BALTIMORE (AP) – U.S. Roman Catholic bishops chose a Texas cardinal and the Mexican-born archbishop of Los Angeles as their top leaders Tuesday, as they look toward building ties with the Trump administration.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was elected president, and Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gomez is the first Latino to hold the post. The vice president customarily becomes president after a three-year term, putting Gomez in line to be the first Latino head of the conference.
Both men come from regions with large numbers of immigrants. Mass is said in 16 languages in Houston-area parishes, DiNardo said. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is about 70 percent Latino.
On doctrine, both men have a strong focus on orthodoxy. DiNardo has called the government “coercive” to faith groups seeking conscience protections for objectors to gay marriage and abortion. Gomez is a member of Opus Dei.
In their new positions, neither will set policy, but they will represent the bishops’ conference to President-elect Donald Trump, among other duties. While bishops could find common ground with Trump, who has pledged to appoint anti-abortion federal judges, church leaders are deeply unsettled by his promised crackdown on immigrants and refugees. During the campaign, Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and urged a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., although he later watered down that proposal.
“On the level of immigration, from our point of view, we certainly respect the government,” DiNardo said, at a news conference after the vote. “But we also have the shepherd’s heart. If there’s somebody hungry, we’re going to feed them. If there’s somebody thirsty, we’re going to give them something to drink. If there’s somebody who is a stranger, we want to make them welcome.”
Catholics are by far the largest faith tradition in the U.S., with more than 68 million members, according to the CARA research center at Georgetown University. The U.S. church has a nationwide network of legal and social service programs for immigrants and refugees. “Our mission is to help people to be united in our country and have hope,” Gomez said.
The bishops’ elections took place at their annual Baltimore meeting, which ends its public sessions Tuesday. DiNardo, who has served as vice president over the last three years, and Gomez each won a majority of votes across a slate of 10 candidates. The current president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, is ending his three-year term.
Church leaders at the conference said that like other Americans, they are only starting to grapple with how they should move forward under President-elect Donald Trump. DiNardo said he hoped he would have a chance to meet with the Trump administration to discuss, among other issues, extending the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for Medicaid coverage of most abortions.
Within the church, the bishops’ choice of leadership is seen as a measure of how far they have gone toward following the priorities set by Pope Francis. The pope has emphasized mercy over rules, a dramatic shift from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who made upholding doctrine a core focus of their pontificates.
DiNardo was one of 13 cardinals who signed a letter to the pope more than a year ago objecting to how he organized a synod, or high-level summit, on family life. The synod addressed, among other issues, whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment could be allowed to receive Communion under some circumstances.
Bishops holding a hard line on doctrine objected to any opening, while others insisted the idea was consistent with church teaching. The letter was viewed as a rebuke of the pope, although the signers said they were only taking up Francis’ invitation for frank discussion.
In an interview last May with the Catholic news outlet Crux, DiNardo said that some Texas Catholics “think the pope’s too vague.”