Sacramento bishop reflects on a tumultuous year in California, the church and the country
Next week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathers for its spring general assembly in Southern California. And by any standard one might choose—from the incredible sequence of events in the church to the U.S. presidential primaries—the last 12 months have been truly extraordinary.
In anticipation of the U.S.C.C.B. meeting, I spoke to Bishop Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference and bishop of Sacramento, for his take the country and the church at this time.
It’s been a crazy year in our country, especially in the run up to the election. As a bishop and also a trained social worker, what do you see going on out there? How would you evaluate the current state of affairs in our country?
I’d say that from a political and social perspective, there’s a great deal of uncertainty. And for we who are pastors or anyone who is in leadership, there’s an uneasiness about trying to understand what’s going on.
There is a great deal of unrest and the political campaigns have been anything but normal; most of the pundits now are apologizing for predictions they made a few months ago. They thought we’d be in our regular electioneering mode and we’re not. And that’s obviously true for the Republican Party but it’s also in many ways true about the Democratic Party as well. People have a great deal of anxiety about their future. And that anxiety looks for reasons, whether it’s immigrants or terrorism or big banks or big business.... There is a great deal of insecurity.
As pastors, any election year is always cause for a great deal of consternation and concern about how to bring the moral perspective or the faith perspective into public discourse. But this year it seems even more daunting trying to raise those issues in a setting where there isn’t real discourse going on. There’s just people shouting at one another. It’s cliché, but the civil discourse is anything but civil. It’s very angry; it’s very hostile.
Our job as pastors at all times, but particularly during an election time, is to bring some common sense as well as good moral reasoning to the issues of the day. And that’s more of a challenge in 2016 than I can remember in previous elections.
Do you see that anxiety on a local level as well?
Oh yeah. Sacramento is the state capital and there is in the state of California some optimism about the economy growing. But underneath the surface, and very apparently here in Sacramento, there still are significant segments of the California population that are not participating in the recovery. There has been some improvement in the local economy here in Sacramento, though not to the extent, say, of the Bay area and perhaps other parts of the state. But the Central Valley is by and large still struggling; all the big national issues—immigration, climate change, the issues of water and quality of water, job growth—are playing out in dramatic ways in the Central Valley. And many municipalities are struggling to meet the basic needs of their community.
Not wanting to go to the extremes, but still, you look at what’s happened to Flint, and the narrative of that tragedy goes back to a failed municipal government where the state takes over and thinks it can be really smart and winds up creating a disaster.
We do have municipalities here, Stockton being a case in point, San Bernardino is perhaps another one, and other cities struggling to figure out how do serve the common good, with regions that still are falling behind or being left behind.
It’s been an incredibly full year in the church as well. A year ago we received “Laudato Si’,” and since we’ve had not only the pope’s visits to Latin America, the United States and Lesbos but the Synod on the Family, the Jubilee Year of Mercy and most recently “Amoris Laetitia.”
Where do you think we are as a church right now in the midst of all that?
I think in many ways Pope Francis hit the reboot on many issues that we struggle with pastorally here in the church in California. His manner of representing the church and the church’s concerns have caused many folks who have in a sense closed their ears to what the church has to say to start listening again. I know that’s true for many adults, but I also know it’s very true for young people. They’re very attracted to him.
And so the challenge for us as pastors here in California is in some sense to learn from him this new manner of dialogue, of public discourse, while at the same time, like Francis, to still keep a continuity with the church and particularly with his most recent predecessors Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict. Sometimes there’s been a tendency here in California to want to portray Pope Francis as a departure—“He’s doing something completely new”—with the expectation that he’s going to make all these changes.
But Pope Francis has been, I think, very clear in terms of drawing from the wealth of the two previous popes. He presents their thinking in such a way that some folks say Francis is coming up with a new approach, but for those of us who have been listening to papal teaching, Francis is very consistent with a line of thinking and a pattern of social concern that goes back to Paul VI and was expanded by John Paul and Benedict. Francis just by his personality and also his gestures has really given it in many ways a new face.
A real concrete example from here: When “Laudato Si’” came out, you can just imagine what that meant for a lot of Californians, who see the environment as really very important. And the president of the state senate, Kevin De León, an L.A. guy, asked the bishops to come in and do a workshop on “Laudato Si’” for the legislators and their staff. That’s unheard of. It’s an opportunity we had never had before.
And we were able to come in and not just talk about what Pope Francis said but link it with John Paul and Benedict—particularly Pope Francis’ metaphor of the ecology of the human person, how he links the dignity of the human person not just in the person himself or herself but as part of creation. A person cannot live out their dignity without at the same time caring for the creation around them. That was a wonderful opportunity.
Do you think that moment offers the possibility of more opportunities?
Well, yes. You know, the issue of faith and religion in the public square here in California is always a challenge.
How do you mean?
I believe California on some level is becoming increasingly intolerant of religious discourse, [of] religious presence in the public square. Religion is being privatized. For example, the board of supervisors in Los Angeles finally got rid of the cross on the county seal. For years there have been efforts to try and do that. It’s a small thing and yet it’s also a big thing. And you watch, the next thing they’ll likely go after is the rosary around the seal of the city of Los Angeles.
These acts are perhaps symbolic, but they’re big symbols. And it’s indicative of a tenor of wanting to disengage religion from legitimate public discourse.
But as I say that about California, Francis is for us as pastors and for many people in California a breath of fresh air, in terms of saying that it is important to engage in the world, and it is important to cultivate the culture of encounter and dialogue.
I remember, when Pope Francis was in Rio de Janiero, he’d only been pope for a few months, but he spoke to the bishops, priests and religious, seminarians who had come from all over Latin America. And in that talk, again this was very early in his pontificate, he really laid out that challenge to us, that we could not encloustrar ourselves, from the Spanish “to enclose.” We cannot make our parishes cloisters; our parishes have to be open, our doors have to be open. And in his usual Argentinian flair he said, it’s not enough to just open the door, either. You have to go through the door into the world. It was a very dramatic thing. It’s worthwhile to go back and read that talk; it is one of his early moments of articulating that culture of encounter.
And I believe the pope’s most recent document, the apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” is indicative of that. When the Holy Father began that whole process of encuentros—the extraordinary synods, the dialogue that was very open—maybe for many journalists it could have been more transparent, but still it created the expectation of transparency that had not been there before.
And some folks thought that there was going to be these dramatic changes because of this dialogue. But the document in many ways turned out the way I thought it was going to, in that I don’t think Pope Francis introduced anything that was new, but what he did introduce was a new understanding of church teaching that came out of the dialogues that had happened. And hopefully for us as pastors and for Catholics, a new appreciation about marriage and the significance of families.
I was taken by the amount of the document that really is dedicated to marriage and family as the crux, the setting where a lot of issues of economic well being and human dignity are lived out and fulfilled or frustrated. I think the document went a long way to bring together social concerns with many of the other more traditional dignity of life concerns that people have.
So, in usual Catholic fashion, it makes everybody uncomfortable.
He’s very good at that.
When I talk to bishops in the West, I always like to ask about their experience of the local church vis-a-vis the wider American church. What would you say are some of the interesting things you see going on in the church of California that could be of value to the rest of the U.S. church? Or differences that are instructive to understand?
Even though the church in California has very ancient roots that go all the way back to the missions, the church here today is really a phenomenon of the post-World War II society. Obviously there’s also the growth of Hollywood and those sorts of things, but the post-war period and the explosion in California’s population changed California in a significant way. It probably moved us from being a frontier to being a global center.
California historically has always attracted immigrants, that’s just been the history of California, but again since the war and particularly after the valuation of the peso in the early 70s and then the fall of Saigon, there was an explosion in Hispanic and Asian immigration, Vietnamese and others. And that radically changed the complexion of the state.
I’m asked pretty regularly why don’t we have the “national” [a.k.a. ethnic] churches like other parts of the country traditionally used to, a Chicago or New York or Philadelphia. In some sense that was the model of church on the East Coast. Here, we didn’t have the time to build those churches. We were busy improvising. So there are a lot of churches here with Irish names, but there weren’t necessarily a lot of Irish people in them.
Those were difficult periods in the history of the church in California, but there’s a vitality to the church in California today because of that whole experience. It gives the church a different tempo than other parts of the United States. We’re still trying to manage growth in many ways; perhaps some cities like San Francisco may have a slightly different reality, but generally that’s our situation. Whereas in other parts of the country they’re trying to manage changing demographics.
How would you say that evolution has affected the nature of church here?
Again, many of the dioceses in California have deep roots, but because the church we know today is more of a post-war experience, the clerical culture here is different from older and more established dioceses on the East Coast. Particularly in the wake of Vatican II, the level of lay engagement it brought to a lot of different areas of church life, I think the clergy here adapted well to that, and in some ways was more creative than other parts of the country.
Talking specifically about the Hispanic community—and some of this is true nationwide but it’s very true in California—the impact of lay movements is undeniable. Whether that be Cursillo or Marriage Encounter, especially the charismatic renewal, there were very strong lay movements that generated a lot of energy in the church and produced a whole generation of lay leaders, both formally and informally. And while on the periphery of church life, they were a very important part of, an essential part of our parishes. A Hispanic parish without lay movements was not going to have vitality. You needed them. A good pastor knew how to incorporate the good energies of the lay movements, and also how to manage some of the problems that came with them.
I also think most of us bishops in California would say that our experience with church-based community organizing has also been very positive and has been a creative way to engage Catholics in positive social change. I can’t think of a diocese in California that doesn’t participate in those in some fashion or another.
Last question: Based on what you were saying about Francis, do you find his goal is less about making changes in church teaching or doctrine, and more about the way we view one another or the kinds of conversations we’re open to?
He does expect pastors to engage people in a conversation, whether that’s in a counseling setting or a confessional setting or the pulpit. But also that we have to speak to the people and not to the issues. Again, this goes back to one of his earlier documents where he chastises both the lax and the rigid confessor. He says that neither one of them is serving the penitent. If one is going to be a minister of mercy, you must speak to the person and not to the sin.
For anyone who has been in a confessional, that image makes a lot of sense.
I know for me and I believe for many of my brother bishops here in California, the Year of Mercy has hit a nerve. Really it’s a nerve among the Catholic community: There is an enthusiasm for the Year of Mercy that’s been very refreshing as a pastor. And so it’s almost as if Francis revealed something about the church’s mission and self-image that just instinctively made people respond: “That’s it. That’s right.” In a certain sense we all knew it already, but Francis really took us back to the heart of what the work of the church is.
And I know for us here in California, for me and my brother bishops, that has given us a new appreciation not just for our parishes but our other major social institutions, what their mission is, whether that’s Catholic health care, Catholic social services, Catholic education, that those are the ways we do the work of mercy in a concrete way. That’s how we engage the world.