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Pope Francis IDs successor to conservative Providence bishop


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Pope Francis has named a coadjutor bishop to assist conservative Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin and succeed him when he retires.

Tobin held a press conference Wednesday morning at the cathedral in Providence to discuss the changes. He said the transition is meant to ensure his replacement is ready to go when he retires. The Most Reverend Richard G. Henning is the new coadjutor bishop of Providence with a right of succession. The Most Reverend Robert C. Evans is resigning as the auxiliary bishop.

By naming a coadjutor bishop, Francis has already identified Tobin’s successor, which could be read as a sign that the pope is eager to see the retirement of Tobin, a frequent critic of Francis who has prompted widespread backlash for some of his positions on culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Tobin turns 75 on April 1 and must submit his resignation then to Francis, who can decide to accept it or keep him on. Often, if Francis likes a bishop and appreciates the work he’s doing, and if the bishop is healthy, the pope will leave him on in place for years after his 75th birthday.

However, there have been cases in which Francis has accepted the resignation of a bishop on his 75th birthday itself, a potential indicator that the pope is eager to get him out at the earliest possible time.

The nomination of a coadjutor bishop can also be read as simply a smart administrative decision, to ease the transition from one bishop to the next since the incumbent is still on the job and can bring his successor up to speed.

Tobin plans to submit his resignation as expected and the timeline is up to Francis.

“The transition, I think, will happen pretty quickly,” Tobin said. “I hope my retirement is accepted in a timely manner… I’m guessing sometime this spring.”

Known for taking a hard line on church teachings, Tobin has often gotten involved in the sometimes heated debate among bishops as to whether President Joe Biden and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are unworthy of receiving Communion. Tobin urged Pope Francis to confront Biden over abortion last year.

“Please challenge President Biden on this critical issue,” Tobin tweeted before Biden and Francis met at the Vatican in October 2021. “His persistent support of abortion is an embarrassment for the Church and a scandal to the world.”

Biden said after the meeting that the pontiff told him he was a “good Catholic” and should keep receiving Communion.

In 2009, Tobin barred then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy from Communion because of the Democrat’s support for abortion rights.

Rhode Island is one of the most heavily Catholic states. Tobin urged state lawmakers to drop legislation in 2013 that eventually passed to legalize gay marriage, which he called “immoral and unnecessary.”

Tobin sparked backlash in 2019 when he wrote a tweet to urge Roman Catholics to not support or attend LGBTQ Pride Month events. He had returned to Twitter after briefly deleting his account in 2018, calling it a major distraction, an obstacle to his spiritual life and an “occasion of sin” for himself and others.

In 2014, Francis was working on new policies for how the church can more compassionately minister to Catholic families. Tobin said, “Pope Francis is fond of ‘creating a mess.’ Mission accomplished.” The diocese said Tobin was playing off the pope’s comments at World Youth Day in Rio, where he urged them to shake up the church and “make a mess.”

Though when Francis was selected as the new pope in 2013, Tobin called him a “wonderful new shepherd” of the Catholic Church.

Tobin was installed as the eighth bishop of the Providence Diocese on May 31, 2005. According to his biography, he often states that he was “not ordained to be irrelevant.”

“I don’t want to be a lame duck forever. I’d rather be a dead duck I guess,” Tobin said, sparking laughter at the press conference.

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Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.



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