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Catholic bishops follow Trump’s election with a message of their own

Archbishop Jose Gomez leads an interfaith prayer service in Los Angeles for the immigrant community on Nov. 10, 2016, two days after the election of Republican Donald Trump as U.S. president. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Patrick T. Fallon *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BISHOPS-ELECTION, originally transmitted on Nov. 15, 2016.

(RNS) A week after Donald Trump’s stunning election as president sent the country’s governance lurching to the right, the nation’s Catholic bishops sent a message of their own — at least on immigration — by putting Mexican-born Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles in line to become the first Latino to lead the American hierarchy.

But the vote at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday (Nov. 15) also suggested that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is still hesitant to fully endorse the more progressive and pastoral approach to ministry that Pope Francis has been championing since his election in 2013.

Gomez was elected vice president of the USCCB on the third round of balloting for that post, meaning he will by custom likely become the president of the conference in three years when the term of the incoming president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, expires.

DiNardo, who had been vice president, was elected president on the first ballot in what is normally a pro forma vote moving the vice president to the top spot.

Gomez was front and center in the aftermath of Trump’s election in underscoring the Catholic Church’s solidarity with immigrants, holding a prayer service in the Los Angeles cathedral last week and delivering a powerful denunciation of Trump’s threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

“Tonight in America children are afraid; men and women are worried and anxious, thinking about where they can run and hide. This is happening tonight, in America,” Gomez told a solemn gathering that included Los Angeles’ Democratic mayor, Eric Garcetti.

“Tonight we promise our brothers and sisters who are undocumented — we will never leave you alone,” he added. “In good times and in bad, we are with you. You are family. We are brothers and sisters.”

As the votes showed the cleric from Los Angeles had won, Vermont Bishop Christopher Coyne, who is chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Communications, tweeted: “A major shift West and culturally.”

Gomez’s election came after the bishops issued a plea on the opening day of their meeting, calling on President-elect Trump to change course and adopt humane policies toward immigrants and refugees.

The vice president’s election is also a major challenge for Catholic leaders, who saw their flock of some 65 million, which is increasingly Latino, divide their votes in the presidential election.

Trump won the overall Catholic vote by 7 percentage points over Hillary Clinton, 52-45. But Latinos went strongly for the Democrat while white Catholics went for the GOP nominee.

The choice of Gomez also points to another divide, and a turbulent dynamic, within the hierarchy: He is viewed as a doctrinal conservative, and while Gomez leads an enormous, diverse and growing archdiocese of more than 4 million Catholics, Francis pointedly passed over him last month when he named his first U.S. cardinals.

Gomez’s election to the USCCB leadership this week – days before three American churchmen considered more progressive than he is will receive red hats in Rome from the pope – was seen by some as a clear signal.

“While @ArchbishopGomez was skipped by @Pontifex for red hat, his brother-bishops elected him as new VP of @USCCB. Powerful message!” tweeted Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at Catholic University of America.

Moreover, while DiNardo’s ascension to president was expected, he is also widely viewed as a conservative with a spiky public persona who has clashed publicly with other bishops.

DiNardo was also one of 13 conservative cardinals who signed a private letter to Francis at a high-stakes Vatican meeting last October warning the pontiff in stark terms not to push ahead with reforms to pastoral practices that would make the church more inclusive and open to the divorced and remarried, for example.

When the letter went public it created a furor, though Francis and his allies were still able to pass language that largely did what the pope wanted.

READ: Are conservatives at Vatican summit overplaying their hand?

The upshot is that while Francis has begun naming bishops and promoting cardinals who share his vision for the church, observers say it will likely take another couple of years and perhaps 20 to 30 more appointments to the nearly 300-member hierarchy before Catholics would see a definite “Francis effect” on elections of USCCB leaders.

Those numbers seemed to play out in Tuesday’s balloting.

Two or three of the names on the slate of 10 candidates for the top two spots were viewed as moderates in the Francis mold, and the others were seen as more traditionally orthodox. The votes quickly coalesced around one from each camp – Gomez and New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

Gomez got 60 votes on the first ballot for vice president and Aymond received 56 votes. Gomez got 105 on the second ballot, and Aymond 81, and on the third ballot between just the two of them, Gomez won handily, 131-84.

Still, reform-minded churchmen are continuing to push the USCCB in a different direction after more than three decades of appointments by doctrinally conservative popes.

Cardinal-elect Joseph Tobin, who was just appointed to the Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey, on Tuesday asked that the bishops do more to highlight Francis’ push to combat climate change – an issue that “is more urgent than ever given the possibility that the administration isn’t going to be very interested in the questions that Pope Francis is interested in,” including “the clear link [the pope] demonstrates between human misery and the environmental degradation.”

The bishops also spoke about efforts to try to bridge the divide between pro-life and social justice Catholics – a divide that often breaks down along conservative and liberal lines.

They held a Mass on Monday evening at a largely African-American parish in downtown Baltimore, which has been ravaged by poverty and gun violence, as part of a push to highlight their concern about racism in the U.S.

Yet the Vatican seems to feel the bishops need to move more quickly and forcefully.

At an event at Georgetown University last Friday, the pope’s ambassador to the U.S., who is a key figure in sending names of new bishops for the pontiff to appoint, said the American church needs “to assume a prophetic role.”

Francis “is more prophetic than the Catholic bishops here today,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, according to National Catholic Reporter.

Pierre cited the refugee issue but said the question goes further. “We (the Vatican) can send some ideas, and these ideas have to be thought about in the bishops’ conference,” he said.

But the USCCB “is the place to express the vision of the Catholic bishops.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • The official USCCB response: “looks forward to working with President-elect Trump (so that) migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.” Pope Francis said on Sept 1: “Migrants should be treated according to certain rules, because migration is a right, but one which is highly regulated” and “If a country is only able to integrate 20 [refugees], let’s say, then it should only accept that many. If another is able to do more, let it do more.” The “pastoral” pope and his “pastoral” prelates all condemn abortion even to save the life of the mother, contraception and equality for LGBTQI persons. They’re just more PR sensitive. And yes to the comment by Linda Daily. The pope appointed only Republicans to the Vatican and the bishops, as usual, supported the right-wing as did the the pope in Argentina.

  • What now? A civil war between Latino Catholics, who — appropriately and intelligently — voted for Hillary and white Catholics who stupidly voted for the other guy, the guy who lost the popular vote, is unqualified, vulgar, insulted Pope Francis on climate change, opposes religious liberty, and disrespects women?

  • Thank you for this article. I’m new to watching these things. Pierre’s words are encouraging. This reminder to be “prophetic” at all levels is inspiring to me. Thanks. Mary Rakow

  • Since when is it America’s duty to open up our borders to absorb all the world’s poor, made so by the super-large families in majority Catholic countries? If the Catholic Church doesn’t have the clout to push for economic and education reform to better the lot of these poor people, then they should dip into their considerable riches to provide job training and to encourage entrepreneurs to develop small businesses in these countries. The pope should be lifting up the good work of Peruvian economist Hernando deSoto, who has spent his lifetime quietly effecting legal reform to legitimize the small, informal businesses upon which most of these underdevloped countries are absolutely dependent.. These small businesses have done more to lift the poor out of poverty than all the anti-poverty programs that have been tried world-wide. The beauty of the system is that the poor lift themselves out of poverty, then help others do the same. This sounds like a Christian economic ethic to me!

    In Denver here I’ve known about Dr. deSoto’s work for 25+ years. One would think that the pope would have heard of itby now. Guess it’s escaped the pope’s attention, as it’s not a Marxist/Socialist based system.

  • “Since when is it America’s duty to open up our borders to absorb all the
    world’s poor, made so by the super-large families in majority Catholic

    Pretty much at the inception of our nation. We have done so in the past, as a nation we are better at doing so than the rest of the world. Immigration and taking in refugees / asylum seekers has always been a net gain for the nation. Of course at the times they are done, there is always a panicky uproar which only goes away with time. There is not a single wave of refugees which weren’t panicked over and hasn’t integrated into our nation with success (despite the constant refrain of “they will never assimilate”)

    “If the Catholic Church doesn’t have the clout to push for economic and
    education reform to better the lot of these poor people, then they
    should dip into their considerable riches to provide job training and to
    encourage entrepreneurs to develop small businesses in these countries”

    Can’t argue with that. The Catholic Church is one of the worst charities in existence when it comes to money coming in compared to money spent on actual charity. It is true for all churches, but being the oldest and largest Christian sect means they get the lion’s share of the criticism. In most cases the Catholic Church (and every other conservative religious church and organization) is a hinderance to economic and social reform in the developing world.

  • I agree with your first paragragh, but that still isn’t a good argument for why it’s our duty to continue being the world’s dumping ground of poor people whose governments and economic systems have failed them. Back when we were experiencing 3-8% economic growth, it was easy to absorb all these folks. Obama’s anemic 1.5% growth over the past 8 years has pretty much shut that ability to absorb more people down. We can’t even grow fast enough to provide jobs for young people coming out of college and onto the job market. The election of Donald Trump can largely be layed at the feet of Obama’s anemc economic growth these 8 years.

    So the Catholic Church has the MEANS to do some big things on the economic front; reforming their delivery system relates to having the WILL to get it done. If the pope were to really apply himself to that task, he could probably get-‘er done farily quickly! Instead the pope is off chasing the spotlight to play conscience to the world. We need to keep praying that this guy finally grows into his mundane job of reforming this behemoth, but he seems to have little interest in this, away from the spotlight!

  • “but that still isn’t a good argument for why it’s our duty to continue
    being the world’s dumping ground of poor people whose governments and
    economic systems have failed them”

    Because we have always been that. Our greatest strength has been to take the people kicked out of every respectable nation and allow them to flourish without the baggage of history and old country animosities. It is why we as a nation have multitudes of faiths and ethnic groups living in close proximity who would have been engaging in sectarian/factual violence against each other back in their country of origin.

    “Obama’s anemic 1.5% growth over the past 8 years has pretty much shut that ability to absorb more people down.”

    Immigration expands markets, brings in capital. Promotes growth. Considering two of the largest sources of middle class wealth were utterly demolished by Obama’s predecessors, having any growth is a good thing.

    BTW immigration usually moves with economic conditions anyway. Despite all the panic over “open borders” (which has never been a thing) and “brown peril” fear mongering, the slowdown in the construction economy did more to reduce the illegal alien population than any draconian enforcement efforts.

    As for refugees, taking them in is an important tool in fighting Islamicist propaganda. Unlike Europe with its multi-generational slums, guestworker system and blatant circumvention of religious freedoms, the US is a country where Muslims not only flourish but have become the backbone of a moderate culture. One that ISIS utterly despises. ISIS wants to demonize refugees as much as nativists. They want people trapped in inhumane conditions because it breeds the desperation which aids recruitment.

    “The election of Donald Trump can largely be layed at the feet of Obama’s anemc economic growth these 8 years.”

    I blame the complete lack of engagement with organized labor by the Democratic party. The lack of addressing how supply side economics bends the working and middle class over a barrel. They dropped the ball and I am not scared to own up to it.

    BTW it is ironic that the one way to spur growth of non-exportable jobs for working class citizens, better support our foreign obligations and interests and scientific development is the one currently rejected by both parties: Military buildup and development.

    We are engaged in a longstanding war which for the last 15 years has been fought on the cheap by both Republicans and Democrats. We treat our military personnel and veterans like garbage right now. US military hardware is in huge demand (especially Naval and Air power) by our allies. These are jobs which can’t be outsourced or given to illegal aliens.

    Isolationism and protectionism not only never really works, it stunts economic growth and technical development. Plus Republicans don’t really support such measures. Free trade is a boon to their real support base. Active diplomatic engagement with allies is the best way to be aware of threats to our nation.

  • But Trump claims to be Christian. Has he not proved so by his emulation of the examples of Jesus? For example, ah ah ah …. oops.

  • The entire body of Christians worldwide is no longer dominated by white AmerEuropeans. The Catholic church is no different. Pope Francis, from Argentina, is a reflection of that. The church will gradually become less dominated by groups interested in preserving a hierarchy that has largely been white and Western. It is interesting the split between dogma and social responsibility.

  • When did you, in your long history, suddenly become outraged over “insulting” a pope?

    Pro-Trump Catholics “voted their conscience,” which is what Frances Kissling, citing Dan Maguire, said Vatican II was all about: believe what you want. .