Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez was elected Tuesday to serve as the first ever Latino vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Texas Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was elected president after three years as vice president.
The vice president customarily is elevated to president, putting Gomez in line to become the first Latino leader of the conference. About 4 in 10 U.S. Catholics are Latino and they already comprise a majority in several dioceses, including Gomez' own archdiocese, which is about 70 percent Latino.
The conference president does not set policy, but the choice of leadership is seen as evidence of the direction the bishops want to take the American church and how far they've gone toward following the priorities set by Pope Francis.
DiNardo and Gomez were elected with a majority of the vote from a slate of 10 candidates.
Francis has emphasized mercy over rules, a dramatic shift from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who made upholding orthodoxy a core focus of their pontificates. In an interview last May with the Catholic news outlet Crux, DiNardo said that some Texas Catholics "think the pope's too vague."
DiNardo was one of 13 cardinals who signed a letter to the pope more than a year ago objecting to how he organized a synod, or high-level summit, on family life, that addressed, among other issues, whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment could be allowed to receive Communion under some circumstances. Bishops focused on holding a hard line on doctrine objected to any opening, while others insisted the idea was consistent with church teaching. The letter was viewed as a rebuke of the pope, although the signers said they were only taking up Francis' invitation for frank discussion.
"I think it's important for the church going forward to be understanding of how important our tradition and practice is," DiNardo told Crux. "We have to walk with people in difficult situations, but there's a difference between accompanying people and approving everything they do. I think that's what Pope Francis is trying to tell us."
DiNardo told Crux he views society as growing increasingly intolerant toward religion and has found the U.S. government "coercive" in what he called its attempt to restrict religious liberty. Dozens of dioceses and Catholic charities sued President Barack Obama over the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers provide coverage for birth control.
Catholics are by far the largest faith tradition in the U.S., with more than 68 million members, according to the CARA research center at Georgetown University. While bishops could find common ground with Trump if he fulfills promises to appoint anti-abortion federal judges, church leaders are deeply unsettled by his promised crackdown on immigrants and refugees.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.