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Bishop Tobin of Providence, recently in the limelight because of his Rudy Giuliani column, visitis a columnist. And has some questions for him.

(I don’t know anything about the columnist or the reason for the visit – M. Charles Bakst of the Providence Journal – is he their most venerable, well-known columnist?)

It’s good stuff, and really, one of the (many) things it would be great to see more bishops doing – really putting themselves out there, directly engaging, being the voice of the Church and asking questions – where ever they can.

He’s personable — and he’s tough. With his communications aide Mike Guilfoyle on hand, we sat in a conference room for over an hour, and the bishop peppered me with questions that drew on my background and my writing and made me think about things I hadn’t always thought much about, and sometimes, when answers seemed flabby, or, I guess, from his standpoint, wrong, he sought to shake me into reexamining the implications of my views.Things went well enough early on, as I sought to explain how my understanding of Jewish values — such as helping people, speaking up, repairing the world — often influences what I write about or how. It prompts me to tackle issues such as Darfur or state budget cuts or even medical marijuana, and to try to focus attention on the importance of saving those who need rescue, or treating with fairness and dignity Rhode Islanders who struggle. (Indeed, in a strain of thinking I didn’t even touch on with Bishop Tobin, I actually sense that much of the outrage I voice about corruption is informed by Jewish culture. It’s not just the constant drumbeat one hears from early on about righteousness. It’s also the scandal of embarrassing one’s family and community.)

But now I faltered. There was some talk about the inscriptions at the graves of my father — a believer in justice — and mother — a believer in charity — and the bishop asked what I’d like on my tombstone. A terrific question to which I could only fumble for an answer.

I offered some general ideas but felt bad that I couldn’t come up with something clever, concise or poignant, and I actually felt bad for him — because I know what it’s like to pose a great question, only to have the interviewee come up with just a so-so answer. Which is why you need to come equipped with a lot of questions. And he did.

He asked what role I thought religion should play in society. I spoke about standing up on a matter, whether from a religious perspective or not. I said that when columnists do take a stand, as opposed to saying on the one hand this/on the other hand that, it makes for a better column and contributes to society.

Now the bishop pounced. “So the need to stand up for something when you see it’s wrong — would that apply to someone like Rudy Giuliani, who says, ‘I think abortion is wrong but I’m going to let people choose’?”

“You’re good,” I said. “I think he needs to stand up for his beliefs.” But, of course, Giuliani’s views on this topic are ambivalent. You run into the same thing with several other Catholic politicians, such as Sen. Jack Reed, who also personally opposes abortion but says he’s obligated as a public servant to uphold the Constitution.

Bishop Tobin wanted to know if I’d call myself a liberal, if I considered myself a secularist, if I believe in objective moral truth.

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