Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles might well have been elected to a senior position in the U.S. bishops conference under any circumstances, given that he’s seen as a well-liked and popular figure among his fellow prelates, as well as someone robustly committed to the traditional doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church.
Coming just seven days after the victory of Donald Trump, however, following a campaign in which Trump ran on a get-tough platform on immigration, the choice of a Mexican-born prelate who’s become passionate about immigrant rights can’t help but be seen as a powerful statement of priorities by the leadership of the American Catholic church.
To be fair, the first vote of the day was actually for the presidency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, but the outcome was largely foreordained since the bishops generally pick the sitting vice president for the top job. In this case, that meant Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo of Galveston-Houston was almost certain to prevail.
The interesting race was therefore for vice president, and in the end, although there were nine nominees, it came down to a choice between Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans or Gomez. After the initial two ballots they faced one another in a run-off, with Gomez eventually garnering the most votes.
Under other circumstances, that might have made the final ballot an interesting test of where the American bishops stand vis-à-vis the Pope Francis experiment in Catholicism, since Aymond is generally seen as a moderate to progressive figure who emphasizes many of the same social justice issues as the pontiff, while over the years Gomez, who’s a member of the Catholic organization Opus Dei, has been seen as a bit more conservative and traditional in outlook.
However, two factors likely changed the calculus this time.
First, it was widely expected that Gomez, as the archbishop of the largest Catholic diocese in the United States and also the first Hispanic bishop in the country up for the distinction, would be named a cardinal the next time an American received a red hat from a pope.
Instead, Francis opted to elevate Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis (who’s subsequently been named to Newark) and Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, who’s been tapped to head a new Vatican department for family, laity and life.
While few really begrudge those choices, there was nevertheless wide disappointment for Gomez and a natural sense of sympathy for someone other bishops perceived to have been “passed over” or left off the list.
In that context, putting Gomez in line to become president of the conference was really the closest way American bishops had at their disposal to make up for their disappointment that he wasn’t named a cardinal.
Even more fundamental than that, however, was likely the effect of Trump’s upset victory in last Tuesday’s presidential election.
Whatever else the American bishops may care about, the defense of immigrants has emerged in recent years as an increasingly critical priority – in part because they see it as a critical human rights priority that’s very much in sync with the agenda of Pope Francis, and in part because those immigrants also tend to be members of the bishops’ own flocks, since they’re disproportionately Catholic.
One key trajectory in American Catholicism today is a “back to the future” dynamic, in which the Church is once again becoming a blue-collar, immigrant community, and therefore the defense of immigrant rights isn’t simply an abstract humanitarian exercise for many bishops, but also a reflection of the people they’re seeing in the pews as they move around their local communities.
To be clear, it would be wrong to read the choice of Gomez entirely as an anti-Trump, pro-immigrant statement.
He’s hardly a standard-bearer for the progressive agenda in the American church. On the contrary, he’s a protégé of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, having started his career as an auxiliary under Chaput in Denver, and is generally seen as part of the moderate-to-conservative camp among the bishops. He’s solidly pro-life, he believes strongly in the need for better catechesis and grounding in doctrine, and sees a serious threat in creeping secularism and assaults on religious freedom.
That said, there’s a more transcendent subtext at the moment, which is that at a time when American politics would seem to be trending towards walls and closure as the right response to the growing immigrant presence, Gomez incarnates a different option: Someone born in Mexico but who nevertheless has become fully assimilated in the United States, and without whom both the American Church and American society would be clearly impoverished.
For sure, as a leader of the U.S. bishops conference, Gomez will try hard to be a spokesperson for the full range of Catholic social teaching, including its positions on immigrants. However, even without trying, Gomez in his biography and personal story makes the point, and in his case, explicit speech almost seems anti-climactic.
That, in a nutshell, is the message the American bishops delivered on Tuesday, and it’s one sure to reverberate for some time to come.