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A leading voice in the Catholic Church

Second of two parts

In San Antonio, the Catholic Church has long been a political force, often providing a voice to poor neighborhoods that can feel like an entirely different metropolis from the upscale communities in the north end of town.

“It’s like you need a passport to go from one side to the other,” said Father Virgil Elizondo, a San Antonio vicar.

For a quarter-century, the archbishop was Patrick Fernandez Flores, whose remarkable journey -- he was the seventh child of migrant farmworkers and a high school dropout -- resonated deeply. The city had gone through a painful shift from electing City Council members at large to creating districts, a change that opened the corridors of power to Latinos. It had fallen largely to Flores to navigate those tense and troubled times.

When Archbishop Jose Gomez was installed as Flores’ successor in 2005, he picked up the mantle.

For example, he has joined forces with an organization that works on behalf of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, fighting for road improvements, libraries, parks and streetlights.

Last summer, Gomez co-sponsored an immigration summit. Most critically, said a summit organizer, Jorge Montiel, Gomez has not only taken on economic inequality as a mission but sold his initiatives to other religious groups and the business community.

“So it hasn’t created this us-versus-them dynamic,” Montiel said. “That takes a delicate touch.”

Next winter, Gomez will become the archbishop in Los Angeles, taking the reins of the largest Catholic community in the United States. He has already shown that he will not hesitate to use his pulpit as a platform for both social justice and raw politics -- causing, on occasion, considerable strife.

As a bishop in Colorado and Texas, two often-conservative states, Gomez was unapologetic about his support for immigrants’ rights. He wrote regular treatises, published online and in newspapers, criticizing in sometimes caustic tones lawmakers who sought to strip those rights.

In 2004, for example, Colorado legislators tried to deny in-state college tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. Gomez noted that Latino immigrants were already poorly educated.

“That depresses their earning power, which prevents their upward mobility, which reduces their assimilation,” he wrote. “So what are Coloradans urged to do? We’re urged to make it more expensive -- in other words, harder. . . . We need to at least avoid punishing the young.”

Gomez also was not shy about plunging into national politics. He signed a letter endorsing a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, contending that “the danger [same-sex marriage] betokens for family life and a general condition of social justice and ordered liberty is hard to overestimate.” This spring, he assailed President Obama’s healthcare reform package, largely because he felt it would increase the number of abortions. And when an Indiana bishop refused to attend Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, Gomez wrote a letter saying he was “in total support.”

National debates

Some of Gomez’s peers and admirers have been uncomfortable with the lengths he has gone to inject the church into national debates.

“For some bishops, it is important to make a statement. That’s all I can say,” said Father David Garcia, a collaborator with Gomez when Garcia was the rector of San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral.

After members of a lay advisory commission in San Antonio suggested that gay marriage might be a human rights issue, Gomez not only disbanded the commission, he began creating one dedicated to instructing parishes on social doctrine. In effect, he turned it inside-out -- from the public offering the bishop advice on social issues to the bishop telling the public what he believes church doctrine dictates.

“I wanted to make it more efficient than just a group of people speaking their minds,” Gomez said in a brief interview with The Times after he returned home to San Antonio last week.

Elizondo, the San Antonio vicar, said he did not agree with Gomez’s decision.

“I don’t know why he disbanded it,” Elizondo said. “I do know that he is very concerned that we have lost a sense of the basics of what it means to be Catholic.”

Scolding the flock

Indeed, Gomez has made it clear he is not altogether pleased with the state of his flock.

In speeches, he has decried a society that believes there are “as many truths as there are individuals.” In a 21-page treatise he wrote in February, he critiqued “cultural Catholics” -- modernist, Catholic-lite worshipers who view Catholicism as “a personality trait . . . that shapes their perception on the world but compels no allegiance or devotion to the church.” He scolded Latinos in particular, exhorting: “Somos Catolicos!” “We are Catholics!”

The doctrinal conservatives at the helm of the American church have betrayed no hint of easing off the gas; just a few weeks ago, Gomez’s mentor, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, gave a speech to Baptist leaders in Houston arguing that the very notion of the separation of church and state is wrong -- an impediment to “real” Christian faith, which is “never private.”

Gomez pointed out in his treatise that the first Mass in San Antonio was celebrated 320 years ago, making it the place “where the Gospel was first preached in America” and evangelization itself “took root in the hearts of our ancestors.”

He contended that America has been “de-Christianized” by an “anti-Gospel.” He called for a “new evangelization” and suggested that American society had suffered because “our nation’s Christian heritage” had been excised from schools, the media, “our laws and public policies.”

Even among many Catholics, there is trepidation about how that approach will work in Los Angeles. At Loyola Marymount University, some wondered how Gomez will respond to visits from dignitaries who favor abortion rights. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has visited several times without public fracas; when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton visited a Catholic university in San Antonio, Gomez denounced the school’s decision, calling the church’s views on abortion “non-negotiable.”

“That is an area of potential conflict,” said Father Thomas P. Rausch, a professor of Catholic theology at Loyola.

“I think he will be very concerned about doctrinal purity,” Rausch said. “I would expect that in a laid-back Southern California culture in which many people look on religion as kind of a pathology, he’s going to challenge a lot of things people take for granted. He’s going to insist on church teaching on sexual issues, abortion, loose views on sexuality, living together outside of marriage.”

Into the limelight

Others aren’t sure how Gomez will respond to the L.A. limelight, in which retiring Cardinal Roger Mahony, a well-known power broker and public persona, seemed to thrive.

“He’s not going to be at ease in front of those cameras,” said Father Michael Sheeran, president of Regis University, a Catholic institution in Denver.

And that’s just the beginning of Gomez’s challenges. Among other things, the finances of his new archdiocese have been hamstrung by a $660-million sex-abuse settlement, even while many of its new congregants are impoverished immigrants. After Mahony introduced him last week, Gomez acknowledged, at least implicitly, what’s ahead.

“A bishop can live with the challenges of everyday life and even with the criticism of the world,” he said. “It goes with the job description, all the way back to the 12 apostles.”

Later, as if to underscore that conviction, Gomez said he had long ago asked to be buried in San Antonio. Now, he said, he hopes he’ll be buried in Los Angeles.

scott.gold@latimes.com

louis.sahagun

@latimes.com

jessica.garrison @latimes.com

Times staff writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver; Ken Ellingwood in Monterrey, Mexico; and Mitchell Landsberg and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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