As usual, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony looked like just another parish priest. He was taller than most, and perhaps sartorially sharper in well-cut, carefully pressed clerical garb and nicely shined shoes. But in a group of priests, the cardinal didn't stand out.
He didn't stand out on the platform, either. His speaking style was almost a monotone, and his voice was thin and somewhat high-pitched.
So if some politically unaware stranger had happened to hear Mahony last Wednesday, he would have had no idea that this man was a powerful leader making a controversial speech in California's most divisive political campaign.
I could visualize some of his parishioners fuming if they had happened to hear Mahony deliver his attack on Proposition 209, the Nov. 5 ballot measure that would ban state government affirmative action programs affecting public education, hiring and public contracting. But few, if any, were among the predominantly liberal audience at the third annual public policy breakfast of the archdiocese of Los Angeles. The event was held in a large meeting room in The Times building, where various public groups often have events.
In Mahony's view, the measure is counter to the spirit of Catholic social thought and to the teachings of the bishops of the Second Vatican Council who, as Mahony put it in a statement earlier in the year, feel that "our personal destiny is linked to the fate of those most vulnerable."
The Times Poll last month showed that most California Catholics don't agree. A total of 51% said they would vote for Proposition 209, while just 25% opposed the measure.
Mahony himself acknowledged the opposition from many Catholics. One parishioner, he said, accused him of inventing the spiritual references he uses to support his opposition to the measure. He often hears, he said, people saying "I am sick and tired of being told I have to love my neighbor."
When Mahony proposed a massive parish-based voter registration effort to help defeat 209, almost half the parishes didn't participate.
During a question-and-answer period following the speech, I asked him what he thought of his critics in the archdiocese.
It was a dumb question. The cardinal uncompromisingly treats critics as if they were incurably misguided or worse. Take, for example, the way he dealt with the preservationists who wanted to save St. Vibiana's Cathedral.
"I don't do public opinion polls or focus groups," he replied. "Obviously, we're going to have parishioners who have a different point of view. However, I think my major role is to inform and educate. . . . We find if you can get people to really understand these issues, they become more open and even on your side. But we have 4.5 million Catholics and it's going to take a lot of work. If I announced that we were giving out $100 bills to everybody in the church, some people wouldn't like that either.
"But we can't function that way. That's not the way Jesus of Nazareth functioned and I think in my position I have to lift up the ideal to what I believe is God's direction, even though we are not going to agree."
Recruiting the Holy Spirit as an ally on the anti-209 side infuriates foes. "He's taking a political position. He can't say it's in the name of the Lord," said Ward Connerly, head of the pro-209 campaign.
Mahony may anger people such as Connerly, but his strong approach has moved the archdiocese in a more liberal direction on social issues than was the practice during the '50s and early '60s days of L.A.'s first cardinal, James Francis McIntyre, a hard-line conservative close to the city's old Republican establishment.
Mahony chose another course.
He has deeply involved the church in helping the poor, particularly immigrants, mostly Latino Catholics, many of them here illegally. He has thrown the resources of the archdiocese behind various campaigns against the rich and powerful, including some of the city's top political leaders and biggest businesses. The goal has been to improve services for the poor, in businesses, government offices and schools.
In making the archdiocese a strong force for social justice, the cardinal has brought the church into the middle of the Southland's racial, political and economic turmoil.
While I personally admire Mahony's toughness and courage, I don't wonder that he has enemies.