Unauthorized Catholic Immigrants will Renew a Christian America, Archbishop Says

This summer, Los Angeles’ new Catholic archbishop, José H. Gomez, has been wielding new weapons in a long, losing battle. 

Traveling through the United States, Archbishop Gomez has stood before groups ranging from his Church’s most wealthy elites to the middle-class Knights of Columbus, urging them to reconsider their position on immigration reform. His strategy: to proclaim (as summarized by the Catholic News Agency) “Immigration helps recover the Christian Origins of America.”  

Really? 

Is the Archbishop of Los Angeles suggesting that immigrants will bring about some sort of Christian Establishment in the United States? 

Is he proposing that we ditch the First Amendment? 

In a word: No. 

But pay close attention, or you’re likely to miss the point. 

Let me be perfectly clear: Archbishop Gomez’ approach to advocacy on behalf of unauthorized immigrants stands a good distance from that of his courageous predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Cardinal Mahoney regularly earns the disdain of many right-leaning Catholics for his consistent attention to the injustice of our current immigration system, and his tendency to place the blame for our broken system not on immigrants, but on greedy employers. For instance, Cardinal Mahoney urged his diocesan priests to civil disobedience in 2006, arguing that if the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control bill (which was approved by the House of Representatives in December 2005) were to pass through Senate, he would have no option but to urge his flock to disregard the law. 

As it turns out, Cardinal Mahoney had nothing to worry about. The federal government appears incapable of passing any legislation at all related to immigration reform; not even the popular, and desperately needed, DREAM Act. So, when Archbishop Gomez assumed leadership over the largest Catholic diocese on the United States earlier this year (a diocese with five million Catholics, 70 percent of whom are Latino/a), he continued Cardinal Mahoney’s fight, but with some new weapons added to the arsenal.  

So what’s new about the tactics we see being developed by Archbishop Gomez this summer, and how do they relate to the future of Catholicism in America? 

Too Much Wine Flowing in Napa?

A good place to seek answers would be the July 28, 2011 “Catholics in the Next America” conference at the Napa Institute, where the archbishop’s new weapons were on full display.  Archbishop Gomez spoke about immigration before a group of wealthy, politically right-leaning American Catholics whose stated intent was “equipping Catholics in the ‘Next America.’” Registration alone was $1,500, not including the cost of food and lodging in Napa Valley. This offers a pretty clear indicator of precisely which Catholics were being equipped at this event.  

Archbishop Gomez also serves as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration. As chair of that committee, he consistently articulates the five-fold platform that was clearly laid out in that group’s 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope,” co-written with the bishops of Mexico, and broadly referenced by Catholic advocates for immigration reform as he foundation of their action. (See a summary of that document, and a good example of the approach taken by most Catholic advocates on the issue of immigration reform—which differs significantly from what you will read below—here.) In this capacity, the archbishop is required to dive into the political trenches regularly, so when he spoke to the Church’s wine-sipping elites in late July, he had probably earned the right to open with these words: 

Our political debate about immigration in America frustrates me. Often I think we are just talking around the edges of the real issues.   

He continued:  

Both sides of this argument are inspired by a beautiful, patriotic idea of America’s history and values, but lately I’ve been starting to wonder. What America are we really talking about?     

I imagine that, at this point, some in his audience would have been prepared to follow him into the culture wars. It appeared that he was willing to lead them into the battle.

America is changing on the inside, too. Our culture is changing. We have a legal structure that allows, and even pays for, the killing of babies in the womb. Our courts and legislators are redefining the natural institutions of marriage and family. We have an elite culture, in government, the media and academia that is openly hostile to religious faith.   

Of course, in the predictable parlance of the culture wars, this is where the line about waves of lawless immigrants challenging the core Anglo-Protestant values of America would follow. But this is where the archbishop’s argument (and, we might argue by extension, contemporary Catholicism in the United States) gets complicated. He continues:   

America is becoming a fundamentally different country. It is time for all of us to recognize this, not matter what our position is on the political issue of immigration. We need to recognize that immigration is part of a larger set of questions about our national identity and destiny. What is America? What does it mean to be an American? Who are we as a people—and where are we heading as a country? 

Archbishop Gomez’ answer is simple: 

[I]mmigration is not a problem for America. It’s an opportunity. It is a key to our American renewal. 

His argument is twofold. First, Archbishop Gomez reframes the history of the United States of America. He pulls the focus away from the original thirteen colonies, to include all of the territory that forms part of the United States. He explains (with not-so-subtle reference to our current political landscape), “Long before the Boston Tea Party, Catholic Missionaries were celebrating the holy Mass on the soil of this continent.” In summary, he argues:  

This is the real reason for America, when we consider our history in light of God’s plan for the nations. America is intended to be a place of encounter with the living Jesus Christ. 

So this is the part where he argues for a Christian—or, even better, a Catholic—establishment, right? Wrong. He explains that this plan was made evident not only in the missionary zeal of Spanish and French Catholics, but also in the founding documents of U.S. government; drafted, of course, by Protestants: 

G.K. Chesterton said famously that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” And that “creed,” as he recognized, is fundamentally Christian. It is the basic American belief that all men and women are created equal—with God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Archbishop Gomez celebrates that “America has become home to an amazing diversity of cultures, religions, and ways of life precisely because our nation’s founders had a Christian vision of the human person, freedom, and truth.” He passionately argues that Americans must both “remember the missionary history of America” and “rededicate ourselves to the vision of America’s founding creed.” He warns: 

When we forget our country’s roots in the Hispanic-Catholic mission to the new world, we end up with distorted ideas about our national identity. We end up with the idea that Americans are descended from only White Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic, and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears. 

In the past, when Americans have experienced this collective amnesia, he reminds his listeners, the results have been such unsavory historical events as the mistreatment of Native Americans, slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, and recurring outbreaks of nativism and anti-Catholicism.   

Which brings him to the second point: Who is best equipped to remind America of this more complex history? Catholics, who “have a special duty today to be the guardians of the truth about the American spirit and our national identity.” In fact, Archbishop Gomez argues, immigrant Catholics “without proper documentation,” who share the values of “faith, family, and community” are “the key to American renewal.” Yes, Archbishop Gomez is arguing that unauthorized immigrants not only deserve the chance to adjust their status to live legally in the United States, but also hold the promise of a renewed and reinvigorated “next America.”   

The Napa Institute chose precisely the right person to speak to the theme of Catholics in the Next America. As a priest in the order of Opus Dei, a tireless advocate of Pope John Paul II’s “New Evangelization” strategy, and a Mexican immigrant, himself, Archbishop Gomez, in his own person, seems to embody the almost certain future of U.S. Catholicism: socially conservative on most issues but surprisingly progressive on others, evangelistic, and—as it was a century ago—largely fueled by the energy of immigrants and their children.     

Articulating a position on the need for immigration reform that dovetails with many of their own sensibilities, Archbishop Gomez may win over new—and, frankly, unexpected—recruits for the battle over immigration reform, reaching the very Catholics that so readily dismissed Cardinal Mahoney’s brave (and, for readers of RD, probably more easily digestible) tactics. But that remains to be seen.   

If they do join the battle, let’s hope they bring along a few bottles of good wine. The Catholics in the trenches, who have been working tirelessly for comprehensive immigration reform over more than a decade, definitely could use a drink. 

marie.marquardt@me.com'

Marie Friedmann Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.  She is co-author of Living "Illegal": The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration (New Press, 2011) and Globalizing the Sacred: Religion Across the Americas (Rutgers UP, 2003).