There has not been much progress since last Christmas in healing the injustice and suffering in our Church and our society. That is sad, but the difference this year—for me personally, anyway—is that I’m no longer surprised by the scandal, the darkness, the duplicity, the dishonesty in our Church and in our country. Am I scandalized by all the injustice? Always. Does scandal surprise me? Not so much.
Catholics in the United States have become so accustomed to the failures of our clergy that our confidence in their leadership has plummeted in recent decades. Very little that happened in 2021 suggests that our religious leaders have learned any lessons from past failures. Even more discouraging is when a US bishop becomes a counter-witness and delivers a message contrary to that of Pope Francis. For example, a speech by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, when he addressed the Congress of Catholic Public Life in Madrid on November 4 of this year was seen as scandalous by many Catholics. In this address, the archbishop decried the “rise of new secular ideologies and movements for social change in the United States and the implications for the Church.” The words of this speech stand in stark contrast with Pope Francis’s consistent message on today’s racial and social justice movements. Unlike Pope Francis, who offers encouragement for popular movements and repeatedly calls for fraternity and dialogue, the USCCB president characterized these movements in a wholly negative light with no redeeming qualities beyond perhaps some misguided good intentions.
In his speech, Archbishop Gomez refers to popular movements (or “wokeness” movements, as he calls them) as pseudo-religions that supplant Christianity in society. He describes the “story” told by these movements in these terms, contrasting it with the Christian faith:
“We cannot know where we came from, but we are aware that we have interests in common with those who share our skin color or our position in society. We are also painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society. We are liberated and find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power in the name of creating a society of equity.”
In this speech, the archbishop seemed to condemn Black Lives Matter specifically when he said, “with the tension and fear caused by the pandemic and social isolation, and with the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities, these movements were fully unleashed in our society.”
I know so many people who are deeply wounded by the hypocrisy and indifference of Christians today, and many found the words of Archbishop Gomez particularly painful and offensive. Black Catholics—and people of all faiths who are involved in the racial justice movement—were dismayed by his ill-advised remarks.
BLM is a movement made up of people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. Many participants are Christians, including Catholics, who advocate for racial justice because they do know where they come from. Many members of the movement are motivated by their belief in the God-given dignity of every person. Archbishop Gomez ignores this fact, framing the entire thing with negative and aggressive language—saying that Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd are “unleashing” undesirable social movements. As Gunnar Gundersen wrote in his response to the speech, “This causes a significant wound to ecumenical relationships, and sends a message to Black Catholics about whether they can cooperate with fellow Christians on racial-justice work without a cloud of suspicion.”
Archbishop Gomez points to feelings of “fear and tension” caused by the pandemic, but he fails to mention that the Covid crisis has caused a real increase in economic and social disparities. The past two years have also exposed disparities that were already present but hid beneath the surface. Pope Francis spoke about this during his General Audience address all the way back on August 26, 2020, saying, “The pandemic has exposed and aggravated social problems, above all that of inequality.” Francis went on to explain that we now have an opportunity, in response to the pandemic, to finally address the ever-growing inequality that plagues our societies. “The pandemic has put us all in crisis,” he reminded us. “But let us remember that after a crisis a person is not the same. We come out of it better, or we come out of it worse. This is our option. After the crisis, will we continue with this economic system of social injustice and depreciating care for the environment, for creation, for our common home?”
Francis has called on us relentlessly to discern the signs of our time, especially since the pandemic began. With the help of Austen Ivereigh, he wrote his first book in English, Let Us Dream, which is his message to us as “the world’s spiritual director.” He wrote an encyclical on human fraternity, Fratelli Tutti. He constantly asks us to re-evaluate what capitalist greed has done to the poor and the environment.
In Let Us Dream, Francis discusses how the pandemic is an opportunity to reform our society. He points to social movements, specifically mentioning the racial justice protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. He said, “There is another abuse of power which we saw in the horrendous police killing of George Floyd that triggered protests around the world against racial injustice. It is right that the people reclaim the dignity of every human being from abuse in all its forms.”
Somehow in his speech, Archbishop Gomez neglected to denounce the movements that advance unbridled capitalism, corporate interests, racism, xenophobia, and economic inequality. Why doesn’t he mention the extremist groups inspired by MAGA or QAnon as “pseudo-religions”? After all, Pope Francis pointed out in Fratelli Tutti that we should “recognize that destructive forms of fanaticism are at times found among religious believers, including Christians; they too ‘can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication’” (FT 46).
This is a stunning omission. Where is the discernment? The speech is so biased and politically one-sided, that it’s hard to see any evidence that he’s absorbed any of Pope Francis’s message at all.
Archbishop Gomez doubles down on his insistence that these movements oppose religion. He says, “In denying God, these new movements have lost the truth about the human person. This explains their extremism, and their harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving approach to politics.” The archbishop fails to consider whether his own approach might be harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving in its own way. Gomez divides the Church and social justice movements as if they are mutually exclusive. He expresses this in no uncertain terms, saying, “my point is this: I believe that it is important for the Church to understand and engage these new movements—not on social or political terms, but as dangerous substitutes for true religion.”
Gomez doesn’t simply stop at discouraging constructive engagement with “new social justice movements,” he also mischaracterizes and directly denounces them. He calls them “profoundly atheist,” even though many people who are active in these movements are deeply motivated by religious faith. He even asserts that his message is consistent with that found in the pope’s latest encyclical, saying, “Pope Francis makes the same point powerfully in Fratelli Tutti: unless we believe that God is our Father, there is no reason for us to treat others as our brothers and sisters.”
The archbishop does not provide a citation for this reference, but it appears to be a loose paraphrase of a sentence in paragraph 274 in the encyclical, which says, “The effort to seek God with a sincere heart, provided it is never sullied by ideological or self-serving aims, helps us recognize one another as travelling companions, truly brothers and sisters.” Note the critical difference: Archbishop Gomez asserts that we must “believe that God is Father” in order to see others as brothers and sisters. Pope Francis, on the other hand, teaches that those who “seek God with a sincere heart” can recognize others as “truly brothers and sisters.” Rather than limiting the practice of true fraternity to other Christians, as Archbishop Gomez does, Pope Francis sees that sincere believers of all stripes, as well as those who honestly seek God, can embark on this path.
We can also see Archbishop Gomez’s distortion of the interreligious spirit of Pope Francis’s message when we look at the Declaration on Human Fraternity, signed jointly by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb (who is mentioned five times in Fratelli Tutti). The document begins with the words, “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved.” Many religions, including Islam and Judaism, do not refer to God as “Father.” To assert that acknowledging God as Father is a necessary element of fraternity is to say that fraternity is impossible with members of these religions. That is not what Pope Francis is saying, and he makes this clear when he says Fratelli Tutti is “addressed to all people of good will, regardless of their religious convictions” (56).
Pope Francis doesn’t limit fraternity to religious believers, either, as Archbishop Gomez does. Francis also writes in Fratelli Tutti: “Belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others. … Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (74).
Catholicism encourages us to see the good in those outside the Church. God works in all people of good will. As Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “The Church esteems the ways in which God works in other religions, and ‘rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for their manner of life and conduct, they’re precepts and doctrines which… often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women’” (277).
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis lays out a framework for authentic dialogue that sharply contrasts with—and truly exposes—the dangerous message of Archbishop Gomez’s speech. He says, “In a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction. In this way, it becomes possible to be frank and open about our beliefs, while continuing to discuss, to seek points of contact, and above all, to work and struggle together” (197).
Open dialogue and attempting to collaborate with those who have different beliefs and values is not easy. It is much simpler to build camaraderie and work towards a common cause with members of our own social, political, and religious tribes. Groups made up of like-minded people certainly come together with less effort and friction. But we Catholics are called to go out into the world. In his Christmas Urbi et Orbi address last week, Pope Francis pointed us towards the path of fraternity, saying, “Our capacity for social relationships is sorely tried; there is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all by ourselves, to stop making an effort to encounter others and do things together. On the international level too, there is the risk of avoiding dialogue, the risk that this complex crisis will lead to taking shortcuts rather than setting out on the longer paths of dialogue. Yet only those paths can lead to the resolution of conflicts and to lasting benefits for all.”
The many devout and committed Catholics and people of other faiths who participate in social justice movements bring to these groups their belief in every person’s inviolable human dignity. By painting these movements as fundamentally incompatible with religious faith, Archbishop Gomez’s words were seen as scandalous not only by members of marginalized groups in society, but also by religious people who are involved in social movements. I hope and pray that the archbishop may have a change of heart, recant the speech, and apologize for the wound he created. I hope he embraces the “longer paths of dialogue” to which our faith calls us. Fratelli Tutti says, “Love also impels us towards universal communion. No one can mature or find fulfillment by withdrawing from others. By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging. As Jesus told us: ‘You are all brothers’ (Mt 23:8)” (95).
It can be discouraging when one of the most important bishops in our country causes scandal among the faithful through thoughtless and ideological language. I’ve had many conversations with Catholics who experience crises of faith caused by the words and actions of church leaders. I have gone through such crises myself. In this last year, however, I have become aware of something more important than any scandal: a deepening sense of hope.
God told us through the scriptures that we are fallen, that this world is broken. These—the sins of others, the brokenness of our world—shouldn’t scandalize us or hurt our faith. They’re what we’ve been told. This should not be a surprise.
Here’s the radical thing: God is here, in all of it. Freely taking it on. False prophets, sin, and scandal don’t make me question my faith anymore. God told us it would happen, and there he is, in it all, and with the promise that this will not always be.
Once I came to understand this—as well as I can, anyway; it’s a gradual journey—I began to experience the depth of hope the Incarnation brings—and it’s just so beautiful. It’s a beauty that outweighs any injustice and any sadness. Pope Francis has been outspoken in his advocacy for the poor and marginalized, reminding us that we see the face of our Incarnate Lord in the poor and oppressed, and giving words of encouragement to those who advocate for their brothers and sisters in need. Our pope has been a beacon of hope, even when many of our bishops in the United States have failed to serve as witnesses to the Gospel.
What I hope to articulate is that this doesn’t have to make us question our faith: God told us this would be. He told us about sin, hypocrites, and brokenness. He didn’t promise to shield us from it, he only promised he is there. He is there in a way so radical and full that he took it all on himself, beginning with his birth in a manger and ending with a brutal execution. That’s the promise of hope he gives us.
Image: By Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view from Los Angeles, USA – Archbishop Jose Gomez, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66003866
Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.