Roger Mahony mixes politics and piety

When Pope John Paul II visits Mexico City and St. Louis next week, a towering figure will loom in the background. Cardinal Roger Mahony -- 6 feet, 3 inches, even without a mitre -- has become the pontiff's key American adviser. The 62-year-old archbishop of Los Angeles is one of three president-delegates of the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops handpicked by the pope to examine the rule of the Roman Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere. A fluent Spanish speaker, Mahony accompanied the pope on his trip to Cuba last year. And he counsels the pontiff on a pastiche of matters, most notably Vatican finances.

The next Bernardin?

During his 36 years as priest, bishop, archbishop, and, since 1991, cardinal, Mahony has emerged as one of the most powerful religious and secular leaders in California and beyond. He's become so influential both inside and outside the church, in fact, that some say he's a natural to take over the role his close associate, Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, played before his death in 1996: that of bridging the widening ideological gaps among American Catholics. "If he were in business, he'd be CEO of a Fortune 5 -- not 500 -- company. If he were in Congress, he'd be speaker of the House," says Rep. Xavier Becerra, a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Mahony's skills have cast him as a millennial leader, a man who balances spiritual principles with the demands of real-world problems. He reminds some of Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th-century French minister who combined religious standing with political astuteness. "He has internalized his spirituality," says Larry McNeil, a West Coast regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a grass-roots organizing group, "and he's not afraid to use his power, especially to help the bottom half of the population."

Like the man in Rome he serves, Mahony has consistently used the pulpit to inject himself into the political arena. Sometimes his sermons draw fire from the right, other times from the left. He tends to march is conservative lockstep with the pope and mainstream church leaders on such issues as abortion and the role of women. Yet he often clashes with political conservatives over immigration, affirmative action, and housing for the poor. "He's the most courageous man I've ever met," says Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a longtime friend.

The cardinal -- known simply as Roger to associates -- is widely respected by leaders of other denominations. Last year, he became the first archbishop to address the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, calling for Catholics and Jews to reconcile their differences and work together the help the inner-city poor. But over the years, Mahony frequently locked horns with California's former Gov. Pete Wilson and other politicians, who accused him of blurring the line between church and state. Some church traditionalists have also criticized him for, among other things, celebrating mass at the annual convention of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries.

The cardinal remains unmoved by the naysayers. "It's what Christ did in the gospels," he says. "Many of the principles of the gospel of faith are not changeable."

Mike Tharp, U.S. News & World Report, January 25, 1999