PROFILE: Archbishop Gomez at the Eye of the Storm
Since his term began as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2019, the archbishop has had to face squabbles among the episcopacy, the fallout from the McCarrick Report, a scandal within conference administration and his disgraced predecessor in Los Angeles inserting himself into the public eye.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated.
BALTIMORE — Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles presides this week over the annual fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore — a closely watched gathering that will debate a draft document on Eucharistic coherence, prompting some media outlets to claim an escalating standoff between the U.S. episcopacy and the Biden White House.
It’s a familiar problem for Archbishop Gomez, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
When he marked President Joe Biden’s inauguration with a public statement pledging to work with the White House on areas of common concern while also raising objections to the new administration’s pro-abortion agenda, a Washington Post story contrasted the archbishop’s nuanced comment with Pope Francis’ “warm blessing” to the second commander in chief to identify as Catholic.
And just weeks ago, media analysts pounced on Biden’s assertion that Pope Francis had encouraged him to continue to receive Communion during their Oct. 29 meeting in Rome, with some news outlets portraying the two world leaders as allies facing down a hidebound U.S. episcopacy.
Archbishop Gomez and other leading episcopal voices have struggled to clarify the conference’s goals regarding this issue. The document “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church” is designed to offer “a resource and support to the Eucharistic Revival Project of the bishops,” said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, a consultant to the USCCB committee drafting the document, during a recent interview with his archdiocesan newspaper.
“It’s a pastoral document that reiterates certain aspects of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist that are important for the times in which we live.”
It’s unlikely, however, that Archbishop Lori’s messaging will have much impact on the scores of reporters who have descended on the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, where the bishops are holding their four-day assembly, which will conclude Thursday.
And the campaign to defend the statement on Eucharistic coherence has been further handicapped by the conference’s internal divisions, on display for most of the past year.
On May 13, four U.S. cardinals were among a group of more than 60 Catholic leaders to sign a public letter opposing approval of the document. The signers suggested that the Vatican backed their efforts to scrap the topic from the June meeting, pointing to a May 7 guidance letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who called for an extended timeline for ecclesial dialogue on a “national policy” for reception of Communion by political leaders.
In the end, 55 bishops voted against the proposal to issue the Eucharistic coherence document when the matter was brought to vote at the USCCB’s June meeting, though by then the focus on the document was modified to address concerns about calling out Biden. One hundred and 68 bishops voted in favor of going ahead with the document.
“It would be a challenging agenda for anyone, but it is more so because the conference is so sharply divided,” Catholic author and commentator Russell Shaw, who served as the U.S bishops’ spokesman during the 1970s, told the Register.
“That became apparent last June in the debate and vote on the Eucharist document. Archbishop Gomez and others backed away from a really tough statement on Biden and Pelosi and gave the 55 bishops who voted against the document a large concession.”
Likewise, the conference’s strained relations with the Vatican have created an additional hurdle.
“During the John Paul II and Benedict XVI pontificates, the bishops felt the pope and themselves were on the same page,” Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, the former chief of staff of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, told the Register. “Moreover, they felt that whatever they did the pope would back them up. It might not happen publicly, but they knew they had the pope on their side. That has all changed now.”
An indication of the continuing tension was evident immediately ahead of this week’s meeting when Vatican News published an interview with retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop Gomez’s predecessor.
During the interview, the former Los Angeles archbishop expressed sympathy for Catholic politicians who backed abortion rights because they are “pressured by some in the Church to make their decisions based on Catholic Church doctrine.” And he attacked the document on Eucharistic coherence. He applauded a letter signed by 60 Catholic members of Congress upholding support for legal abortion. “This is the Church!” said the retired cardinal, who was relieved of administrative and public duties in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2013 after the release of personnel files of priests accused of sexual abuse decades ago that highlighted his role in the mishandling of those priests and sexual-abuse allegations.
It is not clear why Vatican News provided a platform for the disgraced American cardinal. But the U.S. Bishops' subsequent vote, 222 to eight, approving the document was a ringing endorsement of Archbishop Gomez' leadership.
Elected the USCCB president in 2019, Archbishop Gomez is midway through a three-year term that has straddled a series of cascading crises.
First came the unprecedented 2020 pandemic that shuttered Catholic churches, schools and charities across the nation.
In a virtual address to USCCB members last June, Archbishop Gomez acknowledged that the pandemic had battered the nation and the Church, and he underscored the need for unity.
“In Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father sets out his program for rebuilding the world after this pandemic. He gives us a beautiful vision of the ‘unity and common destiny’ of the human family in God’s ‘providential plan,’” he said, reflecting on of the Pope’s third encyclical on “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” issued in October.
“[T]he Church has a great duty to more fully reflect the unity that God wants for his creation and his people,” he said.
McCarrick and Sexual Abuse
His role at the helm of the USCCB also coincided with the release of the Vatican’s “McCarrick Report,” two years after “credible and substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse involving a minor forced the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s removal from public ministry.
The painful revelations of abuse, cover-up and negligence in the report arrived as Pope Francis approved bishop-accountability reforms and U.S. Catholics learned of fresh allegations against bishops.
“This has not been a tranquil presidency for him,” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, vicar of canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register, noting that Archbishop Gomez began his tenure as USCCB president “under the cloud of McCarrick.”
New bishop-accountability reforms are now in place, with the local metropolitan archbishop receiving allegations of abuse or negligence involving bishops under his jurisdiction. The allegations are forwarded to Rome; the metropolitan or another senior bishop conduct a preliminary investigation, with independent third-party reporting systems also receiving claims to strengthen accountability.
Last July, however, the USCCB’s campaign to rebuild trust suffered an unexpected setback after The Pillar website reported that its investigation of user data generated by hook-up apps had identified Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, USCCB general secretary, as a serial visitor to Grindr, a dating website that mostly attracts gay men.
The Pillar reached out to USCCB officials to share its information in advance of publishing the report, and Archbishop Gomez informed USCCB members of Msgr. Burrill’s resignation, while noting that the report “did not include allegations of misconduct with minors.”
The Pillar’s use of commercially available user data from Grindr quickly provoked a firestorm, with privacy advocates and media outlets attacking the investigators’ intrusive tactics. The angry reaction, say some experts, appeared to discourage additional follow-up by the conference, at least in the form of public statements offering a more comprehensive response to the revelations.
“They dropped it like a hot potato,” said Father Fox. “What kind of response did you get from the USCCB? Zilch.”
A Prudent Shepherd
The absence of additional comment from the conference on this sensitive matter, however, may also reflect what some Church insiders see as Archbishop Gomez’s characteristic virtue of prudence.
He is “dignified and steady, and doesn’t overreact,” Mary FioRito, an adviser to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who also served a term as USCCB president, told the Register.
“He has been appropriately firm when he needed to be, like the statement on the day of Biden’s inauguration. He has been a good model of diplomacy — fraternal and not paternal with his brother bishops.”
“The overall adjective I would use is ‘diplomatic’ in every sense of the word. He is a measured man by temperament,” she said.
Francis Maier, who became friends with then-Bishop Gomez in Colorado, when he served as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Denver, echoed FioRito’s assessment.
“He is a man of outstanding humility and prudence. He is a guy who manages, despite his responsibilities, to maintain a human touch with individuals and families.
“I have always been struck by his sense that personal reformation lies at the heart of all Church renewal. He understands the big picture, but he also understands the importance of renewal, beginning with the person.”
Maier singled out the Mexican-born archbishop’s “witness on immigration” as especially critical to the future of the Church in the United States. “He is sane and sensible, not loud and conflictive.”
His position appears “reasonable to people who might otherwise be resistant to immigration reform.”
The author of the 2013 book, Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation, and the Catholic shepherd of Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the country, Archbishop Gomez has continued to give immigration policy high priority.
Wake-Up Call on ‘Woke’ Ideologies
But earlier this month he also addressed another simmering issue that has gained national attention in the wake of the GOP’s rout in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, with voters registering concerns about the promotion of gender ideology and critical race theory in public schools as parents demand more say over curriculum content.
In a Nov. 4 address to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid, Archbishop Gomez offered a Christian response to the challenge posed by “the rise of new secular ideologies and movements for social change in the United States.”
“With the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian worldview and the rise of secularism, political belief systems based on social justice or personal identity have come to fill the space that Christian belief and practice once occupied,” he said, noting that the emotional toll of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in police custody, had amped up this trend dramatically.
These movements “provide people with an explanation for events and conditions in the world. They offer a sense of meaning, a purpose for living, and the feeling of belonging to a community.”
Archbishop Gomez’s striking assessment of the shortcomings of “woke” narratives, norms and rituals could not have been better timed, revealing that the very busy Los Angeles archbishop has his ear to the ground as his home state becomes the first in the nation to approve a “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum” inspired by elements of critical race theory.
“The archbishop expresses important insights that others have also discovered,” Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the Register. “If the human person is by nature religious, to give up Christianity is not to embrace nothing but some new ultimate standard.”
“We can worship God, gold, power, prestige or equality of outcome,” Kaczor said. “But something is always ultimate for human beings.”
Fordham University theology professor Charles Camosy provided further perspective on Archbishop Gomez's address, after it prompted progressive Catholics to question his commitment to social justice and racial equity.
"Both Gómez and his Catholic critics agree that anti-racism is a centuries-long movement within the church grounded in traditional (and specifically) Christian ideas about the human person and the theological foundations on which her value is built," noted Camosy, in a column published in the Washington Post.
"But Gómez, who has been around the block on this set of issues, also recognizes that a new development in the social justice movements known as intersectionality means that there isn’t just a commitment to racial justice — but rather to a much broader worldview that entails concurrent commitments related to matters of family, sex, gender and reproductive justice."
The archbishop’s address on pseudo-religious ideologies sets an example for conference members and could serve as a wake-up call, leading them to set aside their political differences and focus on real threats to the Church’s mission and the common good.
Francis Maier isn’t surprised that his friend has found time to provide a cogent analysis of the secular movement competing with the Church for the hearts and minds of young Americans.
“The archbishop is leading the conference at a time of a transition between two models of the Church’s engagement with American culture,” he said, suggesting that the open confrontation with Biden could mark the closing chapter of an era of broad accommodation with American norms and a new one that offers a more prophetic countercultural voice.
“The mentality of the Church since Kennedy’s election is that [Catholics] are in the mainstream. We are accepted. We want to be part of the game.”
In the process, he said, U.S. Catholics have adopted “the consumer-materialist culture that has an instinctive distrust of religion and particularly Catholicism.”
Opening Conference Address
The election of President Biden, a politician who loves celebrating his Irish-Catholic working-class roots, reminds his co-religionists how far they have risen in the land of opportunity.
But in his opening address to the USCCB assembly on Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez — the USCCB president who took the painful step of calling out Biden’s record on abortion during his inauguration — again reminded the faithful that the Catholic label has little meaning without a faithfully Eucharistic witness.
Acknowledging that the Church’s “position in society has changed” and that Catholics “cannot count on our numbers or our influence,” the archbishop observed during his Nov.16 address at the Baltimore assembly, “None of that ever really mattered anyway. We are here to save souls. … This is why the initiatives we are undertaking as a conference of bishops are absolutely vital — especially our document on the Eucharistic mystery and our pastoral plan for a Eucharistic Revival.”
“Finally, I would like to say: The Eucharist is also the gateway key to the civilization of love that we long to create,” the USCCB president said as he concluded his remarks. “If we ever hope to end human indifference and social injustice, then we need to revive this sacramental awareness. In every human person that we meet — from the infant in the womb to our elderly parents drawing their final breath — we must see the image of the living God.”