LA's Nuevo Arzobispo

One hundred years hence, it is possible that the history books will note the on-going ups-and-downs of the clergy sex abuse crisis. Perhaps, the treaty the President signed this morning to reduce the number of nuclear weapons will be the first of many which will, in one hundred years, reach fruition with a world free of nuclear weapons. But, I can guarantee that the history books will definitely note one event this week: The appointment of a Latino archbishop, Archbishop Jose Gomez, to the cardinalatial see of Los Angeles. Gomez is virtually guaranteed to become a cardinal given that the archdiocese he will take over is not only the largest in the United States, but if you took out the 3.5 million Latino Catholics in Los Angeles and made them into a separate diocese, it would also be the largest in the United States.

There was a time when many U.S. bishops were foreign born, but they came from Ireland. France also provided some of the earliest bishops to America. But, the future of Catholicism in this country is largely a Latino future. While the historic Irish, Italian and French Canadian churches of the Northeast are losing numbers, in dioceses like Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Orlando, they can’t build churches and schools fast enough. Already the Vatican has recognized the changing demographic by awarding a red hat to Houston, and consigning St. Louis to the rank of cities that once had cardinals but no longer do. I suspect Detroit will join that list and probably Baltimore as well.


The Church, so often mocked for being behind the times – or celebrated for avoiding the slavish indignity of being a child of her own age – is here ahead of the curve. The demography of the country is on track to mimic the demographic changes we are already seeing in the Church. There are a handful of prominent Latino politicians from Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico to the sister-congresswomen, Reps. Linda and Loretta Sanchez. Marco Rubio, who is running in the GOP primary in Florida, is probably the leading Hispanic in the Republican Party. But, Gomez’s appointment is more like that of Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, a very exclusive post in which the inclusion of a minority screams “We have arrived!”

Gomez is also the first Opus Dei bishop in the United States. (You can bet Dan Brown is looking for increased sales of “The DaVinci Code” in LA over the next few months.) There was a time when that might have worried me, when Opus Dei had not been homogenized with the universal Church, and was still a little too close to its Spanish origins and the specifically fascistic associations those origins entailed. But, today, Opus Dei strikes me simply as a highly motivated and organized group of Catholics, who certainly tend to the right, but who are not prone to the kind of cult-like regimens that characterize the Legionnaires, for example. Yesterday, a bishop, who has known Gomez for years, recalled his election to head an organization of Hispanic priests. The organization was left-of-center and the bishop said he had been surprised that they selected an Opus Dei priest. “That gives you some flavor of the man’s personal qualities,” he said.

It will be interesting to see how Gomez puts his stamp on the sprawling LA archdiocese. For the next year, he will be working hand-in-glove with Cardinal Roger Mahony, known nationally for taking up the Common Ground Initiative after the death of Cardinal Bernardin. When Gomez first became a bishop, he served as an auxiliary to Archbishop Chaput in Denver, who is – how to say this? – not exactly a poster-boy for Common Ground. Which model will Gomez pursue? Will he even care to exert a national influence? Can such a role be avoided from such a prominent position? Time will tell. We can be certain, however, that the Church in the United States has passed a milestone in its journey. Soon, Latino Catholics will be able to observe meetings of the U.S. cardinals and recognize that, for one of them, English is his second, more heavily accented language. It is difficult to measure what effect such a seemingly small thing has on a people, but it is a good effect to be sure and one that really runs deeper than you might think. The Vatican has come under tons of criticism lately but they deserve a shout out for this appointment.

Michael Sean Winters

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
Do you suppose that those of us who consider ourselves Vatican 2 Catholics will become a small minority of the larger Church?  Or will we be excluded?
Jeremy Cruz
8 years ago
"We have arrived!?!"  You can't be serious.  We have been Catholic in this land for almost 500 years.  Our lacking of representation and decision-making power in our church (and politically) is not a matter of growing numbers or of being recent arrivals.  It's an issue of suppression and exclusion.  The sense of racial-ethnic innocence in this article is astounding, as is its sense that Church history in North America moves from east to west.  Is it notable that L.A. has a Latin American (NOT Latino) archbishop?  Yes.  But you seriously need to probe deeper as to why this is notable and "new."  Relatedly, you keep talking about what this means for Latinos.  Yet this man is from Mexico...he's Latin American.  You are conflating histories and social contexts that are related but distinct.  Most offensive of all, the notion that the Church is "ahead of the curve" on this appointment is astounding.  You have some reading to do, Mr. Winters.  While I am happy that Bishop Gomez better understands immigrant realities in our Church, especially for those from Central America, his own admission is that he knows very little about Los Angeles (in contrast to, say, Bishop Gabino Zavala who is already pastoring in L.A.).  The Church is very behind and has a lot of catching up to do if it is going to have leadership that is representative of the demographics of its people.  If and when it reaches that point, then we'll talk about penance for past sins and healing the legacies of the racial-ethnic injustice of U.S. Church leadership.  THEN we might talk about what it means for the Church to get "ahead of the curve."  Finally, can I ask what is the significance of his "heavily accented English?"  (Or, what is the significance of your own?  I'm sure the Queen of England would like to know.)
Nicholas Collura
8 years ago
Those of us Catholics who live in San Antonio have not stopped talking about this news. I imagine the situation is very similar in Los Angeles. In Mr. Winters's defense, Jeremy, everything I've read registers a high level of excitement over the appointment...the LA Times's headline itself reads, "Latino Immigrants Proud that LA 's Next Archbishop is 'One of Us.'" Perhaps I am only reading selective or misleading articles, but however you parse it, the symbolism is very important: people, especially in the Obama-Sotomayor age, and including many Caucasians like me, feel pride at gestures of inclusion, and whatever pride we can get is important at a time when the Church's reputation makes it difficult to feel much of it. 
I can't personally speak to "the legacies of the racial-ethnic injustice of US Church leadership." Maybe I'm ignorant. But I do know that San Antonio under Bishop Drossaerts was an extremely welcoming place for Mexican clergy (who at that time were fleeing revolution and Church suppression), that Archbishop Gomez has pioneered an extremely significant bilingual diocesan seminary program, and that half of the Texas episcopal conference today is Mexican-American. No amount of bitterness over past wrongs can mask the demographic significance of all that, and the fact that Gomez is heading west, announcing the Vatican's symbolic and practical investment in these matters, is one way among many that the history of the Catholic Church in the US demonstrably has moved westward...or that the Church is, at least, regrouping itself in the southwest.
Politically, I'm not sure whether Gomez will be "ahead of the curve." He's only been here in our city for five years, and San Antonio has yet to form a consensus on him. Many of us grumble about his lack of charisma (which stems, I think, from a deep humility) and somewhat by-the-book administrative style. But to answer one of your questions, Michael, I think that he will care to exert a national influence. In many ways, he already has. (Nearly every time I've heard him speak to seminars and conferences and on his local Catholic channel TV show, he mentions trips to Washington and to Austin to advocate for immigration reform.) Many of us feel that it's on the immigration issue that the US Church is most publicly and most laudably "ahead" of some sort of curve. 
Jeremy Cruz
8 years ago
Nicholas, you have missed much of my point.  Latin American and Latino are not the same identity category.  Further, the LA Times (like most "mainstream" news), does not have a good track record on accurately reporting matters pertaining to Chicano/a and Latino/a Catholics.  The (white) LA Times author you mention, just like Winters, uses "Latino" to talk about the Latin American immigrants who he cites as evidence that Bishop Gomez is "one of us."  No one or two people speak for all of "us;" all of us are not immigrants; most of our families have been here for several generations; and many of us had ancestors here before this land was stolen by the U.S, which was one of its stated military goals.  What I am saying is that we are not all the same and thus identify differently with this episcopal appointment; it's not simply about "one of us" or "not one of us."  
I realize you may read this as "parsing" and "bitterness" but these are not insignificant points, though they do inconveniently disrupt the pride that you say many Caucasian Catholics want to feel right now.  I'm sorry to take that from you, but I have to remind you that this conversation is not primarily about Caucasians.  It's about Chicano/a and Latino/a people who have been suppressed and excluded within our Church.  Is this appointment of some symbolic importance?  Yes.  Will it be good for humane and just immigration reform?  Maybe.  Is it a sign that the Church is ahead of the curve?  Absolutely not.  It's a sign that the pope and bishops are conceding to some realities that they can't continue to simply suppress, control, and ignore.  [Since you bring up Pres. Obama, an analogy would be to ask: Is the U.S.A. "ahead of the curve" because it elected as president a half-Black male who got there by relying on white-male-corporate money and whose main support (numerically) was the roughly 28% of eligible white voters who chose him over McCain or nobody?]
I don't know much about Bishop Drossaerts, but I know some Church history in Texas and it's not pretty.  I'm not particularly impressed that a European bishop "welcomed" Mexican Catholics into land that had just been stolen from them.  Kind of strange that we're talking about a Dutch bishop "welcoming" Mexican Catholics to "SAN ANTONIO."  Again, I realize this disrupts feel-good assessments of history and our current situation, but we need an accurate and serious conversation here if we're really going to have a Church worthy of its call.  You and Winters don't seem to grasp just how deep the suppression of Latin American and Latino/a practices and ministerial agency have been and continue to be in the U.S. Church.
Nicholas Collura
8 years ago
Hi Jeremy,
Your points are very well taken. I didn't mean to elide the important difference between "Latin American" and "Latino," nor to overgeneralize about anyone, nor yet to sound petty or dismissive in calling such careful distinctions "parsing." I should have been more careful with my words. I guess my main question, which I didn't really articulate, is whether you think the Vatican could have done better with this appointment? I don't mean that defensively and I won't presume the answer is yes; I'm honestly curious. Put differently, what should the Church do to get, in fact, ahead of the curve or become "representative of the demographics of the people"? Maybe I reacted strongly because your post seemed short on illustrations which could help us to understand the real scope of the problem of "the suppression of Latin American and Latino/a practices and ministerial the US Church." (The quotation marks are non-derisive.)
Incidentally, I would actually be more willing to say that the US is ahead of the curve for electing Obama than that the Church is ahead of the curve for appointing Gomez to LA. True, Obama had white support, but he also galvanized more black voters (of course) than any candidate ever had and just as the Gomez thing isn't all about the Caucasians, I think it would be wrong to attribute that historical moment exclusively to white power. To put it all in (one) context, I myself witnessed the election from France, which despite its sophisticated liberalism found itself wracked with guilt that it could never, by its pundits' own admission, elect a black person or Muslim to its highest office.
There's always another side of the story, as you well know...and as valuable as pointing out the hidden dark side of history may be (and indeed it is), I think it's also important to be explicit about the virtues when progress is made. Hope can easily become a slogan, but it is also a theological virtue; I think it's a good thing to cultivate and it's good to see what is beautiful in people, in the Church, and in the world...
Jeremy Cruz
8 years ago
Nicholas, Re: Do I think the Vatican could have done better in this selection?  Likely.  Bishop Gomez says he knows very little about Los Angeles.  Church leadership should rise from recognition by the people and thus would (at least under normal circumstances) have some knowledge of the people who they will accompany and serve.  This is not the case here.  (Thus runs against the notion that I should be excited about this simply because he has a Spanish last name.)  He may end up being a fine pastor.  I haven't questioned his abilities.  But it's hard to argue that this is the best we can do and it's not factually accurate to argue that we're ahead of the curve.  Consider that the first Hispanic bishop wasn't ordained in the U.S. until 1970.  That's notably BEHIND the curve.  And currently only about 8% of the U.S. clergy are Latin American or Latino and of them over 80% are foreign born (Latin American).  The Instituto Fe y Vida notes that while the ratio of ordained presbyters to Catholic laity in the U.S. is 1 to 1,375, one of the lowest rates in the world, the ratio of U.S.-born Hispanic presbyters to U.S.-born Hispanic Catholics is 1 to 27,000.  We have A LOT of work to do just to get to a measure of leadership equity, let alone healing the damage of 150+ years of treating the Church in the Southwest like missionary territory for white Catholics. The Church is bleeding U.S.-born Hispanic members because its leadership.  The longer Latino families are here the less likely they are to be Catholics.  We have a problem and it's directly related to participatory and representative leadership.  And these issues of participation in Church decision-making and ministerial agency are much bigger than this one appointment and run much deeper than just the clergy. 
Jim McCrea
8 years ago
Jeremy asked:  "Is it notable that L.A. has a Latin American (NOT Latino) archbishop?"
Why did “La Opinion” have the headline on 7 April:  “Un arbizpo latino para Los Angeles?”
Jeremy Cruz
8 years ago
I am aware that Latino is used, especially in Spanish (as with La Opinon), as shorthand for "Latinoamericano." My point wasn't to criticize the terms used, but rather the notion that US-born Latinos and foreign-born Latinoamericano immigrants represent the same social context and set of concerns...and a monolithic identity group.  My point isn't to enforce terminology, though keeping the terms clear definitely helps keep clear the differences in social context and identities.  


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