An Open Letter to Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence

Tweet from Bishop Tobin

Tweet from Bishop Tobin

Editor’s note: On June 1, Thomas Tobin, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence, wrote from his official Twitter account:

“A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.”

The tweet has received international attention as the bishop has effectively doubled-down on his position, leading to a protest attended by about 350 people in Cathedral Square. RI Gov. Gina Raimondo, at the signing ceremony for the annual proclamation declaring June to be Pride Month, described Tobin’s tweet as “unfortunate.”

What follows is a response in the form of an open letter to the bishop from Kevin Broccoli.

 


 

Dear Bishop,

I’m not sure if “Dear” is how you address a Bishop, as I’ve never addressed a Bishop before, but that’ll be my best guess at it, because I’m not interested in looking it up. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that I don’t believe you deserve the dignity of any research.

I should tell you now that this is not going to be the letter you think it is. Since your tweet and subsequent non-apology, many people smarter and more eloquent than I am have written about how hurtful your message was – advising Catholics not to attend Pride events and warning that those events are especially “harmful” to children. Gay and straight people alike have spoken out – telling you that messages like those from people in positions such as yours have driven them from the church, or that your message is especially audacious at a time in history when more people than ever before have become aware of the church’s shameful legacy of harboring predators and pedophiles, including your own admitted instances of helping to protect such monsters. Their messages of outrage are weighing on my mind as I write this, but I can assure you that while I am also outraged, this is not that kind of letter.

At least not yet.

It seems to me that there is a particularly nefarious element to your tweet that many people have not mentioned, if only because it might seem slight compared with the message itself. But you see, I’m very interested in marketing, especially as it relates to social media. I’m aware of timing and how it relates to messaging. And what really strikes me about your tweet is that it was very carefully constructed. It seems to me you were aware that it would get you the most press to post it when you did and to word it exactly how you worded it.

Let’s face it – nobody would bat an eye at a bishop telling Catholics that Pride events aren’t smiled upon by the church. Many people would have seen that tweet and kept right on scrolling. But you added the one element you knew would fire people up: The insinuation that gay people are a threat to children, or that some sort of proximity to gay people can “turn” children gay. This was no accident. Nor did you suddenly forget your shameful past and the church’s baggage. In fact, you were probably hoping the blinding hypocrisy would help your message create an even bigger flame – and it did.

It worked.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t think people should have taken you to task for what you posted, but even within the deepest fury of every response was this indication that people were, inadvertently, giving you the benefit of the doubt. Talking about you as if you’re some doddering figurehead who just doesn’t see the glaring irony in what he said.

But we know better don’t we, Bishop?

You and I know that was all part of the plan.

And we know who you learned it from.

A tweet designed to incite the few who agree with it and anger those who don’t in a way that’ll drum up publicity by using timing in the cruelest and most insensitive way possible.

Who does that sound like?

I’ll tell you one thing –

It doesn’t sound like Jesus.

It has the shamelessness of someone who, like you, seems to be a big fan of Twitter. You actually quit the platform at one point, saying you thought it was a waste of time and a temptation toward sin (I’m paraphrasing, again, no interest in looking this up, thank goodness this is a letter and not a news article), but you were on the right track there for once. Twitter is a tool, and in the wrong hands, it can do a lot of damage.

There are certainly positive ways to use social media, but it does carry with it the temptation to further yourself and your agenda in a way that cuts through the noise by weaponizing division and promoting fear.

That’s what your tweet did, Bishop.

At best, you gave into temptation. You acted like a politician. (And we all know how Christ felt about politicians.) You used some keywords to go viral and solidified your brand.

Congratulations – you’re a virus.

At worst – and between us, I’m leaning toward worst – you’re a man looking at a church whose only hope of survival is to evolve with the times in a state and a country where more and more people are feeling brave enough to use the month of June to say, “Yes, this is who I am, and not only am I not afraid, but I’m proud,” and you think that you can either evolve as well or … you can double down.

And, like a lot of other people who find themselves faced with embracing a more progressive way of thinking or clinging to antiquated views in the hopes that maybe, maybe, maybe time will start to move backward and queer people will be forced back into the closet and coal will become a booming industry and women will lose control of their bodies and Jeff Foxworthy will become relevant again – you chose the latter.

Because you feel safe in the latter.

Because you, unlike a teenager who risks being thrown out of their house by their own parents in order to claim their true identity, are not brave.

Because you, unlike a man walking down the street in heels looking great and letting everybody know it, are a coward.

Because you, unlike Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and Harvey Milk and Bayard Rustin and Josephine Baker and Larry Kramer and Cleve Jones and Allen Ginsberg and Romaine Patterson and numerous other people we honor this month, are not a hero.

Because you, unlike every queer person who uses this short amount of time every year to be a little louder, a little bolder and a little less scared, are not fabulous.

Not one bit.

You are a relic amongst relics that will one day be forgotten.

You are a statue amongst statues that will one day be torn down.

You are an institution at a time when institutions are being challenged, changed or chucked completely.

And the only modern thing about you is that you, like the president, know how to take all the hate that resides in your heart and sum it up in 280 characters, and then send it out as if it has no consequence and with no concern for the harm it does. What could be an opportunity for engagement and enlightenment instead becomes a voice shouting into darkness hoping to create more darkness. It would be pitiable if you were just another sad man nobody listens to, but, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

This would be a good time to mention that I’m an atheist and a former Catholic. My current spiritual background is not the result of some traumatic experience I’ve had in the church I grew up with as a child – and that makes me very lucky. Luckier than some of the children you could have helped when you had the chance – and not by steering them away from a block party or storytime with a drag queen.

I arrived at my destination organically, but part of that journey included some of the most wonderful religious people anyone could hope to meet. Catholics and Christians who all believe what you claim to believe, but who embody the church at its best by choosing to care rather than criticize, celebrate rather than shame, and spread peace rather than prejudice. They’re the ones who taught me that no matter where I ended up or what I ended up believing, I would be welcome in their arms and in their hearts. It’s a shame you get to call yourself a leader of people like that, because they should be the ones leading you.

Those people are among those who helped me come to terms with my own sexuality, because they taught me that nobody is a mistake, loving others is divine, none of us are made to judge and the only currency you’re going to get in the next life is based on the kindness you show in this one.

And to just, you know, mind your own damn business?

Bishop, if I may be so forthright, I’d like to suggest that you start finding the people like that within your church so you can take your cues from them. I’d suggest you read the parts of the Bible that promote acceptance and compassion (there are plenty, trust me – I may be a non-believer, but I’m also a reader), and model your outreach after someone other than the man sitting in the White House. If for no other reason than that his approval numbers aren’t exactly enviable at the moment.

And may I also recommend that you come check out a Pride event or two to see what they’re really about? Chances are, deep down, you already know the gay community is by no means “harmful” for children or anybody else, but it might do you good to see, up close and personal, the power that resides in a group of people who all believe in inclusiveness, charity and joy. The hundreds of protesters who showed up this Sunday outside the cathedral downtown should serve as a reminder of that power. We are a tribe of people whose history is marked by resistance, and, when we celebrate, we’re acknowledging that while we still have quite a way to go, we got this far in spite of people like you.

I hope that when Providence celebrates Pride in two weeks, in spite of what I’m sure will be your best intentions to avoid it, you hear the chants and the music and the laughter and the sound of a crowd getting bigger and bigger and bigger drowning out all your bad intentions. And I hope, in that moment, you feel as alone as you wanted someone like me to feel when reading your little tweet. And I hope you know it didn’t work, and that you’re not quite as clever as you think you are.

Please know that the pride felt by everyone who celebrates is a shining light, and the dark never has and never will overcome it.

– Kevin Broccoli

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