On November 12, the Most Reverend José Horacio Gómez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. His Excellency graciously granted Crisis his first substantial interview since his election.
Your Excellency, some Catholic intellectuals today are questioning whether we Catholics can be loyal citizens of the American republic. They say our liberal, secular politics are incompatible with the Faith. However, you have frequently referred to St. Junípero Serra as a kind of “forgotten Founding Father.” What does St. Junípero’s legacy mean for American Catholics in our age?
I also have concerns about the directions of our culture, our society, and our politics.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It’s true, in many practical ways, we are living now in a country where God does not matter anymore. Our religious identity and our freedoms are being eroded by an aggressive secularism and “de-Christianizing” that marginalize belief and believers, and that are also spreading confusion about the true meaning of life—who we are, what God intends for our lives.
In my opinion, part of the cultural and political crises we face today is that we’ve lost the capacity to think differently about our future; we’ve lost the sense of the divine horizon or transcendent dimension of our lives.
The vision for life that our society offers to people—and it’s not only here, it’s in all the societies of the West today—we’re not calling people to holiness or truth or to discover God’s plan. Instead, we get told that we’re on our own and our life is our own personal project—that we are free to make and “re-make” ourselves according to our own ideas about what we think we want out of life.
What that means in practice is sad. It means that life for many people becomes a kind of restless search for money or material comforts, for passing pleasures. Politics, entertainment, consumerism, even work—in different ways, these have all become substitutes for religion for many people in our society.
So, I understand the conversations and debates that are going on in the Catholic media and among our public intellectuals. These conversations are important. At the same time, I’m not sure our situation is any worse than what the Church has faced in other times and places. And when I reflect on what Christians around the world are dealing with—in Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia—I know there are people suffering for their faith far more than we are.
To try to answer your question directly: I don’t think retreat or indifference is a luxury that we have as Christians—if we’re going to be true to the Gospel and true to our baptism.
And I may be naïve, but I continue to believe in the founding promises of America—the principles of Declaration of Independence, and the spirit of the great missionaries to this country like St. Junípero Serra.
In his last book, St. John Paul II said: “The history of all nations is called to take its place in the history of salvation.” I think that’s really important for us to remember.
This country, this moment in history, it’s all within God’s Providence. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history and he is still at work in our world and he is still calling those who follow him to build his Kingdom in this world.
We’re not saved by politics or by science and technology or by “progress” defined in material terms. We are saved by Jesus Christ. And Jesus gives each one of us, as baptized Christians, a mission to proclaim his salvation in everything we do.
To me, the promise of America, America’s exceptional place in history, is to carry forward the beautiful Judeo-Christian vision of the sanctity and dignity of the human person—created in God’s image, endowed with God-given rights and responsibilities, and called to a transcendent destiny.
So, individualism, secularism, relativism—a society where a lot of people don’t believe anymore that it’s even possible for us to know God—this is all mission territory for us as Catholics, as Christians.
We need to be salt and leaven, to use our Lord’s terms. And there’s that beautiful image from the early Church: “The Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.”
We need to work to purify our culture and our politics, and our own hearts and intentions. And we need to work to restore the centrality of the human person, the sanctity and the mystery of the human person. At least, that’s how I see it.
The USCCB has faced criticism from the political Right for being too outspoken on matters of “prudential judgment,” like immigration. Why do you feel this is such a crucial issue for Catholics to confront today?
The first thing to say, always, is that bishops are pastors, we’re not politicians. When we are talking about political, economic or social questions, we are always trying to engage in terms of Gospel values and principles.
And I think that all of us—laypeople, especially—need to keep allowing ourselves to be challenged by the Gospel, challenged by the teachings of the Church. If our faith doesn’t sometimes make us uncomfortable with our political commitments, then there’s something wrong.
Maintaining a true Catholic identity, understanding ourselves to be followers of Jesus Christ before we are anything else, is always a challenge. And, I think it’s getting harder in America today because everything is “politicized.”
For me, immigration is not about politics. It’s about the dignity of the human person. And it’s also about our national identity and purpose, what America means and what does it mean to be an American.
The bishops recognize that it’s the imperative of every nation to secure their borders and to regulate who enters their country and how long they stay. We also understand that every sector of our economy—from construction and agriculture, to hospitality and service industries, to high-tech and medical professions—has a vital need for immigrant workers.
And we understand that there is genuine anxiety in our country because our demographics are changing and our economy is changing. Also, migration is one of the signs of our times. That’s just a reality. Movements of people are happening in every part of the world, millions of people are leaving their homelands, seeking a better life for their families; often, they are leaving because of violence and poverty.
As Catholics, we need to remember that we are not talking about “statistics,” we are talking about human beings—the image of God, our brothers and sisters.
There are complicated issues involved, questions of law, economics, and politics. But the most basic consideration here is that migrants are human beings. They are loved by God and they are redeemed by Jesus Christ, and he calls us to love others as we love ourselves—especially the poor, the migrant, and the prisoner.
Jesus did not say we only love those who are fellow citizens or who have the proper “papers.” Men and women do not become less of a child of God because they are “undocumented.” This is not a political position, it is matter of our faith.
America has always been exceptional because it has always been a refuge for peoples who have no place left to turn, and it’s always been a place where peoples from all parts of the world can come to share their talents and creativity, bringing with them their values of family and hard work, and their dreams of a better life for their children.
In my own writing and teaching, I want to help us to rediscover the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in our common humanity and that we have this beautiful promise of America—to be a light to the nations. And this is just my opinion, but I don’t believe we should be saying that that the time for American generosity is over. We are too young of a nation to be afraid for our future.
What do you expect will be the other most urgent political issues facing American Catholics today?
I think all of us can point to issues in our society that disturb us—abortion, euthanasia, inequality, homelessness, our families breaking down, the random violence in our communities, racism, too many people in jail, pollution. There are many issues.
But the way I see it, all our political issues are symptoms of a bigger problem, and that is the loss of the human person.
We no longer know the beautiful mystery of life. We don’t know any more who we are, where we came from, or what we are made for. The awareness of our great dignity as children of God, the sense of God’s loving design for creation and the divine meaning of our lives—all of this is fading from the hearts and minds of this generation.
And our democracy can’t stand without a true and authentic understanding of the human person.
Governments exist to serve the person and to ensure the conditions in which persons can grow and flourish. If we don’t know what the human person “is” or what human life is “for,” then we risk becoming a society in which men and women are treated as “objects” that can be discarded or “tools” to be used to further the ambitions of others.
So, as I see it, the biggest political issues we confront are actually spiritual, existential. The task for us, as Catholics, is to defend the mystery of the human person in our times.
How do you feel the USCCB has handled the issue of sex abuse since the revelations about Theodore McCarrick? Do you plan on enacting any new protocols for preventing abuse—for identifying abusers and their enablers, or for punishing them once they’re identified?
The Church in this country has confronted this issue of child sexual abuse for more than two decades now. It is a legacy of shame and sorrow for all of us in the Church.
We know that nothing can undo the violence that was done to the victim-survivors or to restore the innocence and trust that was taken from them. But we also know that the Church has made important reforms and put in place effective systems to protect young people and create safe environments in our parishes, schools and other ministries. We have also worked hard to make reparations to victim-survivors and help them find justice and healing.
And with the help of courageous abuse survivors, and through the commitment of lay professionals and volunteers, new cases of abuse are rare today in the Church.
Now Pope Francis has given the Church new universal norms, and the American bishops have taken decisive steps to adapt these norms for this country. The Holy Father’s leadership and encouragement continues to strengthen our efforts to prevent abuse and protect the vulnerable.
In his new book The Day Is Now Far Spent, Cardinal Robert Sarah says: “We do not reform the Church by division and hatred. We reform the Church when we start by changing ourselves.” This could have been written by St. Josemaria Escriva! You, of course, were ordained as a priest of Opus Dei. In the wake of the sex abuse crisis, what do you feel is the relationship between personal holiness and institutional reform—for the laity as well as for the bishops?
Every time of crisis in the Church is a crisis of saints, a crisis of Christians not living out their baptismal promises. So, yes, now more than ever, we need to be committed to walking with Jesus more closely and striving to lead a holy life.
Renewal and reform are like a coin with two sides. The one side is individual, the other is institutional. The two cannot be separated and each depends on the other.
No change in the Church’s institutional organization and authority structures will be effective unless there is also a renewal in our hearts and minds, unless each one of us decides again to live our faith with greater integrity, new devotion and new excitement.
So, the deeper renewal of the Church begins in the interior conversion of your heart and mine.
We need to start with ourselves and make a new commitment to holiness, to becoming saints in our ordinary lives. It is time for everyone in the Church to get back to this basic understanding—that striving to be saints is what it means to be a Christian.