The man who would be . . .

Roger Cardinal Mahony

Reputation mongering has already begun for Cardinal Roger Mahony, who stepped down as Archbishop of Los Angeles on Sunday. (The leave-taking - as all things Roman are - will be prolonged, but this was the first milestone.)

Some in the media saw Mahony's 25 years as head of the Los Angeles church as troubled but epochal:

Though embattled in recent years over his handling of clergy sex-abuse cases - a chapter on which the outcome of a Federal grand jury, convened in 2008 and still believed to be ongoing, will significantly hinge - smart money would still bank it that, when history recalls the longest reign of an American cardinal in the post-Conciliar age, the first native Angeleno to head the city's church will be recalled at least equally, and likely far more, for paving the path toward the Stateside fold's next epochal transition in its makeup, birthed by the most seismic change the 68 million-member American church has undergone in nearly two centuries.

Of course, in LA, the future has already come; no less than 70 percent of its Catholic population is Latino, now led by the figure set to become the first Hispanic cardinal north of the border, himself an immigrant. Yet even as the latter reality - for which Mahony ardently lobbied during the selection process that tapped (Archbishop José) Gomez - is sufficient on its own to cement the cardinal's legacy, as the demographics stand, it's only the capstone.

Other commentators saw only the troubles:

Cardinal Mahony's reign has been more than controversial. It's been catastrophic, defined by ceaseless political meddling, a self-aggrandizing cathedral project, and most tragically, callous indifference- if not outright hostility- toward the victims who were sexually assaulted/raped by cassock clad criminals in his employ.

There's no need to rehash the disgusting details of decades of decadence tacitly accepted, covered up and facilitated by Roger Mahony. It's been well documented by the press and in court records.

Tim Ruttin, frequent ruminator on things Catholic for the Los Angeles Times, "chatted" with the Cardinal in a Saturday column and picked up the theme of demographic change:

In Los Angeles, simple numbers will amplify Mahony's legacy. "When I arrived here, the Catholic population was about 24% of the three counties we serve," he said. "Today we are about 50% of greater Los Angeles' total population. The growth is primarily from immigration, and while at least 70% of our Catholic population is Hispanic, we also have 800,000 Filipinos and large numbers of Koreans, Vietnamese and, increasingly, Chinese." The cardinal believes that the immigrants have enriched Catholic life by restoring "a sense of family's importance and a cultural respect for personal spirituality that, maybe, had begun to decline among Anglo Catholics."

Mahony was neither monster nor master architect of a new Los Angeles church. He was the perpetual "man who would be. . ." in American Catholicism. The man who would be the most likely of all Americans to have a shot at election to the papacy. The man who would calm Rome's fear of clergy-led social activism. The man who would lead an autocratic hierarchy to greater moderation. Above all, the man who would be able to further Americanize the church in the United States by uncoupling American Catholics from their cultural nostalgia.

Mahony, in the end, was none of these men, in part because Rome misunderstands and frustrates the church in America. Even more, it misunderstood - and feared - the church in Los Angeles, precisely because it did not fit Rome's model of American Catholicism as ethnic patrimony.

As a native-born Angeleño with a lively appreciation of what his city and region are capable of, Mahony could have been the essential man to lead the church in America away from its comforting pieties. He could have been the man - unlike his cardinal rival in New York - who led reluctant Polish/Irish/German/Italian/Mexican Catholics toward an American-style of faithfulness.

Mahony - the politician - could have been the man who finally convinced Rome that the church in America had matured beyond fulfilling an immigrant's longing for the familiar.

Mahony didn't. His character and the demographics of Los Angeles overcame him. I expect that his successor will quickly restore the church in Los Angeles to a form that will console and satisfy Rome, whose image of America is a place of exile for permanent immigrants.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Eric Chan. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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