The Not-So-Pious Partridge Calls Phoenix’s Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted a Wimp on Immigration


Allow this avian to wow Christian and heathen alike with a little preachifyin', thus demonstrating that The Bird's days of forced Sunday school as a wee peeper were not totally in vain.

Please turn in your Bibles to the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11, and follow along as this beaker reads the words of Jesus Christ.

"I am the good shepherd," saith the Man from Galilee. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

Now, brothers and sisters, the question before us is whether or not Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted is doing all in his power to be a good shepherd to his flock, a.k.a. the members of the Diocese of Phoenix — specifically, the least powerful among them, those who are undocumented.

This is no idle query. The Phoenix diocese's Hispanic Ministry office estimates that Latinos constitute anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of all Catholics in Phoenix. Sure, the undocumented are only a part of that near-half, but they are some of the church's most devoted followers.

Bishop Olmsted is their spiritual leader and protector, as he is to all Catholics in the Phoenix area, regardless of whether or not they are here legally. Note that the bishop's crosier, his curlicue symbol of authority, is referred to as a pastoral staff, pastor being the Latin word for shepherd.

Locally, the bishop's voice carries immense influence. And Bishop Olmsted has not been shy about using his authority, sometimes telling pew-shiners what to do at the polls.

For instance, in 2006, His Excellency instructed Scottsdale Catholics that they should vote for a lap-dance ban in city strip clubs. Tough moral stand there, Bishop.

More recently, Olmsted and Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas signed a pastoral letter urging Sand Land Catholics to vote yes on Proposition 102, the ballot measure that would constitutionally ban gay marriage in the state. See, same-sexers have to live in sin 'cause, um, they're already living in sin. Or so goes what passes for religious logic.

But when it comes to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Hispanic-hunting sweeps and raids, anti-brown dragnets that regularly rend families apart, leaving children without parents and all undocumented trembling in fear, the bishop is as quiet as the proverbial church mouse.

"We need to have the bishop present at our side when we have actions against what's happening to the Hispanic community in this county," Hector Yturralde, president of the immigrant rights coalition Somos America, told this tweeter recently. "We need to see him personally take a stand."

Yturralde argues the need is urgent, considering that Arpaio is, almost weekly, going after landscapers, corn vendors, candle makers, cooks, and cleaners — otherwise law-abiding folk who lack the necessary papers. Yturralde recently wrote to the bishop on behalf of his group, which represents 32 local organizations, pleading for him to protect his flock, many of whom are being regularly ravaged by MCSO wolves. He noted that some county Catholics are afraid to attend services, take their kids to school, or seek medical care, all because they fear the sheriff's dastardly dragnets.

"Your voice is needed in our midst," insisted Yturralde in the missive, "not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable."

One of those comfortable in need of afflicting, Sheriff Joe, reportedly attends a Catholic church in Fountain Hills. Sure, Nickel Bag's a secular leader, and has a heart made of chimney rock. But Christianity has a long tradition of church leaders challenging the morality of heads of state and public officials. From St. Thomas Becket (a Catholic), who was assassinated for going head-to-head with the English King Henry II, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (a Baptist), who challenged everyone from racist Southern police to U.S. presidents.

The bishop's flack, Jim Dwyer, says Olmsted is working behind the scenes, which, he claims, is far more effective than denouncing injustice from the pulpit or joining press conferences or protests. Dwyer pointed to a pastoral letter on migration the bishop signed that urged Catholics to welcome immigrants into their midst, as well as a January op-ed by Olmsted in the Arizona Republic criticizing Arizona's employer-sanctions law.

Plus, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently called on the Bush administration to cease ICE raids on employers, and since Olmsted's a bishop, doesn't that count?

As for trying to rein in Sheriff Joe, well, Olmsted ain't gonna pull a Becket or a King. Hell, look what happened to them! Plus, he's got a sweet gig and a really rockin' wardrobe that goes with it.

"The bishop doesn't want to get into personalities," Dwyer informed The Bird.

But wait a sec. Olmsted didn't have a problem banning Governor Janet Napolitano from speaking on church property a few years ago because she disagreed with the church's teachings on stuff like abortion and gay rights.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons