What are the real differences between Mahony and Gomez?

Guess what? There are significant differences in the theological approaches and doctrinal convictions of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

So, what are they?

It’s hard to tell, in a fascinating Los Angeles Times story that goes way, way out its way to argue that the differences that really matter are rooted in style and, you guessed it, politics. You can tell that right up front in the content of the magisterial double-deck headline:

Gomez, Mahony are a study in contrasts

Where his predecessor led labor rallies and took up worker rights, earning the nickname ‘Hollywood’ from a pope, Gomez has quietly promoted conservative voices and evangelization.

Trust me, the contents of the story are way better, are way more complex, than that tone-deaf headline. However, I think that headline does show you where the newspaper’s editors were coming from when they approved work on this important news feature story.

The surprising bottom line, however, is that Gomez — whose roots are in Opus Dei — has not turned out to be a rampaging monster out to destroy Mahony’s work as one of the heroes of progressive American Catholicism. Part of this, yes, is a matter of style. Yet the story also hints that the bottom line is clear for those who have eyes to see: Mahony was a political animal who was always seeking the media spotlight; Gomez thinks the best way to achieve Catholic goals is to quietly use Catholic means, year after year after year.

Thus, readers are told, right up top:

In more than two decades leading the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony headlined immigration rallies, marched for worker rights and made national news by announcing he would defy a congressional bill he regarded as anti-immigrant.

But the man who replaced him in 2011 — Archbishop Jose Gomez — has shied away from such attention-getting actions. Instead, he plans to take 60 conservative Catholic business leaders on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City this fall in hopes of winning them over on immigration reform.

It’s a distinctly different style from that of Mahony, whom Pope John Paul II nicknamed “Hollywood” for his frequent media appearances.

In other words, both men are highly committed to helping immigrants, a crucial issue in America’s largest Catholic archdiocese — 4.5 million Roman Catholics in 120 cities in Southern California, with Latinos as 70 percent of the faithful. However, Gomez appears to be reaching out to Catholic leaders on these issues through worship and Catholic education, perhaps with few television cameras nearby.

Still, I think that this passage does raise an interesting journalistic question: Did someone in the Gomez camp say that the goal of the trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was “winning” these business leaders “over on immigration reform”? Would Gomez state the goal in political, rather than spiritual terms? It’s hard to tell, since Gomez did not consent to be interviewed, which may or may not tell readers something about his view of the Times.

I found this passage especially interesting:

(Gomez) has elevated issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia. He has promoted evangelization and religious education and embraced more conservative voices.

At the same time, he has not led an ideological purge of the archdiocese as some liberals had feared might happen under a cleric associated with the orthodox Opus Dei organization. Gomez has not, for instance, shut down a program Mahony developed that has trained lay leaders, particularly women, for powerful church roles, said Claire Henning, a pastoral associate at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood.

“I was one of the first to say, ‘Oh my God, Opus Dei,’” Henning said. “But I’ve been very impressed. I had a lot of presuppositions about him which were wrong.”

To the credit of the reporters who constructed this feature, this leads to one of its — in my opinion — most important and insightful passages in the whole piece:

Gomez believes Catholics must first know their faith to understand the theological reasons for taking stands on social issues, said Father Virgilio Elizondo, a longtime friend in San Antonio, where Gomez previously served as archbishop. In his first pastoral letter last October, he announced a push for a “new evangelization” to combat society’s increasing secularism and said his first priority would be to increase teaching about Catholic beliefs and how to apply them in parishioners’ daily lives and the world. The Spanish-language broadcasts are part of that push.

“He’s concerned about social justice but feels if you’re not well-grounded in the basics, then it can be seen as just activism and not … evangelization of the Gospel,” Elizondo said.

Gomez, for instance, has proclaimed that respect for life is the “true foundation” of justice and peace. As a result, he has expanded the mission of the archdiocese’s peace and justice office to include issues such as abortion, contraception and euthanasia and renamed it the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. The department that had handled those issues had been eliminated under budget cuts several years ago.

So let’s recap this a bit. After taking over for Mahony, the new leader of the nation’s largest archdiocese proceeded to elevate “issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia” and he restored the previously closed office in charge of defending church teachings on life issues or all kinds. While he has not, so far, stomped on liberal voices — ticking off some on the right — he has mixed more traditional Catholic voices into the mix, adding theological diversity.

Now, here is my main point. Doesn’t this imply that there are theological differences between the two men, issues in how they view Catholic doctrines and tradition?

Readers looking for an answer to that question will need to look elsewhere, since this story always circles back to politics. It is also important to note that the story avoids any questions about matters of liturgy and worship, another arena in which Mahony was a hero of the Catholic left.

By all means, read the whole story, because there is interesting material in there. It’s possible to read between the political lines and to learn quite a bit. There are doctrinal questions looming in the background and, every now and then, readers can see hints of the important, and very real, differences between these two Catholic leaders. Once again, God is in the details.

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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.

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  • Julia

    “a cleric associated with the orthodox Opus Dei organization.”

    Are Catholic organizations other than Opus Dei not orthodox?

  • Judith

    I take your point that there are differences in theology, not simply “style” and politics…but I also think, as shallow or simplistic as such an approach might be, do we really think reports for the LA Times would be able to give a coherent account of theological differences? I’m just glad they did as well as they did. I didn’t read the whole thing, but in the excerpts you provided, Abp Gomez’s views seem to be presented fairly.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    It’s a shame that so many media stories like this spin everything toward politics. I think it did a pretty good job of characterizing the nuts and bolds of Abp. Gomez’s tenure thus far. But it’s not because he’s in this or that end of the political spectrum. The problem with expecting a secular news outlet actually to compare the theological differences would mean also going another step and comparing both men’s theologies to actual Catholic doctrines, which would be a monumental task. It’s almost as if the newspaper is looking at them from the lens of how they relate to the secular god of government and politics.

  • FW Ken

    The LAT article didn’t bother me, even with the cycles back to politics, partly because they didn’t simply dismiss Abp. Gomez. I thought they took him seriously, which is a step up these days. It would have been nice to explore a bit the difference between leading marches and leading retreats: which better addresses attitudes towards immigration?

    Before our Bp. Kevin Vann was (like Josh Hamilton) traded to Anaheim, we saw a gentle sea change here, quietly replacing one kind of staff with another kind add folks retired or moved on so that before you knew it, the local church was different and no one was marching in the streets.

    You have wish, that the Times had paired Cardinal Mahony’s theatrics with some of his recent writings.

    http://cardinalrogermahonyblogsla.blogspot.com/2013/02/called-to-humiliation.html?m=1

  • tmatt

    FW Ken, et al:

    I stressed that the article was way better than the headline and contained some solid material.

    I still think, that when considering the differences between these two men, it wouldn’t hurt to probe their actual stances on matters INSIDE the church and its teachings.

    Trust me, lots of people on the doctrinal left would gladly do that with Gomez and lots of Catholics on the doctrinal right would gladly do that with Mahony.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I shudder every time the atheist secular press interprets our Catholic Church for us.

    BTW, was this article found in the Religion Section of the LA Times?

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    I think the article could have done a bit more to contrast the two men on several levels: for instance, how did Cdl. Mahony’s outreach to immigrants, who are naturally largely Hispanic, compare with Gomez’s spiritual approach? Did Mahony ever offer the Hispanic Church spiritual teaching as well as rallies? The differences might be less than we expect.
    And in regard to the life issues, while Mahony didn’t regard the March for Life and most pro-life activities as his “thing,” he did support the USCCB in their fight against the HHS mandate. I think he does support the Church’s teaching on abortion, though he doesn’t really talk about it. And way back in the 90′s, he threw a gigantic fit when Mother Angelica of EWTN insinuated he didn’t believe in transubstantiation, though he apparently has not been known to talk about that doctrine much either . . . things are always complicated!

    • Margaret O

      Lori makes some interesting observations — that Cdl Mahoney didn’t really “talk about” certain doctrines and matters. I’d like to make the point that this is what is so damaging today! We need our bishops and priests to be talking about the doctrines. We need our bishops and priests to be talking about IVF – about samesex marriage – about contraception – about abortion – about de-facto relationships. We need them to offer clear and uncompromised explanations of our Faith. Catholics are confused today – they do not know and understand their Faith!

  • Craig

    So which one-or both?-throws those protestant-like services during the LA catholic education week? The ones with “liturgical” dancers parading around with bowls of incense? If it still occurs as of recent years (eg, 2010), neither are contributing to Catholic catechesis.

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