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