(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.”
#usccb16 +Gomez of LA elected vice-president! A major shift West and culturally.
— Bp Christopher Coyne (@bishopcoyne) November 15, 2016
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.
— Kurt Martens (@DrKurtMartens) November 15, 2016
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.
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.”