Stew Milne, Associated Press
Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas Tobin, publicly condemned the state's mass immigration raids.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The motto of Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin comes from a Bible verse reminding believers that God has given them "no cowardly spirit."

And he has not been timid during three years as the most prominent religious leader in Rhode Island, the nation's most heavily Catholic state.

Tobin used his edgy humor last year to publicly skewer former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is Catholic and supports abortion rights. In the diocesan newspaper, during the Republican presidential primary, Tobin addressed the candidate by first name — "Hey Rudy" — and called his stand on abortion pathetic.

Tobin recently took on U.S. immigration authorities and Gov. Don Carcieri, himself a Catholic, by condemning mass immigration raids in the state. An annoyed Carcieri pushed back, saying some priests don't agree with the bishop's stand.

Tobin realizes his social pronouncements are unpopular with many people, perhaps the majority of his diocese, which covers the entire state. He doesn't care.

"When we teach, we don't take a public opinion poll first," Tobin said in a recent interview. "Jesus didn't do surveys."

A Catholic bishop wields clout in Rhode Island, where some 60 percent of residents identify themselves as members of the faith. When Tobin speaks, his message resonates in local parishes, hospitals, social ministries and a private education system that runs from kindergarten to college.

Politicians pay him respect. On the last Inauguration Day, the state's newly elected leaders — including the Protestant lieutenant governor — started their morning with a special Mass celebrated by Tobin in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Providence.

Tobin is among a new generation of strictly orthodox Catholic prelates who also heavily — and very publicly — emphasize Catholic social justice teaching.

"He's outspoken, he'll deliver a good line, a good sound bite, but he'll also confound those who want to categorize him," said David Gibson, a former Vatican radio newsman and author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."

A native of Pittsburgh, Tobin studied at a high school seminary and later at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, a prestigious training ground for future church leaders.

He served under former Pittsburgh Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, a strong church conservative who was later named a cardinal under Pope John Paul II. Tobin was installed in 1996 as the bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, then was named bishop of Providence on March 31, 2005, days before John Paul died.

He is a registered Democrat, but doesn't shy from admonishing politicians in his own party — and those of other political leanings.

He targeted Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a Democrat and Catholic, in February 2007, when the top prosecutor signed an advisory opinion urging state agencies to recognize same-sex couples. Lynch announced his decision on Ash Wednesday, the start of a season of repentance and fasting for Catholics and other Christians.

"His decision has given us another reason to repent of our sins and pray for forgiveness," Tobin said at the time.

Three months later, Tobin lambasted Giuliani, who has been married three times and says he opposes abortion personally but believes it should remain legal.

The bishop's public tangle with Giuliani came after his presidential campaign invited Tobin to a fundraiser.

Tobin's RSVP came in a column written for the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper. Tobin denounced Giuliani's stance on abortion as confusing and hypocritical. He compared Giuliani to Pontius Pilate, a Roman official who approved Jesus' crucifixion despite misgivings.

No, Tobin wrote, he would not pay $1,500 to mug for a photo with Giuliani. Instead, he invited the candidate to One Cathedral Square in Providence.

"We'll talk about his position on abortion," Tobin said. "And if he wants a photo it will cost him $1,500 as a donation for the pro-life work of the Church."

Just as Giuliani began responding to a question about Tobin's letter during a debate the following month, a lightning strike disabled the sound system.

Tobin threw himself back into the public square last month, urging the Boston office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop mass raids for illegal immigrants in Rhode Island. In the letter, Tobin said federal agents who refuse to participate in such raids on moral grounds should be treated as conscientious objectors.

His request was an implicit swipe at the state's Republican governor, who signed an executive order in March forcing state police and prison officials to work with immigration officials to identify illegal immigrants for possible deportation.

Carcieri said he has a responsibility to enforce the law and realizes Tobin has pastoral duties. Carcieri responded, "There are a lot of priests that I know don't agree with, you know, the bishop's stand on this."

The nation's bishops have been increasingly vocal in defending immigrants in the fierce debate over how the U.S. should fight illegal immigration. The Rhode Island diocese is overwhelmingly comprised of immigrants from Italy, Portugal and, most recently, Latin America.

The 60-year-old cleric isn't all business. He flies a Pittsburgh Steelers banner outside his home, in a region where the New England Patriots are heroes. He also enjoys an occasional trip to a casino.

But if critics want him to tone down his remarks on public issues, they will be disappointed.

Tobin's letter to federal authorities wasn't the first time he faulted the U.S. immigration system and, he said, "it certainly won't be the last."