Bishop Calls Nativity Scene with Two St. Joseph’s an “Attack on Christian Faith”

Nativity scene with two St. Joseph’s on display at a home in California

A bishop has criticized a Nativity scene which features two St. Joseph figures while omitting Mary, calling it “sacrilege” and an “attack on the Christian Faith.”

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence made his comments on Facebook, where he posted the following alongside a photo of the scene:

“A Gay Nativity?

“Just came across this photo of a ‘gay nativity’ scene — two Josephs dressed in pink watching over the Christ Child. How sad that someone believes it’s okay (or funny or cool) to impose their own agenda on the holy Birth of Jesus. Pray for those who did so, for their change of heart, and that Jesus will forgive this sacrilege, this attack on the Christian Faith.”

The image Tobin commented on became popular online after comedian and podcast host Cameron Esposito shared it on Twitter, garnering more than 3,600 retweets and 26,000 likes.

Bishop Tobin’s record on LGBT issues is quite negative (being careful not to confuse the Providence bishop with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who has been increasingly supportive of LGBT inclusion). Most recently, Bishop Tobin sharply criticized Fr. James Martin’s book on LGBT issues in the church, Building a Bridge.

He has also cited Pope Francis to defend the firing of a gay church worker, a decision about which he said there was “no choice.” Tobin criticized President Barack Obama’s regulations aimed at protecting transgender youth, suggested clerks like Kim Davis who oppose marriage equality should commit civil disobedience by denying marriage licenses to same-gender couples, said the Synod on the Family was a “rather Protestant” idea, and left open the possibility that LGBT Catholics should be denied Communion.

Now, Bishop Tobin is incorrect again in his assessment of the Nativity scene, which is not a sacrilege but is actually quite sacred. Let me explain.

First, Nativity scenes are not historical re-creations but artistic representations. They are devotional tools which help us prepare for and celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation playing out in Jesus’ birth. As such, their creators aim not for factual accuracy; rather, they seek to make the scenes effective conduits of prayer and relationship with God. The best way to create such conduits leads to my second point.

Nativity scenes are common for Christians worldwide, but a simple Google search reveals just how many variations of these scenes exist. Holy Family depictions often reflect the image and likeness of their creators, and so Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have appeared as people of many races, ethnicities, and cultures. In recent years, LGBT people have begun depicting the Holy Family in ways reflecting the rich sexual and gender diversity that exists in our world.

These queer Nativity scenes should be welcomed, just as scenes in which Mary and Joseph are not shown as first century Palestinian Jews have been welcomed. Being able to look at the Holy Family and see one’s own family depicted enriches prayer, further enabling the very purpose of the Nativity scene.

When it comes to Bishop Tobin and the scene with two St. Joseph’s, the bishop’s unwillingness to affirm the goodness of LGBT people and their love is what is problematic. It is unfortunate that his biases against LGBT families bar him from understanding why this scene can actually be quite holy and meaningful to LGBT people.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 8, 2017

17 replies
  1. Jo Siedlecka
    Jo Siedlecka says:

    To leave Mary out of a Nativity scene sounds mean-spirited and provocative to me. Having a baby – especially a first one – is tough. Men can’t do it. Don’t highjack the sacred story for your own political reasons. I’m disappointed in you.

    • Ken Kennedy
      Ken Kennedy says:

      —Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 8, 2017, nicely done, I rented my condo to an ordained minister who was just released from A.S.U. for molesting 9-11 year old boys, the church protects him still. Let’s put things in perspective….

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    I regret to say that, as far as I know, Bishop Tobin is a graduate of Holy Cross, which was my own undergraduate college. The fact sticks in my mind because I seem to remember chatting with him briefly at a Holy Cross alumni reunion. I’ll need to fact-check my memory by looking up his biography — which I intend to do later this weekend. But if it’s true, all I can say is that he does NOT represent the views of the vast majority of contemporary Holy Cross alumni — who are (for the most part) very sane and competent human beings.

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    Just to follow up — I fact-checked my suspicion, and it turns out that Tobin was (and is) the far-right-wing ideological “astral twin” of Worcester’s Bishop McManus — but they happen to be two separate individuals. Like Tobin, McManus had been “hell on wheels” against anything smacking of liberal thought within the RCC, until he was arrested for drunk driving, and spent a night in jail. The experience caused him to temper his radical-right theological extremism, at least to a certain extent. We can only wish that Tobin would have a similar “Road To Damascus” rectifying experience.

  4. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    The two Josephs look like they are caring ( as far as plastic figures can) for the baby. Maybe all it is meant to say is that two people, of any sexual combination, have the capacity to be loving human beings with compassion for a child. Please tell Bishop Tobin of Providence to get over himself .

  5. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I’m sorry but even your well intentioned correlation to various nativity scenes depicting different races etc. does not hold up. To omit Mary from the nativity scene is not only theologically indefensible but also unintentionally dehumanizes Incarnation and characterizes women as irrelevant. Tobin may have a negative record on LGBT people but even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

  6. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    The problem with Bishop Tobin’s concern about a same gender creche is that he can’t recognize a place of honor when he sees it. Just as a straight family honor’s the Holy Family by a depiction that looks like them, so a gay family would use a family that reflects them. It is the same with marriage, gay and lesbian couples want to marry because they honor the institution, not denigrate it. Christ recognized the gift of the woman who bathed his feet and dried them with her hair, why can’t the bishop see a similar gift in this creche display?

  7. Lindsey Pembrooke
    Lindsey Pembrooke says:

    I agree with you, Jo. The written piece makes a compelling argument that I am receptive to, but at the end of the day, Mary has been erased and that is where the offense is. I am Catholic. I think Catholicism should be fully embracing all LGBT and that if Christ was walking the Earth now, he’d embrace a transgender person or share a piece of wedding cake at a Gay wedding. But I cannot justify erasing Mary or Joseph from a manger scene. If you want to make that point, give the shepard boy a boyfriend. There are ways to do this that do not involve spitting on my religion.

    I very much enjoy all New Ways Ministry articles and you usually hit the nail on the head. You are very far off base here. It is the first article I have ever read from you where I got to the end and not only didn’t like it once I thought about it, but actually felt you should issue a retraction on.

    • Lindsey Pembrooke
      Lindsey Pembrooke says:

      PS – this does not forgive Bishop Tobin’s other positions and stances. A Catholic should be making people feel loved and valued, exactly where they are. That is what Christ showed in the Bible. The New Testament is all about Christ showing where the Old Testament had serious issues when it came to treating people with compassion. But for some reason, when it comes to LGBT, some people just seem to want to live in the Old Testament and ignore the fact that Jesus showed us another way.

  8. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    In light of the comments about nativity scenes from many cultures, I thought you might like this article about the nativity scenes on display at the Belleville Cathedral, including one of Joseph taking a selfie of himself, Mary and Jesus:

  9. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    I have to disagree with the perspective of this post. If Christianity is anything, it is incarnational. That means that it is “fleshy” and rooted in the belief that the Divine became human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The “details” of the Christian story are not insignificant, because it is precisely from those specific details that we are then able to generalize to something that has meaning for all of us. When we play around with those historic details (to the extent that we can fully know them), we run the risk of including our own biases, prejudices, and other limitations. It’s the difference between what biblical scholarship calls “exegesis” (good!) and “eisegesis” (not so good!).

    The Christian message is very clear that Jesus has a Mother. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it’s misogynistic to remove Mary from any Nativity scene. I also don’t think it’s an overstatement that we as gay man haven’t always been very welcoming of our sisters — whether lesbian, bi, or straight — and this scene unfortunately reinforces a negative message that devalues of role of a very, very, very important woman in the Christian story.

    Without Mary, there would be no Jesus! Mary belongs in any nativity scene. The fact that Bishop Tobin pointed this out makes it no less true.

  10. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    This or any creche is a decorative work of art, not a re-writing of the Gospels. This male same gender one and one with two women I have seen aren’t taking anything away from Mary or the Incarnation, but they are making people look at the options that are out there to consider what are families. If Jesus had been raised with two Dads or two Moms would the family have been any less Holy?

    Mary does get points for giving birth, but who knows how good or bad it was to become with child by the Holy Spirit?

  11. Kevin Fitzsimmons
    Kevin Fitzsimmons says:

    This is in front of a private residence, and really isn’t anyone’s business. I have Doctor Who stationed in my nativity at home, and don’t really care what anyone thinks about that. I see that the Cardinal missed no opportunity to again bash gay people and continue on with his narrative that Catholics and LGBT people are two different camps.

    I think removing Mary from the Nativity scene is a huge mistake, for some of the reasons raised above and also because I think the infancy narratives have a queer component to them already. Trying to neutralize the role of the woman in the birth of Christ is dismissive of 50% of the population. That said, we can’t allow ourselves to forget that she was (in context) a single mother who was in a irregular marriage based on her husband receiving messages from angels. I think that instead of trying to force feed a cis-gendered reading on the nativity that we should continue to explore the subversive character of the story as it stands.

    I think the original nativity was done in jest, and the fact that the Cardinal doesn’t get that makes the joke funnier. I also think that a serious look at how the Holy Family resembles many families who are currently on the margins of The Church is very important, especially since the Solemnity of the Holy Family is often used as a weapon to bludgeon families that don’t fit a very narrow view of what makes a family.

  12. Kittredge Cherry
    Kittredge Cherry says:

    Queer Nativity scenes show that love makes a family, including the Holy Family. Every year a new LGBTQ Nativity stirs controversy. This year it’s two Josephs in pink posted by queer comedian Cameron Esposito. Some years it was my own gay and lesbian Nativity scenes. Despite blasphemy charges, everyone should be able to see themselves in the Christmas story, including the growing number of LGBTQ parents and their children. I added a link to this artilce at the end of my own essay about the value of queer Nativity scenes at:


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