The election of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, self-described as a “traditional priest” who leads the immigrant-heavy diocese of Galveston-Houston, as president of the U.S. Bishops Conference was quickly defined by church-watchers and pundits as either a rejection by the American bishops of Pope Francis’s more “progressive” agenda, a warning to Donald Trump, or both.
Speaking to Crux on Tuesday hours after the voting, DiNardo firmly rejected the first premise, while acknowledging there’s truth in the second, even more so when read together with the election of the first Hispanic bishop as vice president: Mexico-born Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, California.
“I have spoken publicly about how important Pope Francis has been in terms of mercy, putting the church on the peripheries,” the cardinal argued. “I can’t think of two people who’ve been more positive on Pope Francis” than himself and Gomez.
Trump, on the other hand, he suggested is a more complicated picture, having vowed to deport illegal immigrants and tighten standards for entry into the United States.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, as of 2014, there were more than 10 million foreign-born people living in California, representing almost 30 percent of the state’s population. Not all of them have their papers in order.
In Texas, legal and illegal immigrants amount to more than four million people, or over 15 percent of the total.
On the election of the new leadership being a “warning shot” to the Trump administration, DiNardo said: “I think it’s stating from the point of view of the bishops’ conference, that we consider the issues of immigration and refugees central ones.”
“I think it’s not so much talking into [Trump’s] face but letting him know where we’re coming from,” he said.
On the voting that made him president of the U.S. bishops, DiNardo said that although he wasn’t necessarily surprised at the fact that it’d had happened — traditionally, the vice president takes over the presidency — he was a bit startled that the result came on the first ballot.
“That surprised me a bit,” he said, laughing that bishops can sometimes be “a feisty bunch.”
Regarding what his priorities will be for the next years, he said he hasn’t given it much thought because those are chosen by the bishops as a whole. However, he does have three things close to his heart where he believes he can make a push: Prison reform, pro-life issues (from abortion to the death penalty), and immigration.
Prison reform, he said, is something which is currently being debated in Texas, and people on both sides of the aisle are “growing in concern and agreement.” This, DiNardo believes, could lead to the state also rethinking the death penalty.
“This is something that’s personal, but also part of what our goals are [as U.S. bishops], because we’re looking at people who are at the edges, and you can’t be more on the edges than being in jail,” he said.
DiNardo, who’s served as the chair of the pro-life committee in the conference, added that he’ll always have “a number of pro-life issues in my heart and mind.”
Regarding immigration, he said that the November 14-16 general assembly taking place in Baltimore served to cement this matter as a priority, particularly “the fear and anxiety that people have, in light of the election.”
What follows are excerpts of Crux’s Tuesday afternoon conversation with DiNardo.
Crux: However unfair these labels are, both you and Gomez would be seen on the conservative side. And some might perceive your election as some kind of vote against a more “progressive” Francis agenda. How do you respond to that?
DiNardo: Yes, we are more traditional. But the only way I can respond is that both Archbishop Gomez and I have spoken publicly about how important Pope Francis has been in terms of mercy, putting the church in the peripheries. I can’t think of two people who’ve been more positive on Pope Francis.
I can’t speak for him [Gomez], so I’ll speak for myself. I’m a more traditional person, I’m a traditional priest and bishop, and I have great regard and respect for Pope Francis and I’m delighted. If they want to construe this as somehow I’m not with Pope Francis, that’s crazy. I enjoy Pope Francis; I think he’s doing some marvelous things for the church.
Where I live, in Texas, where we still have a large population of non-Catholic Christians, I regularly get inquiries about Pope Francis and how much they like him and how much they think he’s a good Christian.
In my mind, you can be traditional and still be with the pope on mercy and on taking the church to the margins.
More with Gomez than with you, people might also construct the election of the first Hispanic vice president of the bishops conference as a shot across the bow to the Trump administration. Would that view also be exaggerated?
I think it is a little exaggerated. But I do think that electing a bishop from Galveston-Houston, where there are a huge number of immigrants, and then electing a vice president who is himself an immigrant, who came to this country…I think it’s stating from the point of view of the bishops’ conference that we consider the issues of immigration and refugees central ones.
I think it’s not so much talking into his face but letting him know where we’re coming from. And I think we can do that with great civility and intelligence, but we obviously see this as a significant issue.
Could this also be read as the bishops telling the Trump administration you’re going to hold him accountable on the issue of abortion and the promises he’s made during the campaign trail?
He made statements during the campaign relative to pro-life, I find the statements he’s made good.
But because the nature of this campaign was so unusual, now that he’s governing we have to hear from him on specific issues. We have great hope on some issues, like the pro-life. But you can’t predict in advance.
We have to see the policies working out before giving any preemptive comments.
The only preemptive thing we have is that we have an archbishop of Texas and one from LA, who are president and vice president. We love our people, and we are in areas where a lot of them are immigrants.