LA: A ‘political’ archbishop arrives

As you would expect, the editors and reporters at the Los Angeles Times have been trying to do some heavy lifting following the announcement that Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio would soon be arriving in the City of Angels.

The most obvious result was a two-day series about Gomez, starting with his roots and ending up — of course — in a discussion of his politics. The newspaper is struggling to pin a label on this man, other than “traditionalist,” or words to that effect. The Opus Dei connection has been a minor problem.

The headline on part one was laugh out loud funny and, thus, perfectly captured the challenge facing the newspaper staff. How could they be warm and welcoming to this historic Latino leader and, to some degree positive, while making sure that readers knew all about his, well, scary Catholic beliefs? Check out this double-deck classic:

A young priest’s passionate calling

Jose Gomez felt the pull of the Catholic Church early on. In Los Angeles, the stern traditionalist with a genial disposition inherits an archdiocese much different from the one he led in San Antonio.

But enough about that church stuff. Let’s get down to the business of news, which means politics. How did this man affect the real world? Forget confession booths. How did his actions affect people in voting booths? Thus, the headline on part two proclaimed:

A leading voice in the Catholic Church

As a bishop in Colorado and Texas, Jose Gomez did not hesitate to use his pulpit as a platform for both social justice and raw politics — causing, on occasion, considerable strife.

Now, when average readers see the word “politics,” what do they think? Do they think of battles about issues in public life or do they think about party politics, the stuff of who wins and who loses? This is an important question, for those anxious to pin one consistent political label on a man like Gomez and his work.

But the Times runs into problems right from the get go, in part two. Here’s a key piece of that report about his San Antonio days:

For a quarter-century, the archbishop was Patrick Fernandez Flores, whose remarkable journey — he was the seventh child of migrant farmworkers and a high school dropout — resonated deeply. The city had gone through a painful shift from electing City Council members at large to creating districts, a change that opened the corridors of power to Latinos. It had fallen largely to Flores to navigate those tense and troubled times.

When Archbishop Jose Gomez was installed as Flores’ successor in 2005, he picked up the mantle.

For example, he has joined forces with an organization that works on behalf of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, fighting for road improvements, libraries, parks and streetlights. Last summer, Gomez co-sponsored an immigration summit. Most critically, said a summit organizer, Jorge Montiel, Gomez has not only taken on economic inequality as a mission but sold his initiatives to other religious groups and the business community.

That seems to be acceptable. However, the Times immediately sounds a note of warning — even when writing about issues that are completely predictable, from the viewpoint of Catholic social teaching.

Next winter, Gomez will become the archbishop in Los Angeles, taking the reins of the largest Catholic community in the United States. He has already shown that he will not hesitate to use his pulpit as a platform for both social justice and raw politics — causing, on occasion, considerable strife.

As a bishop in Colorado and Texas, two often-conservative states, Gomez was unapologetic about his support for immigrants’ rights. He wrote regular treatises, published online and in newspapers, criticizing in sometimes caustic tones lawmakers who sought to strip those rights.

But wait! Gomez isn’t a consistent progressive.

Gomez also was not shy about plunging into national politics. He signed a letter endorsing a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, contending that “the danger [same-sex marriage] betokens for family life and a general condition of social justice and ordered liberty is hard to overestimate.” This spring, he assailed President Obama’s healthcare reform package, largely because he felt it would increase the number of abortions. And when an Indiana bishop refused to attend Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, Gomez wrote a letter saying he was “in total support.”

Shocking. He even disagreed with, and disbanded, an advisory commission of lay people when it took a stance that clashed with church teachings on gay marriage. Then again, the archbishop was merely “telling the public what he believes church doctrine dictates.” You see, it is not possible to know what the Catholic catechism actually teaches about gay marriage — the bishop was merely stating his own personal beliefs about what “church doctrine dictates.”

Now, it’s one thing to quote people who agree with and then those who disagree with what the Catholic church teaches about marriage. That’s journalism. Go for it. Carry on.

I’m asking another question. Do the rules of journalism require that the details of the actual teaching — the words on the catechism page — be somehow blurred into opinion?

It gets worse. Gomez also thinks that practicing, faithful Catholics should attempt to live according to the church’s teachings. You can hear the gasp in the newsroom.

In speeches, he has decried a society that believes there are “as many truths as there are individuals.” In a 21-page treatise he wrote in February, he critiqued “cultural Catholics” — modernist, Catholic-lite worshipers who view Catholicism as “a personality trait … that shapes their perception on the world but compels no allegiance or devotion to the church.” He scolded Latinos in particular, exhorting: “Somos Catolicos!” “We are Catholics!” …

Gomez pointed out in his treatise that the first Mass in San Antonio was celebrated 320 years ago, making it the place “where the Gospel was first preached in America” and evangelization itself “took root in the hearts of our ancestors.” He contended that America has been “de-Christianized” by an “anti-Gospel.” He called for a “new evangelization” and suggested that American society had suffered because “our nation’s Christian heritage” had been excised from schools, the media, “our laws and public policies.”

Now, it is completely accurate — and necessary — to then leap to another question: How will this unashamed approach to Catholic doctrine fly in Los Angeles?

This leads us to a huge gap in this big package. The team at the newspaper needed to ask another question: How will this doctrinal approach work for someone charged with following in the footsteps of Cardinal Roger Mahony? The Times calls the exiting cardinal “a well-known power broker and public persona.” Traditional Catholics would use other words. If the newspaper was trying to be tough and critical, then that angle urgently needed to be pursued.

Stay tuned.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe

    All I can say is we need to pray for this man.

    L.A. is so gone that it his own experience will make Benedict’s current treatment look like a welcome reception. Watch as the Hispanic glam factor wears off and the inquisition begins

  • dalea

    Interestng article. I am curious how Gomez will deal with the problems poverty creates in so many parishes. And what is relationship with the creative communities will be like.

    It is helpful to remember that Los Angeles is much more socially conservative than San Francisco. Which is why Noon8 swept the Bay Area but only won comfortably in Los Angeles County. The LA Times never seems to mention that.

  • Peggy

    Unfortunately, this media practice of presenting bishops’ declarations as bishops’ own whim or opinions is present throughout the nation. Our BND wrote in December about the Belleville, IL, bishop calling the faithful to kneel for the Eucharistic prayer. The BND presented it as the bishop’s opinion or power-mad whim. The articles included known dissenting laity calling it so.

    The bishop ultimately was compelled to print on the diocesan web site and paper a letter in which he explained that this was not his personal whim. It was how Catholics worship worldwide. He’s calling the faithful to do what the Church teaches, what we are supposed to do…

    The media has this limited political template and persists in not understanding why Catholic (and often other) clergy, don’t fit the lines of the political parties. The clergy’s job is not to be politicians (though some forget), but spiritual and religious shepherds.

    I would imagine that the Latino population which is considered largely socially conservative will welcome all that the new archbishop has to offer. And the press won’t get it.

  • http://twitter.com/bdunlap Ben Dunlap

    this media practice of presenting bishops’ declarations as bishops’ own whim or opinions is present throughout the nation. … The BND presented [the instruction to kneel] as the bishop’s opinion or power-mad whim.

    The bishop … explained that this was not his personal whim

    It does get pretty complicated, though, especially in liturgical matters. For example, here in Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahony instructed his faithful to stand during a part of the mass when most Catholics worldwide kneel (after the Agnus Dei). Current liturgical law gives him this authority.

    Nonetheless many conservative-minded Catholics kneel in explicit defiance of the bishop, presumably thinking that he is actually defying the world-wide Church and that they are being faithful — which is just not true. In this case it is up to him.

    It would take a lot of interest, knowledge, and humility to follow this kind of thing with as much care as it needs, and to report it accurately. And granted, if you’re a religion reporter you should be exercising the right habits. But it’s awfully easy to get the story wrong anyway.


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