BALTIMORE — The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States on Tuesday elected a Hispanic immigrant as their president for the first time by elevating Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who has long vowed to defend immigrants amid their fears of deportation.
The bishops followed custom by selecting their previous vice president, but the move is nonetheless a pointed statement from Catholic leaders while President Trump continues to draw support for his anti-immigrant policy. Archbishop Gomez received 176 votes to 18 for the second finisher. The choice was greeted with a standing ovation.
The same morning that the bishops were casting ballots at their annual meeting in Baltimore, the Trump administration was at the Supreme Court arguing to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation.
Archbishop Gomez’s archdiocese, the largest in the country, held a prayer service for DACA recipients on the eve of his election.
“In this great country, we should not have our young people living under the threat of deportation, their lives dependent on the outcome of a court case,” the archbishop,a naturalized American citizen who was born in Mexico, said in a message that was read at the Mass.
“So, we pray tonight that our president and Congress will come together, set aside their differences, and provide our young brothers and sisters with a path to legalization and citizenship,” he added.
It remains to be seen how strongly the bishops will challenge President Trump, whose abortion policy they largely support, under the leadership of Archbishop Gomez. At the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ leadership election in 2016, when the archbishop was named vice president, the bishops issued a strongly worded letter to Mr. Trump reminding him they were committed to protecting immigrant families.
Archbishop Gomez’s focus on border detentions and family separations has often been more pastoral than overtly political. In September, he celebrated Mass during a three-day, 60-mile walking pilgrimage in solidarity with families separated at the border. He has created wallet-size cards for undocumented immigrants with instructions for what to do if they’re approached by immigration officers, with a personalized prayer on the back.
Other bishops have taken a more confrontational approach. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, led hundreds of protesters in a chant of “stop the inhumanity” in front of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in September. Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso has personally escorted migrants across the border, and called Mr. Trump’s wall “a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia.”
Unlike culture war issues such as abortion or gay marriage, immigration has long been a unifying issue for the Catholic bishops, said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.
“Almost all the bishops can remember quite recently their own immigrant roots; this is central to the American Catholic identity,” Mr. Gibson said. Still, he added, “They are not necessarily in agreement with their own flock.”
Many conservative Catholics support Mr. Trump for his anti-abortion policies and attention to religious freedom despite his immigration crackdowns. About half of white Catholics approve of him, compared with about a quarter of nonwhite Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center.
The bishops on Tuesday also elected Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit as their next vice president, a closely watched decision because that individual customarily becomes the group’s president in three years, when the next term begins. The bishops passed over several candidates known as more militant conservatives, including Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who recently prohibited Illinois lawmakers who support abortion rights from receiving communion.
There is some quiet internal division among the bishops about what their political focus should be. The outgoing president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, received extended applause on Monday when he compared those fighting to end abortion with those helping migrants at the border. “The continued fight to defend unborn children is one of the most significant challenges and also one of the most significant things and realities that we do,” he said.
But when Pope Francis’ representative to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, addressed the conference, he issued what some saw as an admonishment from Rome. He did not stress abortion but instead asked the bishops if “a spirit of hospitality towards migrants” was truly permeating their churches.
“While there has been a strong emphasis on mercy by the Holy Father,” he said, “at times, paradoxically, people are becoming more and more judgmental and less willing to forgive, as witnessed by the polarization gripping this nation.”
Despite his attention to immigration reform, Archbishop Gomez is largely seen as conservative on matters of Catholic doctrine. He was appointed as a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and is a member of Opus Dei. Pope Francis has notably not made him a cardinal, which critics say signals that the pontiff may believe that other bishops are more aligned with the direction in which he hopes to take the church.
Archbishop Gomez’s election reflects the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States. Nearly four in 10 Catholics in the country are Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center, but Hispanics in the country are no longer majority-Catholic. According to a recent report from Pew, 47 percent are Catholic, down from 57 percent 10 years ago.
There have been fewer accommodations for Hispanic Catholics, like schools or priests from their own ranks, than there were for earlier generations of Catholic immigrants from Europe, said Mr. Gibson, the religion director at Fordham.
So for many Hispanic clergy like Father Francisco Quezada in Colorado Springs, Archbishop Gomez’s election is a moment of cultural pride.
“There is a tremendous amount of respect for this man,” said Father Quezada, whose father was an immigrant from Mexico and who has known the archbishop for 30 years. “He is measured but deliberate. He is not reactionary, he responds.”
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