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U.S./ Archbishop Gomez’ Provocative Entry into the Immigration Debate

Jack Smith discusses Archbishop Gomez’ words on immigration, about how Americans learn only one side of their country’s history and identity and need a new framework for viewing the debate.

Santa Barbara Mission, CA Santa Barbara Mission, CA

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.”