Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, spent last week at the Vatican, where he and other Catholic leaders helped select new cardinals. But his thoughts strayed back home, where more than 500,000 people--mostly Latinos, and many from his flock--marched through the streets of downtown L.A. protesting anti-immigration legislation. "I saw the march from Rome, on CNN," Mahony told NEWSWEEK. "I was thrilled. Not only by the numbers, but by the fact that it was peaceful and sent a strong message to Washington. It put a human face on the issue."
In recent years, the controversial cardinal--whose 5 million-member diocese is the largest in the country--has endured criticism for his handling of the church's sexual-abuse scandal and for spending $189 million on a new cathedral sometimes referred to as the "Rog Mahal." Now, however, Mahony is getting more attention for waging a campaign against proposed laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants. He particularly objected to a provision that would make it a crime to help or hide illegals. In December, he wrote to President George W. Bush, urging him to reject the legislation. Then, on March 1--Ash Wednesday--Mahony went a step further. He told his priests and parishioners that if the law passed, they should ignore it and help immigrants anyway. For an institution that regards obedience as a virtue, it was a radical call to action.
The move was consistent with efforts by many U.S. Catholic leaders to cast immigration as a moral issue. (Mahony says the Vatican has offered no official response, but maintains he got a positive reaction in Rome.) But there are also practical reasons why the church might want to take up the plight of illegal immigrants. Support from the growing population of Latinos in the United States--many of whom crossed the border illegally--could be critically important to the future of the church here. "If the church is going to restore its character and credibility, it had better start taking some risks and speaking out on these issues," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "All of a sudden, Mahony is a hero ... I think it's an historic moment."
Spanish-language DJs had a lot to do with the large turnout in L.A. But Mahony's endorsement was important for many who regard the church's instructions as the final word. "I went because he said it was important," said Vilma Martinez, 39, an East L.A. resident who marched carrying an American flag.
Still, Mahony is urging parishioners not to let the demonstrations get out of hand. He is against plans by some community leaders to stage a work, school and consumer boycott on May 1. "Boycotting," he says, "will create a very negative atmosphere."
The cardinal has spoken. Whether Angelenos--and Congress--continue to heed Mahony's pleas will be the real test of his sway over the flock.