“What keeps despots, dictators awake at night, what topples evil empires is the little person who goes into the square in the middle of the town in the dark of night and scrawls on the wall, ‘No!’ ” the Catholic prelate told the congregation. “And I want to say to you, we are the ‘No!’ that God scrawls on the wall.” This was at an interfaith gathering in Newark, New Jersey, in early May, to oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration and deportation policies. The speaker was Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and the meeting was in defense, as another participant, Bishop Dwayne Royster, said, of “undocumented folk,” “black folk,” “poor folk,” and “folk needing health care in this country.”
Donald Trump came to power last fall, and so, in a different order, did Joseph Tobin. He had served as the archbishop of Indianapolis since 2012, and if Americans had ever heard of him before it was probably for his fight against Governor Mike Pence’s order—later ruled unconstitutional—to stop admitting Syrian refugees to Indiana. Then, the day before the Presidential election, Pope Francis named Tobin the new archbishop of Newark, a diocese whose million and a half Catholics celebrate mass in twenty languages. Ten days after the election, Tobin became a cardinal, the first archbishop of Newark ever to be so elevated. A week after the Inauguration, Tobin released a statement denouncing the new Administration’s immigration orders as “the opposite of what it means to be an American.” In the various media frenzies surrounding the President, it was easy to miss the significance of this astounding rejection of ecclesial neutrality. But Tobin’s opposition was not singular, for he was put in place as a tribune of Pope Francis. God’s “no”? Maybe, maybe not. But surely the Roman pontiff’s.
Francis, of course, is not a little person scrawling a word under cover of darkness. Transcending the narrowly religious identity that usually marks (and limits) such figures, he has emerged, almost despite himself, as a champion of the humanist values that the President so flagrantly denigrates. Trump typifies one version of the human future; the Pope from Argentina typifies another. Francis and Trump, that is, are antagonistic archetypes of a broader cultural struggle involving everything from military force to environmental degradation, from economic inequality to the integrity of language.
That is why Francis’s tapping of Tobin matters. He is supremely a man of the Church. After starting out as a pastor, in Detroit and Chicago, he served in Rome for two decades as a leader of an international religious order, the Redemptorists. (New Yorker readers of a certain age will remember another Redemptorist, F. X. Murphy, who, under the pen name Xavier Rynne, wrote the magazine’s milestone Letters from Vatican City during the Second Vatican Council.) But Tobin had begun to display a breadth of empathetic independence even before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy. Appointed in 2010 to the Vatican commission that was investigating American nuns (and using the word “feminist” as a term of opprobrium), Tobin became a potent critic from within, and that led to his being fired from the commission. He emerged as a staunch defender of the women religious, an advance man for the coming Pope. Francis, displaying a blind spot of his own, has been ambivalent about dismantling the age-old structures of Catholic misogyny. (No women priests because there were no women apostles? Really?) But he instantly saw the injustice of the Inquisition-style assault on American nuns and, taking a cue from Tobin, shut it down.
Tobin, naturally, has taken cues from the Pope, too. Late last month, in a local version of Francis’s revolutionary—though not unqualified—openness to the L.G.B.T. community, Tobin welcomed a delegation of more than a hundred gay and lesbian Catholics to the Newark Cathedral, saying, “I am Joseph, your brother.” And, last week, at the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Indianapolis, he broke with the culture-warrior prelates of Pope Benedict’s era to vote against the permanent establishment of a committee charged with “protecting religious liberty,” the faux danger that the religious right uses to oppose everything from contraception to gay rights to Obamacare. Tobin’s side lost, but his vote registered.
When Tobin was made a cardinal, last November, so was Chicago’s new archbishop, Blase J. Cupich. They are two of only three Americans to whom Francis has given the red hat. (The third is Kevin Farrell, formerly of Dallas, now in charge of the Vatican secretariat for laity, family, and life issues.) As Francis’s tilting with the overwhelmingly conservative U.S. episcopate shows, his contest is as much within the Church as outside it, but he makes himself clear there, too. Charles J. Chaput, an outspoken critic of the Pope, is the first archbishop of Philadelphia not to be named a cardinal in nearly a century, and the cardinal of New York, Timothy Dolan, who, in 2015, signed an open letter challenging Francis, has also been sidelined. Appointments to the College of Cardinals matter, of course, because those men will elect Francis’s successor.
By now, in three consistories, Francis has made cardinals of fifty-six bishops from thirty-nine countries. Even from a chair in an American second city, Tobin is on the cutting edge of this world movement—a religious phenomenon, but a profoundly secular one, too. No more a liberal, perhaps, than Francis himself is, Tobin still represents a humane and magnanimous alternative to the dominant American Catholic hierarchy. Next week, the Pope, in his fourth consistory, will elevate five more bishops, including men from El Salvador, Mali, Laos, and Sweden—the first ever from Scandinavia. Vatican wise guys say that every island in Micronesia will soon have its own eminence. This characteristic affirmation of peoples and nations on the margins is also a savvy break with Eurocentric power politics, and with the northern pole of the economic axis that so long aligned the Church, if despite itself, with the rich against the poor. In effect, Francis has commissioned dozens of “little persons” to go into the global square and scrawl “No!”