INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (RNS) Less than a month ago, Pope Francis announced that he was making Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin this city’s first cardinal, astonishing local Catholics to say nothing of Catholic insiders nationwide. But Tobin is the kind of pastoral progressive the pontiff likes, and now he’s on his way to Newark to replace a bad actor in one of the country’s biggest archdioceses.
This is how Francis is working to remake the episcopate in the U.S.
Tobin, 64, belongs to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists), a missionary order dedicated to helping the poor that he headed for a dozen years. He served as secretary to the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders, in which capacity he publicly criticized the way Rome was handling its investigations of American nuns.
His appointment as archbishop of Indianapolis by Pope Benedict may have been intended as exile by some in the Roman Curia but Hoosiers didn’t see it that way.
“He seemed to be a person being groomed to be in the next generation of Catholic leaders in the United States,” said Ray Haberski, a history professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis who attends St. Luke Catholic Church on the city’s west side. “And that was very clear to us when he arrived.”
During his four years in Indianapolis, Tobin stood apart from the cultural politics of the Republican political establishment. In 2015, he tried to mediate between advocates and opponents of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act and was conspicuous by his absence when Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law.
“Tobin’s presence here made Indianapolis less reactionary,” Haberski said. And when Francis tapped the archbishop for a red cap, “it affirmed that Indianapolis mattered in Catholic circles in the United States.”
At a press conference last month, Tobin expressed a desire to remain at his post, but the only surprise about his transfer to a larger see is that it happened so fast.
In Newark, Tobin will take over from Archbishop John Myers, a conservative martinet notorious for protecting a series of abusive priests. Two years ago, Myers infuriated parishioners by spending over $500,000 of the archdiocese’s funds to expand a lavish retirement home for himself.
If Tobin has an easy act to follow in New Jersey, he’ll have an interesting role to play in the greater New York area.
Sitting across the Hudson River is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the genial prelate whose conservative star has gone into eclipse since Pope Francis replaced Pope Benedict. Tobin, who is no less genial, may not have St. Patrick’s bully pulpit but he’s got the red hat and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.