Over at NCRegister, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez begins an essay ostensibly on the immigration debate by lamenting that too often, “we are just talking around the edges of the real issues.” He then continues for nearly 3,000 words without saying a single thing about immigration policy.
But Archbishop Gomez is not himself “talking around the edges of the real issues.” He has done something new for a Church leader in America. He has provoked, in the best sense of that word, what should be a wide consideration among American Catholics of what it means to be American and what it means to be Catholic in America.
The Archbishop knows well that how an American Catholic understands his history and identity fundamentally frames his response to the immigration debate. As it stands, I think it’s fair to say, the self-concept of a good majority of American Catholics leads them inevitably toward a legalistic and often nativist approach to the immigration debate. Archbishop Gomez’ has done something groundbreaking for a church leader by suggesting not policy, but a framework for American Catholics to understand their history and purpose, which while true, is very little attended to.
As I read him, there are two major points in Archbishop Gomez’ article that I think should provoke a spirited round of self evaluation among American Catholics:
First - He asserts that the part of our history which is pre-statehood, ie., Hispanic and Catholic out West, should still inform our current American identity. He argues against a diminished or “downsized” view of American identity which begins at Plymouth Rock and proceeds only through the thirteen colonies on out to the Pacific.
The rest of the story starts more than a century before the pilgrims. It starts in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s here in California.
It is the story not of colonial settlement and political and economic opportunity. It’s the story of exploration and evangelization. This story is not Anglo-Protestant, but Hispanic-Catholic. It is centered, not in New England, but in Nueva España — New Spain — at opposite corners of the continent.
From this story we learn that before this land had a name its inhabitants were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The people of this land were called Christians before they were called Americans. And they were called this name in the Spanish, French and English tongues.
From this history, we learn that long before the Boston Tea Party, Catholic missionaries were celebrating the holy Mass on the soil of this continent.
Catholics founded America’s oldest settlement in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565.
Immigrant missionaries were naming this continent’s rivers and mountains and territories for saints, sacraments and articles of the faith.
We take these names for granted now. But our American geography testifies that our nation was born from an encounter with Jesus Christ.
California does not have a Jefferson City or a Washington, but it does have a Sacramento. It may surprise the people of Marin County, California that Pt. Reyes got it’s name because Spanish Carmelite priests celebrated Mass there on the Feast of the Three Kings in 1603, but it shouldn’t. San Diego, Santa Barbara and Carmel were named in similar fashion by Spanish Carmelites more than 150 years before Blessed Junipero Serra founded the California Missions and 250 years before California became a State.
Speaking of California and the Southwest, Archbishop Gomez says, “Before there were houses in this land, there were altars.” We should not forget that history or omit it as part of our story and identity, Archbishop Gomez argues. Nor should we fail to assume the mission of those saintly missionaries who named and evangelized the West and Southwest. They too and their mission are part of the American story:
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. . .
. . .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 an 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.
Second – And Archbishop Gomez does this more subtly, but he all but says that America’s needed economic, political, spiritual, cultural and moral renewal is dependent on “new, youthful” Hispanic Catholics and that this renewal has something to do with God’s plan for salvation.
. . .I believe our immigrant brothers and sisters are the key to American renewal.
And we all know that America is in need of renewal — economic and political, but also spiritual, moral and cultural renewal.
I believe these men and women who are coming to this country will bring a new, youthful entrepreneurial spirit of hard work to our economy. I also believe they will help renew the soul of America.
In his last book, Memory and Identity, written the year he died, Blessed John Paul II said: “The history of all nations is called to take its place in the history of salvation.”
We must look at immigration in the context of America’s need for renewal. And we need to consider both immigration and American renewal in light of God’s plan for salvation and the history of the nations.
Well, reading that again, maybe he wasn’t so subtle.
What is remarkably refreshing about Archbishop Gomez’ approach is his candor. His candor has been met with similar candor in opposition to his points over at the Register’s combox. I do not think that is bad.
All through the DREAM Act debate, it was very clear that argument over the contents of the bill was merely a proxy fight for competing broader narratives*. It seems that rational debate over policy will never be achieved until we confront, examine and debate those underlying narratives. I am very grateful to Archbishop Gomez for so forthrightly laying out his. I also think his has the benefit of being true, but regardless, he has introduced a new and vital way of approaching the debate.
* – I hesitate using the word “narrative” because I generally used it as a pejorative, but I am using this in a generous sense allowing that some narratives are narration.