News Analysis

The new president of the US bishops has a broad appeal

Bishop Gómez (CNS)

Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at the bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore last week. He received the votes of 176 other bishops, making him the overwhelming favourite. Archbishop Gómez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, becomes the first Latino bishop to hold the position.

“The election to @USCCB president is an honor – not only for me, but also for @lacatholics and for every Latino Catholic in the country,” the archbishop said in a tweet. “I promise to serve with dedication and love, and to always try to follow Jesus Christ and seek his will for his Church here in the US.”

Archbishop Gómez is an outspoken supporter of immigration reform – a fact the media took notice of following his election. “The choice, on the same day that the Supreme Court heard the Trump administration’s argument to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, reflects the increasing importance of immigration as a moral and political issue for the church,” the New York Times wrote. “It also is a sign of the Church’s future: nearly 40 per cent of American Catholics are Hispanic.”

In a statement prior to DACA’s Supreme Court hearing, the archbishop said: “In this great country, we should not have our young people living under the threat of deportation, their lives dependent on the outcome of a court case.”

Archbishop Gómez is the author of Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation, which was favourably reviewed by Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter and by a Catholic Worker publication, suggesting that his appeal extends beyond conservative circles in the US Church, which regard the Opus Dei archbishop as a reliable defender of doctrine.

Though Archbishop Gómez has been a vocal proponent of immigration reform, undertaking a 60-mile pilgrimage at the border in September for families separated there, he has not been quite as outspoken as some of his fellow bishops. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, for example, protested outside an ICE facility and Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso helped lead a migrant group across the border. Moreover, Archbishop Gómez welcomed the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) to Los Angeles and had a warm relationship with the Anglican Use parish in San Antonio, Texas.

Archbishop’s election has gone down well in the Mexican Church. Bishop Alfonso Gerardo Miranda Guardiola, an auxiliary bishop of Monterrey and secretary general of the Mexican bishops’ conference, told ACI Prensa that “the reaction was one of applause, joy and emotion on receiving the news about Archbishop José Gómez as president of the American bishops’ conference. Afterwards bishops even came up to me and told me they were very happy with this news.”

Archbishop Gómez has not been made a cardinal, which is unusual for the occupant of the See of Los Angeles. This may because he doesn’t share the progressivism of those US bishops who have been rewarded with a red hat: Cardinal Tobin, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Vatican Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

Gómez served as the auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Charles Chaput in Denver and maintains a strong relationship with the prelate who has become America’s loudest defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

According to Michael Barber, associate professor of Scripture and theology at the Augustine Institute Graduate School of Theology in Denver, “Archbishop Gómez fits the template of a typical Pope Benedict ecclesial appointment … he has experience in priestly formation, he has an academic background … and he has, at least some, Roman experience (he has worked for the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, a Roman dicastery).”

Gómez was ordained as a priest of Opus Dei in 1978, and was briefly its Texas vicar before becoming the first Opus Dei numerary to be consecrated a bishop in the United States. In Southern California, to say nothing of the United States as a whole, pastoral ministry to the Latino community is extremely important – an area that Archbishop Gómez, who has served as president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, is uniquely suited to oversee.

Among the big challenges facing Gómez as he begins his tenure is his response to the abuse crisis, which has been criticised by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) among others. There are likely to be further revelations during his term as USCCB president as more state attorneys general probe the Church’s response to abuse. This will be a significant test of his leadership.

Archbishop Gómez censured his predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2013. Mahoney still clearly enjoys the support of some curial friends, and was named as the Pope’s envoy to the Diocese of Scranton last year to celebrate the diocese’s centenary, though he withdrew after a protest. The fact that there is still a living cardinal associated with Los Angeles may be another reason why Archbishop Gómez doesn’t have a red hat, despite being in charge of the largest diocese in the US.