,” Bishop Tobin said in that same interview, “even negative, I’m probably not doing my job.”
“The goal is not to hurt people, it’s to share the teachings of Christ.”
Those who defend life, however, praised his efforts in standing up for the unborn, even beyond the realm of the Catholic world. R.I. Right to Life Executive Director Barth E. Bracy stated that: “Bishop Tobin was to the pro-life movement in America what Bishop Clemens von Galen was to the opposition movement in Germany. The clarity and courage with which this Lion of Providence so consistently spoke was deeply appreciated by many of us in the pro-life movement.”