Dec 5, 2019
When Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) earlier this month, he tweeted that it was an honor - and not only for him, but for “every Latino Catholic in the country.” He’s right about that. We Latino Catholics feel it a great honor and a point of pride that a fellow Hispanic should take the lead. Not just because he is Latino, but because he’s a man with a sterling character and gentle manner, a man well known both for his sympathetic attitude toward the plight of immigrants and his traditional approach to social issues. This is a powerful and attractive combination to our growing Hispanic Catholic Church.
Gomez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico and a naturalized U.S. citizen, presides over the Los Angeles diocese, the largest and one of the most diverse dioceses in the country. Its parishes encompass more than thirty ethnicities, celebrating masses in languages from Igbo to Hungarian to Tagalog. The catholicity, that is, the universality--of the Catholic Church is a palpable thing in L.A., not simply a doctrinal concept. It’s the result of a constant and varied immigration.
As leader of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez will head an American Catholic Church that is about 58% non-Hispanic white and 34% Latino - a church in which most members under 30 are Hispanic. A significant number of the 2.7 million Hispanics that attend mass in Spanish are undocumented, and an even greater number probably know or love someone whose presence here is precarious. Gomez brings a history of heartfelt public support for the undocumented workers that America relies on to farm our crops, tidy our lawns, man our factories, and look after our children. He has been an especially vocal advocate of “dreamers.” “In a special way, I pray for #Dreamers, the day before #Scotus hears oral arguments on the legality of DACA,” he tweeted just after his election.
Archbishop Gomez is the author of the excellent “Immigration and the Next America.” The 2013 book neatly lays out his assessment of our current situation and his vision for a better future. He chronicles the historical background of a nation founded by Puritans searching for freedom but also (and even earlier) colonized by Spanish missionary migrants in a successful quest to evangelize the native population. He assesses a present-day America that lacks moral consensus and is crazed with consumerism, a nation confused about everything from the meaning of sexuality to the value (if any) of human life. He sees a country in which the ties of traditional American values and civic virtues that once bound us to one another are frayed, a country whose uneasy citizenry worries about what the “Next America” will look like.
Gomez does not downplay the importance of legal norms and the very real toll that the chaos and lawlessness of illegal immigration takes, especially along our southern border. He argues, however, that fear and uncertainty may tempt us to “abandon our commitment to liberty and justice for all, in favor of an insular, racial definition of who can be a true American.” American Catholics, members of an immigrant Church in a country with a long history of anti-Catholic bias have a special responsibility in today’s debates over immigration reform. We bring to the table not only the memory of our ancestor’s experience of discrimination and the Church’s energetic response to the material and spiritual needs of successive waves of migrants, but also its rich tradition of teaching on human dignity and social justice. Catholics are especially suited to envision the face of the “Next America” in a way faithful to the Christian obligation of benevolence to strangers.