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L.A.'s next archbishop represents both tradition and change

The historic appointment of Mexican-born Archbishop Jose Gomez recognizes the dominant position in the L.A. archdiocese of its roughly 3.5 million Latino Catholics. But it is also a statement by Pope Benedict XVI on the direction he wants the American church, with its 68 million members, to take.

During the last quarter-century under Cardinal Roger Mahony, the L.A. church has become not only the country’s largest archdiocese with 5 million members but also the undisputed seat of American Catholicism’s liberal faction. And Mahony himself has become, arguably, the church’s most polarizing figure.

Under Mahony, the L.A. church has emphasized Catholic teachings on social justice. It has also given considerable prominence to the role of laity in its ministries, allowing members to play significant roles in worship and in governance. As a result of its liturgical style, some more traditional church members have felt that local Masses -- while still majestic and moving -- are less influenced by Rome than by Hollywood.

At times, the cardinal has seemed at odds with Rome. During last month’s annual Religious Education Congress, for example, he was asked if he thought church teaching would ever permit the ordination of female priests. “I really don’t know the future of that issue,” he replied. The sentiment is a far cry from Rome’s 1975 pronouncement -- asserted repeatedly since -- that “the church does not consider [itself] authorized” to admit women to the “long black line.”

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On the national stage, one of the more memorable turns of Mahony’s tenure was a heated air-war between the cardinal and Mother Angelica, a cloistered Franciscan nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network. In 1997, Angelica used that forum to attack a teaching letter Mahony had written on the Mass, accusing him of intimating that the consecrated bread and wine offered during communion were not actually the body and blood of Christ. She went on to urge Catholics not to feel a sense of obedience to the cardinal. Mahony hotly contested her characterization of his teaching, calling the critique tantamount to an accusation of “heresy.” Angelica eventually issued an equivocal apology, though she still maintained that his pastoral letter was “fuzzy.”

As Mahony neared 75, the church’s mandatory age of retirement for bishops, Benedict faced a choice of endorsing or cracking down on the L.A. archdiocese’s liberal bent. In naming Gomez, who now serves as San Antonio’s archbishop, the pontiff has opted for a touch of both. Gomez’s selection is a firm vote of confidence for one aspect of Mahony’s legacy: his half-century of concerted outreach to immigrants and his advocacy on behalf of the poorest of his flock. At the same time, the appointment is likely to also bring a more traditional approach to teaching and worship.

Recently elected to lead the U.S. bishops’ efforts on behalf of immigrants, Gomez is a strong supporter of migrant rights. And his ascent is unlikely to give comfort to conservative activists who’ve called for a “Catholic Tea Party” movement and the dismantling of the church’s national body, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On the other hand, L.A. Catholics dismayed by Masses where Rome’s rubrics seem to be viewed more as advice than as rules may see welcome changes in services. And on hot-button moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, church members can expect a robust defense of the faith’s 2,000-year-old teaching. In tone, however, Gomez is likely to be far less strident than the handful of conservative bishops whose interventions have dominated the church’s national headlines of late.

In its most faithful expression, Catholic life and teaching transcends secular polarization, allowing for a wide variety of leanings among its members within the Vatican’s boundaries of orthodoxy. A recent ceremony Gomez conducted demonstrates his embrace of practices that might appear unconventional but fall within the foul-poles.

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Late last month, L.A.'s next archbishop learned of his new assignment as he prepared to ordain a married father of three to the priesthood. To be sure, the millennium-old celibacy requirement was excused by Rome because Father Jeffery Moore had converted from the Episcopal church. Still, some American bishops have been reluctant to allow married convert-priests into their dioceses, Gomez’s willingness to perform the rites are just one of many indicators that Rome’s choice is no cookie-cutter ideologue. Instead, he embodies the pontiff’s vision of a “creative fidelity,” with his first allegiance being to the church’s prime purpose: the spiritual sustenance of its own and, by extension, the world outside its walls.

As he presented his successor before the archbishop’s throne at the cathedral on Tuesday, an elated Mahony repeatedly underscored his gratitude for the “epic” ascent of a Latino to take his place. At a time when Benedict’s papacy is facing a global crisis of confidence, the pontiff’s L.A. choice is a recognition of the L.A. church’s crucially important voice, new accent and all.

Rocco Palmo is author of Whispers in the Loggia, a website covering the politics of the Catholic Church. He writes from Philadelphia.


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