Cdl. Tobin: In an unmerciful world, the Church isn’t always seen as an instrument of mercy

One of America’s new cardinals speaks on the space for mercy in doctrine, the Church’s future interactions with President-Elect Trump, and the next gathering of the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Francis realizes that we live in an unmerciful world and that the Church has not always been seen as a source of mercy.

This is the view of Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the new American cardinal who will be leading the Archdiocese of Newark, and who spoke with Catholic World Report on November 21 in Rome.  

In the interview, the 64-year-old Redemptorist spoke about his nomination as a cardinal, the Pope’s other choices for red hats just days before at the November 19 consistory, and what he believes should be the Church’s priorities during the term of the new president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Cardinal Tobin also reflected on why even new cardinals from America can be seen as coming “from the peripheries,” and on the upcoming synod on young people and evangelization.

CWR: What was your strongest emotion this weekend?

Cardinal Joseph Tobin: I suppose wonder—wondering what it all means. Wondering why these decisions were made. And then, together with that, there’s a growing acceptance. This is what is being asked of me. It is not a coincidence; this is a particular path that God wishes for me to walk.

CWR: The College of Cardinals right now has greater representation from Asia and Africa than it has had in the past. We see new cardinals from very small countries and places where Catholicism is a tiny minority, for instance, the Central African Republic and Bangladesh. What message do you think the Holy Father is trying to convey with these decisions?

Cardinal Tobin: Well, I think you could also say that even the choice of America reflects that, because while the Church in the United States is well established, if you look at it globally, it’s only 6 percent of the Catholic Church. … The College of Cardinals is a parliament, [it] is a congress. If it’s going to engage with the Holy Father and in his absence—in the case of the death of the Holy Father—with discernment, then, I think it’s very wise and very indicative that the experience of the Church across the world is reflected in such a body.

CWR: The United States is undergoing a time of great political change. What do you think are the priorities the Church wishes to see from the new president, Donald Trump?

Cardinal Tobin: Well, I think that whatever enhances human beings and their lives, whatever allows people to practice their faith, are all things that the Church is interested in, as well as the wider society’s responsibility for the weaker or less powerful members. Whatever promotes peace is certainly what the Church is interested in. But what I think we are hoping for, as an effective means for this, is some sort of meaningful and respectful dialogue with the new administration.

CWR: Pope Francis has given much attention to mercy during his pontificate. Why does he emphasize mercy, and why is he so sensitive to it?

Cardinal Tobin: First, I think he says this even in the way he presents mercy: “If you have not had any experience of mercy, it will be very difficult for you to be merciful.” And I think he definitely has had experiences of God’s mercy. One indication would be his episcopal motto, which are those three Latin words that are a little hard to translate easily into English: Miserando Atque Eligendowhich are the words of the Venerable Bede commenting on the call of Matthew. Matthew, who was really somebody on the outside of the religious life of his time. And what it translates to is something like this: “Having had mercy”—or having had pity—“he called him…”

So I think that he has brought the experience of receiving God’s mercy and being called. And now why is [this] his emphasis? Well, I think one reason is that we live in such a clearly unmerciful world, in many ways, from the very callous taking of new life, to the terrible disregard for people who are fleeing violence and who find more violence and sudden death on the Mediterranean Sea. And nobody really cares. … The point is: [Pope Francis] realizes the unmerciful characteristics or features of the world today.

The final reason why I would say he is interested is that at times, in this unmerciful world, the Church is not always seen as a sacrament of mercy. So what I think he is calling us to is to be even more clearly reflective of Jesus, who is the merciful face of the Father.

And Francis didn’t invent this—mercy was always a theme for the Church.

CWR: In Amoris Laetitia, we see mercy reflected in various ways, in ways that concretely impact people’s lives: family, marriage, sexual morality, and so on. There are still many uncertainties—I am thinking specifically of the letter of the four cardinals asking the Holy Father for clarification of certain points. So my question for you is: in the Church’s doctrine, is there space for mercy, or does the doctrine need to be changed to incorporate mercy?

Cardinal Tobin: Well, there needs to be space for mercy, and the place often is in the application of the norm. For example, even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when it talks about mortal sin, the teaching is always that there are three things necessary; one is that there is something seriously evil. But that alone is not enough. A person must have sufficient freedom and sufficient forethought or reflection. Without those other two things, which cannot be measured objectively—it’s really a pastoral judgment—you [wouldn’t] really have something that jeopardizes eternal salvation. So I think that throughout the Church’s history there has been a struggle, particularly for some Catholics, with the message that the Church was proclaiming and with the actual state of human beings.

Maybe I am particularly sensitive to that because I am a Redemptorist and our founder is St. Alphonsus Liguori, who was the patron of moral theologians and of confessors. He found a similar struggle in his time in the 18th century, when a very narrow sort of doctrine of salvation was quite popular in the Church, something called Jansenism. And Alphonsus realized early on in his ministry that if that were true and if that were the only way, so many people whom he knew would have no chance. So what Alphonsus did was to use all his intelligence and all his creativity to remain faithful to the Church, and yet apply the norms in a manner that did not exclude people from the gift of salvation.

CWR: Cardinals are entrusted with the task of advising the pope. You also have worked years in the Roman Curia, which is undergoing a process of reform. If the Pontiff were to solicit your advice about these reforms, what would you recommend?

Cardinal Tobin: Well, I think he’s already got some pretty good cardinals who have been working on this for a while. So I don’t expect he is going to call me for my two cents. But I think that anything that could help the Curia work together…at times, I think the Roman Curia risked a bit being like when one plays the piano and the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. So I think that anything that can help the Curia—the different elements or departments, if you will—communicate with each other and work better together, will help the Church.

CWR: And the Jubilee of Mercy—how did you live it out this year in your archdiocese [of Indianapolis]?

Cardinal Tobin: I think it was really a wonderful experience for all of us. We had two Holy Doors, one at the cathedral and then one about 180 miles away, because we cover 39 counties. Both were very popular with people. I was very grateful for my priests, who increased occasions of the sacrament of reconciliation and who also came to some study days we had, where we, as a presbyterate, looked at what it means to preach mercy today. We prepared some homilies together, which was done with the help of a professor of theology.

One of the groups that I saw accept it with the greatest joy was people in the correctional facilities, because I think more than most of us, they know they have no bragging rights with God. So the possibility and reality of mercy is such good news to them, because it means they have a chance.

CWR: What are your hopes and expectations for your new archdiocese, Newark, New Jersey?

Cardinal Tobin: First, my hope is that I can learn what the reality of Newark is. Already I can see in very significant ways, it is quite different from that which I knew in Indiana. So I hope I can listen, and can help the people discover where God is calling us as a diocese today.

CWR: The next meeting of the Synod of Bishops is going to be on the theme of young people. We realize that with young people, there is much vitality and fervor (as seen at World Youth Day), but at the same time, we cannot deny the great trend of young people growing distant from their faith and the Church. What do you think about this? Do you think there are certain priorities that will be or need to be addressed, during the synod or in general?

Cardinal Tobin: We need to have the courage to look with clear eyes at the challenges young people face today. In a certain sense, they are different from country to country. For example, here in Italy, stable employment is such a fragile thing, that due to it, many young people live with tremendous insecurity. While in the States, I think it is a little easier for young people to find work, and, if they want to, a career or the freedom to switch careers if they wish. But they do face other challenges there. A lot of it has to do with the messages they get about what is required of them to be good or be lovable or whatever—not everything is worth risking your life over or betting your life on. And I suspect in the United States and elsewhere, young people are asked to bet their lives on proposals that are not worth it.

CWR: Any final thoughts?

Cardinal Tobin: Well, for your readers, if you could ask them to pray for me. I like to present myself with the words of the Book of Genesis: “I am Joseph, your brother.” A brother, as a disciple of Jesus, and a brother, as a missionary in the world.

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About Deborah Castellano Lubov 14 Articles
Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT, author of 'The Other Francis' (L'Altro Francesco) featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and featuring preface of Cardinal Parolin (currently out in four languages). She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets, and collaborator with Euronews, EWTN, and NBC Universal.