LA Archbishop Jose Gomez Elected As First Latino President Of US Bishops' Conference

Archbishop Jose Gomez presiding over a special mass for immigrant Catholic groups at Our Lady of the Angeles Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected Tuesday as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, making him the first Latino to hold the top spot among Roman Catholic leaders in the U.S.

"This election is an honor for me," Gomez said in a written statement. "It recognizes the beautiful diversity and the missionary spirit of the family of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. But it is also a recognition of the essential place that Latino Catholics hold in the life of the Church and in the life of our great nation."

Gomez, 67, has led L.A's archdiocese, the largest Catholic jurisdiction in the country, since 2011, when he replaced former Archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony. In 2013, Gomez stripped Mahony of his public duties because of Mahony's role covering up child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Gomez is an enigmatic figure in the U.S. Catholic Church. He's theologically conservative, ordained as a priest in Opus Dei, a controversial and extremely orthodox Catholic group. On the other hand, he was born in Mexico and, as L.A.'s archbishop, has positioned himself as a defender of immigrant rights.

"Gomez doesn't really identify with the liberals or the conservatives," said Father Alan Figueroa Deck of Loyola Marymount University. "Being a Latino, he's very focused on the kinds of issues that are vital to the Latino community. On the one hand, a community that's somewhat more traditional than some other groups in the Catholic Church, but also one that has very serious social, economic and political issues that need to be fought."

Gomez's election was widely anticipated. For the past three years, he's served as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is headquartered in Washington D.C. and is the convening body and national voice for all Roman Catholic bishops nationwide. In almost all recent cases, U.S. bishops have selected a previous vice president for the top job.

Members of the Catholic church gather for an opening session during the annual US Conference of Catholic Bishops November 12, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Before coming to Los Angeles, Gomez was archbishop in San Antonio and an auxiliary bishop in Denver. In Los Angeles, Gomez has kept a lower profile than his progressive and outspoken predecessor, but he has maintained a commitment to protecting the religious traditions and civil rights of Los Angeles' many immigrant communities.

"We all belong here," said Gomez, at a special mass in June for immigrant communities at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown L.A. "Really what we need is comprehensive immigration reform. That's the only solution for the reality of the immigrants of the U.S. This is a country of immigrants, and it works when we have an immigration law that welcomes people. That's what we have to pray for."

Today, the U.S. Catholic Church is about 40 percent Latino, and about 10 percent of active U.S. bishops are Latino. Los Angeles' nearly 5 million Catholics come from about 70 different countries, according to the L.A. Archdiocese, and immigrant communities in the region hold regular services in more than 40 languages.

Gomez's election reinforces the notion that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is a church of immigrants.

"It's a big moment," said Sergio Lopez, a local Catholic activist. "It's definitely a moment of shattering a glass ceiling and having the first not just Hispanic but Mexican-born American elected to one of the most influential positions in the U.S. Catholic Church."

After a gunman shot and killed 22 people in El Paso earlier this year in an anti-immigrant attack, Gomez put out an open letter in which he described the threat of white nationalist and white supremacist ideology.

"Immigration has been at the forefront of Archbishop Gomez's concerns all along," said theologian Cecilia González-Andrieu of Loyola Marymount University. "He's not been a firebrand about it. But he has been really caring about the needs of our local communities here and trying to create spaces and allow for resources to help them."

Archbishop Gomez poses with participants at a special mass at Our Lady of The Angels Cathederal celebrating the L.A. Archdiocese's many immigrant Catholic groups. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Many Catholics hope Gomez will bridge political divisions in the U.S. Catholic Church. LMU's Fr. Deck says Gomez has a track record of creating common ground.

"He led the effort to help people who were very much into the pro-life cause, and understood it simply as opposition to abortion, to understand that support of immigrants is also a pro-life issue," said Deck. "He was very articulate about this and quite insistent about it."

As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Gomez will have a national platform amid the 2020 presidential election, where immigration is sure to be a defining issue.

"Gomez is most probably the leader who can bring the various wings of the [U.S.] Catholic Church into common cause on a variety of public issues that the bishops must address in the years ahead," said Rev. Dr. Joseph Palacios, a fellow at USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "Particularly in this time of Trumpism and its anti-immigrant agenda, much less its corrosive civic discourse working against core principles of Catholic social teaching."

The outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the current Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, whose tenure has been complicated by his alleged handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron was elected this morning as the conference's new vice president.