Joseph William Tobin was the youngest of 13 children growing up in Detroit. Dinner, as you could imagine, was an adventure.
But Tobin – now a cardinal, who was just named by Pope Francis as the new leader of the Archdiocese of Newark – has said that even though he was the youngest, he strategically figured out the best seat at the dinner table so he could have a fair chance to eat.
And so, you might say Archbishop Joseph Tobin has been analyzing and solving problems for a good long while now.
The Irish American Tobin could not get to Newark fast enough. The outgoing archbishop, John J. Myers, seemed to be something out of a central casting call for money-grabbing, pedophile-protecting Catholic leader.
That characterization may be simplistic and unfair. On the other hand, Myers never really seemed to help himself – or, for that matter, the 1.2 million Catholics he was called on to lead – when it came to his image.
And so, sadly, the Newark Star-Ledger spoke for many when it used this blunt language when word came down that Myers was retiring.
“Blessed are we to be rid of this man. During his 15-year tenure as New Jersey's highest-ranking Catholic, he protected pedophile priests and used church funds to expand an already large weekend house into an opulent retirement mansion. He urged his flock to vote based on two issues – abortion and gay marriage – at the threat of being denied Holy Communion.”
Still, even if he were not replacing an unabashed culture warrior like Myers, Tobin would be an intriguing choice for Newark. He captures much of what remains vital and important about the Catholic Church.
Tobin is perhaps best known for a public spat he had with a fellow Indiana public figure, the state’s former governor and now Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Earlier this year, Pence and other governors claimed they were going to halt the settlement of Syrians and other refugees. They argued the refugees might represent a security risk.
Tobin, however, said his archdiocese was going to continue to ease the sufferings of the refugees. He chose to defy Pence on humanitarian as well as governmental grounds. (Governors generally must defer to the federal government when it comes to immigration issues.)
“This is an essential part of who we are as Catholics, and we’re not going to back away from this,” Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, said back in the summer.
Tobin’s work for the Vatican has also taken him to Ireland, where he worked to restore faith in the church following the sex abuse scandals that rocked the nation.
He also stepped into the middle of a controversy a few years back when the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, began investigating orders of American nuns who faced charges that they were defying church doctrine. Tobin spoke out in favor of the nuns and was promptly transferred, in a move that was seen by some as payback.
All in all, Tobin is generally seen as a humble leader, not unlike Pope Francis. Tobin has also taken a strong stand on what he sees as the increasingly nasty tone that tends to dominate American political and religious debate.
Two years ago, Tobin warned that too many American Catholics were trying to "oversimplify what are really complicated questions in the hope of discovering who to blame.”
He added, "At the present moment, this behavior helps to contribute to the balkanization of American Catholics into so-called right wing and left wing, or progressive and traditionalist, factions, who point fingers at each other.”
Some saw these comments as a slap at church traditionalists – kind of like Archbishop Myers – who rigidly interpret church doctrine.
"In my opinion, finger-pointing does a great harm to religious life because it makes us defensive," Tobin added. "We feel constantly compelled to defend ourselves against other parties in the church.”
Tobin will officially be installed January 6. It can’t be soon enough.