The announcement today that Archbishop Jose Gomez, of San Antonio, will succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony as Archbishop of Los Angeles, is indeed “an epic moment,” as Mahony put it, in the history of the church.
Here are five themes from today's announcement:
1. First Latino Archbishop of Los Angeles
OK, technically there were four Latino bishops of L.A. back in the 19th Century, but Gomez is the first Latino bishop of L.A. in the modern era. This is the theme that the church, and Mahony, would most like emphasized. Gomez is a U.S. citizen, but was born in Mexico, and seems poised to take a key role in pressing for comprehensive immigration reform. The appointment seems bound to create excitement in the Latino community and heighten attendance and participation.
2. Opus Dei
In his statement this morning, Mahony said that just because Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, that doesn't necessarily make him a conservative, and that labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” are unhelpful in the church. Don't buy the spin.
Gomez is a doctrinal conservative, and wouldn't have been appointed if he weren't. After 25 years of Mahony — viewed by many as too liberal on doctrinal matters — the local archdiocese is getting a correction from Rome.
What that means in practice is anybody's guess. These labels do tend to get a bit muddy, as the “liberal” Mahony has taken fairly conservative positions, and the “conservative” Gomez will involve the laity in decision-making and reach out to Catholics who have strayed from the church.
As for broader political issues, Gomez is unabashedly pro-life. (In one article, he compared the unborn to Natives slaughtered by Spanish conquistadors.) So is Mahony, but perhaps not as much so as Gomez. Asked last year whether abortion should be funded in the health care bill, Mahony demurred, saying the issue was “beyond my field.” Gomez might have been a bit more certain about it.
3. Sex abuse
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has already put out a press release on Gomez, alleging that he “kept silent” about abusive priests under his authority in San Antonio. Look for those allegations to be extensively vetted by the media in the coming days and weeks. This is, of course, a global problem, which means it would be hard to find a new archbishop who didn't have something to answer for.
For his part, Gomez said today that “Every single accusation has been taken seriously in San Antonio.” He also pledged to continue Mahony's efforts to keep children safe from harm. Though it's been three years since the record-breaking civil settlement, the issue is not going away any time soon, and continues to be an impediment to building and sustaining the local flock.
Latinos have been turning away from the church for years in favor of charismatic denominations, which offer a closer and deeper relationship with God, or in favor of secular “mainstream” American culture. To win them back, the church has to evangelize. Gomez wrote two recent articles on the topic, “Evangelization, Education and the Hispanic Catholic Future,” (PDF) and “You Will Be My Witnesses: Pastoral Letter on Evangelization,” (PDF), in which he argues for a sort of evangelism that doesn't cut corners or water down Catholic teaching to win converts.
“We need to reject every shortcut, every attempt to reduce the Gospel to its lowest common denominator,” Gomez wrote. “Catholic principles can make society a better place to live, but only the fullness of Gospel can bring men and women to eternal life.”
Gomez said his top priority in L.A. will be “education in the faith,” a signal of his more conservative intentions.
5. Getting to know you
Gomez is a newcomer to Los Angeles. Prior to today, he had only been to L.A. a few times. He said he has never been to Disneyland, and will have to make a conversion from a Spurs fan into a member of the Laker faithful. Gomez will be a major figure in local life for the next two decades, and his personality will soon become familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
One clue to his personality comes from the press notes: He has undergraduate degrees in accounting and philosophy — an odd combination that would seem to suit him well to addressing the financial and spiritual troubles of the nation's largest diocese.