What are the real differences between Mahony and Gomez?

Guess what? There are significant differences in the theological approaches and doctrinal convictions of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony. So, what are they?

It's hard to tell, in a fascinating Los Angeles Times story that goes way, way out its way to argue that the differences that really matter are rooted in style and, you guessed it, politics. You can tell that right up front in the content of the magisterial double-deck headline:

Gomez, Mahony are a study in contrasts

Where his predecessor led labor rallies and took up worker rights, earning the nickname 'Hollywood' from a pope, Gomez has quietly promoted conservative voices and evangelization.

Trust me, the contents of the story are way better, are way more complex, than that tone-deaf headline. However, I think that headline does show you where the newspaper's editors were coming from when they approved work on this important news feature story.

The surprising bottom line, however, is that Gomez -- whose roots are in Opus Dei -- has not turned out to be a rampaging monster out to destroy Mahony's work as one of the heroes of progressive American Catholicism. Part of this, yes, is a matter of style. Yet the story also hints that the bottom line is clear for those who have eyes to see: Mahony was a political animal who was always seeking the media spotlight; Gomez thinks the best way to achieve Catholic goals is to quietly use Catholic means, year after year after year.

Thus, readers are told, right up top:

In more than two decades leading the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony headlined immigration rallies, marched for worker rights and made national news by announcing he would defy a congressional bill he regarded as anti-immigrant.

But the man who replaced him in 2011 -- Archbishop Jose Gomez -- has shied away from such attention-getting actions. Instead, he plans to take 60 conservative Catholic business leaders on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City this fall in hopes of winning them over on immigration reform.

It's a distinctly different style from that of Mahony, whom Pope John Paul II nicknamed "Hollywood" for his frequent media appearances.

In other words, both men are highly committed to helping immigrants, a crucial issue in America's largest Catholic archdiocese -- 4.5 million Roman Catholics in 120 cities in Southern California, with Latinos as 70 percent of the faithful. However, Gomez appears to be reaching out to Catholic leaders on these issues through worship and Catholic education, perhaps with few television cameras nearby.

Still, I think that this passage does raise an interesting journalistic question: Did someone in the Gomez camp say that the goal of the trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was "winning" these business leaders "over on immigration reform"? Would Gomez state the goal in political, rather than spiritual terms? It's hard to tell, since Gomez did not consent to be interviewed, which may or may not tell readers something about his view of the Times.

I found this passage especially interesting:

(Gomez) has elevated issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia. He has promoted evangelization and religious education and embraced more conservative voices.

At the same time, he has not led an ideological purge of the archdiocese as some liberals had feared might happen under a cleric associated with the orthodox Opus Dei organization. Gomez has not, for instance, shut down a program Mahony developed that has trained lay leaders, particularly women, for powerful church roles, said Claire Henning, a pastoral associate at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood.

"I was one of the first to say, 'Oh my God, Opus Dei,'" Henning said. "But I've been very impressed. I had a lot of presuppositions about him which were wrong."

To the credit of the reporters who constructed this feature, this leads to one of its -- in my opinion -- most important and insightful passages in the whole piece:

Gomez believes Catholics must first know their faith to understand the theological reasons for taking stands on social issues, said Father Virgilio Elizondo, a longtime friend in San Antonio, where Gomez previously served as archbishop. In his first pastoral letter last October, he announced a push for a "new evangelization" to combat society's increasing secularism and said his first priority would be to increase teaching about Catholic beliefs and how to apply them in parishioners' daily lives and the world. The Spanish-language broadcasts are part of that push.

"He's concerned about social justice but feels if you're not well-grounded in the basics, then it can be seen as just activism and not ... evangelization of the Gospel," Elizondo said.

Gomez, for instance, has proclaimed that respect for life is the "true foundation" of justice and peace. As a result, he has expanded the mission of the archdiocese's peace and justice office to include issues such as abortion, contraception and euthanasia and renamed it the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. The department that had handled those issues had been eliminated under budget cuts several years ago.

So let's recap this a bit. After taking over for Mahony, the new leader of the nation's largest archdiocese proceeded to elevate "issues such as opposition to abortion and euthanasia" and he restored the previously closed office in charge of defending church teachings on life issues or all kinds. While he has not, so far, stomped on liberal voices -- ticking off some on the right -- he has mixed more traditional Catholic voices into the mix, adding theological diversity.

Now, here is my main point. Doesn't this imply that there are theological differences between the two men, issues in how they view Catholic doctrines and tradition?

Readers looking for an answer to that question will need to look elsewhere, since this story always circles back to politics. It is also important to note that the story avoids any questions about matters of liturgy and worship, another arena in which Mahony was a hero of the Catholic left.

By all means, read the whole story, because there is interesting material in there. It's possible to read between the political lines and to learn quite a bit. There are doctrinal questions looming in the background and, every now and then, readers can see hints of the important, and very real, differences between these two Catholic leaders. Once again, God is in the details.

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