What do conservatives really think about Cardinal Mahony?

What do conservatives really think about Cardinal Mahony? February 27, 2013

Yes, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles will be in Rome and will vote in the process to select the next pope. In fact, as part of his social-media campaign against his critics, he plans to tweet whenever and wherever Vatican officials will let him get his hands on a keyboard.

Meanwhile, I am still following, with great interest, the mainstream media’s attempts to describe Mahony’s starring role in the North American Church and, especially, his approach to Catholic life and doctrine, which has for decades made him a figure of some controversy. Click here, for some background information related to this topic, especially the contrasting personalities of Mahony and current Archbishop Jose H. Gomez.

Both supporters and critics of Mahony would agree that, to understand the cardinal’s legacy, one has to wrestle with the history of the giant Religious Education Conference held in Los Angeles. Simply stated, it has long been a symbolic gathering of the progressive leaders of American Catholicism.

Thus, The New York Times dispatched a team to cover this year’s event. Here is some summary material from the resulting report to set the stage:

… This is a defining moment for Archbishop Gomez, who took over from Cardinal Mahony two years ago and is universally described as low-key and quiet, particularly compared with his predecessor. His public rebuke of Cardinal Mahony stunned observers not only for its content, but because the normally mild-mannered archbishop would react so swiftly and dramatically. …

Now, many see this as a first turn in the spotlight for Archbishop Gomez. Cardinal Mahony was known for marching in public rallies, cultivating allies in politics and Hollywood and an almost larger-than-life public persona. By contrast, Archbishop Gomez has only rarely appeared in the press over the last two years. He declined to be interviewed for this article and his staff declined to allow a reporter into the Religious Education Congress without an escort.

Once again, Mahony is described merely in terms of style, while Gomez receives both a style nod and, later on, an accurate theological label.

But here is the passage in this lengthy story that caught my eye:

Many here questioned whether Archbishop Gomez, a theological conservative shaped by his membership in the movement Opus Dei, would move quickly to undo Cardinal Mahony’s more liberal policies, like appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry. But two years after taking the reins, he is often praised for not acting along ideological lines and has made changes only slowly. Last year, for example, he changed the name of the Office of Justice and Peace to the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. …

For many, Cardinal Mahony has long been a lightning rod in the church. He has deep wells of respect among Latinos, largely because of his role as a champion for immigrants. But traditionalists resent him for his liberal stances.

Now the key to this story is that the Times never appears to have actually interviewed any conservative Catholics in order to learn why they considered Mahony to be a liberal in the church. Instead, as is often the case, readers are given that reference to his “appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry.”

Well, that’s interesting.

But what, pray tell, is doctrinally liberal about appointing women and lay people to administrative posts? These steps have been taken in conservative dioceses as well as liberal and, frankly, this issue usually says more about a culture of clericalism in the leadership, as opposed to being a test of doctrine. And what is doctrinally liberal about supporting a robust AIDS ministry, especially in light of the trailblazing work done there by the Blessed Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity? Perhaps AIDS ministry is being cited, in this case, as a symbolic reference to a more liberal approach on matters of sexual morality. It’s impossible to tell.

So it is accurate to say that Catholic conservatives consider Mahony to be a Catholic liberal. But is it accurate to say that they base their views of his doctrinal legacy on these particular issues?

Once again, the Times team allows nationally known progressives (Hello, Father Thomas Reese) and the supporters of Mahony to speak for themselves, including some who are softly critical of this progressive icon. But on the other side, Catholic traditionalists are not allowed to speak. Did I miss any quotes from authoritative voices on the Catholic right, either in Southern California or at the national level?

The bottom line: I am not sure that I trust The New York Times, at this point, to offer an accurate summary of the views of conservative Catholics when it comes time to evaluate the views of someone as controversial as Mahony. When in doubt, journalists are supposed to ask the crucial people informed questions and then print their answers.

So, Catholic readers, why was Mahony controversial during his tenure in the City of Angels? What were the top three or four issues — focus on worship and doctrine, for starters — that could have been mentioned in the Times article? Some may want to start right here.

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