Unlike culture war issues such as abortion or gay marriage, immigration has long been a unifying issue for the Catholic bishops, said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.
“Almost all the bishops can remember quite recently their own immigrant roots; this is central to the American Catholic identity,” Mr. Gibson said. Still, he added, “They are not necessarily in agreement with their own flock.”
Many conservative Catholics support Mr. Trump for his anti-abortion policies and attention to religious freedom despite his immigration crackdowns. About half of white Catholics approve of him, compared with about a quarter of nonwhite Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center.
There is some quiet internal division among the bishops about what their political focus should be. The outgoing president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, received extended applause on Monday when he compared those fighting to end abortion with those helping migrants at the border. “The continued fight to defend unborn children is one of the most significant challenges and also one of the most significant things and realities that we do,” he said.
But when Pope Francis’ representative to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, addressed the conference, he issued what some saw as an admonishment from Rome. He did not stress abortion but instead asked the bishops if “a spirit of hospitality towards migrants” was truly permeating their churches.
“While there has been a strong emphasis on mercy by the Holy Father,” he said, “at times, paradoxically, people are becoming more and more judgmental and less willing to forgive, as witnessed by the polarization gripping this nation.”
Despite his attention to immigration reform, Archbishop Gomez is largely seen as conservative on matters of Catholic doctrine. He was appointed as a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and is a member of Opus Dei. Pope Francis has notably not made him a cardinal, which critics say signals that the pontiff may believe that other bishops are more aligned with the direction in which he hopes to take the church.