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Column: L.A.’s top Catholic goes off on ‘woke’ culture, social justice movements

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in 2016.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Earlier this month, Jose H. Gomez, Archdiocese of Los Angeles archbishop, gave a speech to a Catholic conference in Spain where he went verbally medieval on “woke” culture and social justice movements.

Called “Reflections on the Church and America’s New Religions,” Gomez laid into two of the right’s favorite whipping boys with the gusto of a Tucker Carlson. He called such movements “profoundly atheistic ... pseudo religions” pushed on the world by an “elite leadership class” that’s using the media to eradicate Christianity.

Those pesky elites, y’all!

The stern speech played well with many Catholic conservatives. But it sure didn’t get rousing applause at one of L.A.’s most Catholic of institutions.

That would be the Hippie Kitchen, an industrial building on skid row used by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker to prepare and give away free meals. There, you find a fair share of religious iconography: multiple images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A giant mural featuring a bedraggled Jesus standing in the bread line among the hungry. And then there’s the mural with an angel using his wings to block baton-wielding police officers as they try to disrupt a multicultural picnic.

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Volunteer hugs organizer of Hippie Kitchen.
Volunteer Alan Pulner, front, hugs organizer Matt Harper at the end of his volunteer shift Tuesday at the Hippie Kitchen on skid row.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

You’ll also find an LGBTQ flag outside emblazoned with the word “Peace.” A sign above the entrance that said: “Stop the War! Tax the Rich! Serve the Poor!” Murals and posters decrying police brutality, praising diversity, blasting American imperialism.

Gomez’s speech “could’ve been written by a bunch of wealthy, elite Catholics,” said David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at the Jesuit-run Santa Clara University. The 60-year-old is spending his fall sabbatical living at the L.A. Catholic Worker’s Boyle Heights home. “This city is throbbing with energy for justice, and Gomez seems determined to judge, not engage or listen.”

The lay Catholic movement practices the Gospel in the way of its late founder, Dorothy Day: a devotion to helping the poor and marginalized. She’s on the road to canonization because of her revolutionary ways. But Day, who got arrested during protests for causes ranging from labor strikes to nuclear proliferation well into her 70s, was just as beloved for lashing out at out-of-touch church leaders.

Like Gomez.

This is a prelate, after all, who has presided over an effort by U.S. bishops to try and deny the Eucharist to President Biden, a devout Catholic, because of his support for abortion rights.

Remind me: How many priests who abused children were denied Communion by the Catholic Church?

Gomez actually shouted out Day in his fire-and-brimstone speech, saying she “had a keen sense that before we can change the hearts of others, we have to change ourselves.”

His screed didn’t mention the quote attributed to Day on a poster at the L.A. Catholic Worker soup kitchen. It overlooked a collection of bulk bins filled with dried beans and bore the words “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

 Matt Harper is the organizer of the Hippie Kitchen
Matt Harper is the organizer of the Hippie Kitchen, which feeds the hungry three times a week.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Nearby, Matt Harper did everything from clean floors to stack baking trays to lead one final prayer before the Catholic Worker shut down for the day (the closing thought: “Peace without justice is tyranny”). He then sat down with other volunteers in a shaded eating area prettied with multicolored bougainvilleas to fret about if their work even had a place in today’s Catholic Church.

“Disappointment. Frustration. Hypocrisy,” said Harper, a 33-year-old cradle Catholic who fit the fashion of a woke warrior with his trucker hat, nose ring and small gauges in each earlobe. He laughed nervously, then continued. “As someone who’s in relationship with social justice movements in the city, I was embarrassed and worried about the collateral impact for the work [the L.A. Catholic Worker has] been doing for 52 years.”

Ann Boden, 66, handed out razors near the entrance to the facility’s eating area.

“Jesus would’ve been supportive of all those movements,” the Santa Clarita resident said. Just believing in Christ doesn’t do everything. “You have to take care of people. If you don’t do that, you’re not doing anything.”

It seems that Gomez can’t see the rosary for the beads.

In a city with a housing calamity, an out-of-control sheriff, so much fear for the future, and where the COVID-19 pandemic still kills, the leader of the largest Catholic diocese in the United States is whining about “woke” culture. L.A. yearns for a voice to guide us to a better place, someone with moral authority to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As a Catholic myself who has covered a generation of church leaders who covered up pedophile priests, I’ve been waiting for a local prophetic voice in my faith who can follow the lead of Pope Francis and inveigh against the rising inequities of our times.

Instead, we have Archbishop Gomez.

 Volunteers hand out lunch on skid row.
Volunteers David DeCosse, left, and Alan Pulner hand out lunch from the Hippie Kitchen on skid row.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m furious,” said Megan Ramsey. She walked up and down the sidewalk next to the Hippie Kitchen to pump out hand sanitizer to anyone who entered. “It pushes away younger people, it goes against the mindset of many. It was just so out there.”

While conservative Catholics unsurprisingly praised Gomez’s words, an online petition demanding he apologize to Black Catholics gathered 13,000 signatures. His sin: opining that the millions of people who protested in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were actually the evil movements he decried “fully unleashed in our society.”

An archdiocese spokesperson said the archbishop wasn’t available for an interview because he’s at the biannual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which he serves as president. Gomez continued his culture-war words at the conference’s Nov. 16 opening public session, saying the United States was losing a national narrative “rooted in a biblical worldview and the values of our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez attends a news conference Tuesday in Baltimore.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Gomez has made no qualms about his conservative leanings, much in the mold of his predecessor, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, who lorded over the L.A. archdiocese over the 1960s and was so reactionary that he ran off a group of nuns for being so darn liberal. He has publicly championed St. Junípero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who created California’s mission system, which modern history now views as an abusive colonization.

The archbishop has also lectured before the Napa Institute, a conservative organization funded by wealthy Catholics who have spent the past decade creating a shadow Catholic society in opposition to Pope Francis, whom they view as too liberal. Their annual conference, by the way, feature wine, multicourse dinners and cigar tastings — because, you know, Jesus was a man of fancy tastes, apparently. It’s not like Jesus told the rich they’re not going to heaven, or praised the poor or peacemakers on a hill, instead of the luxury resorts where the Napa Institute holds its soirees.

But Gomez’s politics stand athwart a Catholic L.A. where social activism is baked into its DNA. Priests have marched at immigrant-rights and anti-war rallies for decades alongside protesters who often carry images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, among other saints. This country’s racial reckoning has brought renewed interest in St. Martin de Porres, the first Black saint of the Americas.

(Pope Francis, by the way, called social justice activists “social poets” and “collective Samaritans” in an October speech while also taking the time to trash “economic elites, who so often spout superficial ideologies that ignore humanity’s real dilemmas.”)

These movements “are a spiritually strong space — anyone who spends any time with them can sense that,” Harper said. “My relationship with God has improved with those movements. But because he refuses to engage, he’ll lose the faithful in them.”

The Loyola High graduate and former middle school teacher at archdiocese schools said Catholic Worker volunteers last talked to Gomez in 2018.

 Volunteer Jack Hastert works in the kitchen.
Volunteer Jack Hastert restocks a bread shelf at the Hippie Kitchen.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“The first thing he told us was, ‘I’ve heard your community always hasn’t gotten along with us,’” Harper recalled. He and other volunteers left the meeting with what they thought was a commitment by Gomez to visit the Hippie Kitchen and walk skid row with them.

Soon after, Gomez invited a Brazilian religious order to hand out free food on skid row. He hasn’t responded to repeated inquiries from the Catholic Worker since.

“It just seems like a clear indication we’re not considered,” said 57-year-old Kenneth Baldwin of Santa Monica. “Maybe we’re not the Catholic type that he wants in his church.”

The Catholic Worker will continue, Gomez or no Gomez, since it’s an autonomous group with no formal relationship to the L.A. archdiocese. But 26-year-old Mar Vista resident Rick Ley, who has volunteered with the Catholic Worker since 2017, hopes the archbishop might consider that he can learn from social activism.

“I understand what he’s trying to say, but I also think if we’re making statements like that, we need actions to speak as well,” he said. “Theology is important, but it’s easy to be caught up in that and become another faction.”

Meanwhile, the invitation to Gomez to visit the Catholic Worker’s Hippie Kitchen remains open.

“And if he’s happy to come,” added Harper, “I’d be happy to take him to a protest.”


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