ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Pope Francis appointed a new archbishop of New Mexico’s largest diocese last year, some anti-poverty advocates expressed optimism given his previous work on immigration reform and income inequality while bishop in Salt Lake City.
Still, uncertainty remained about how John C. Wester would tackle challenges that have long plagued one of the nation’s poorest states.
Since taking the helm of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, Wester has won the support of many by speaking out on issues ranging from early childhood education and immigration to poverty.
He said his activism is rooted in Scripture.
“These are all issues that are outlined in the Gospel,” Wester said.
He recently called a news conference with other faith leaders to denounce a tax overhaul proposal that critics say would unfairly raise grocery prices for low-income families.
Wester hosted an immigration forum in February and harshly criticized the Obama administration for not giving due process to detained migrant children from Central America.
After the Republican-controlled House passed a measure to reinstate the death penalty, Wester was at the Capitol within hours to denounce the bill in front of news cameras. The measure ultimately failed.
As archbishop, Wester has pushed to expand early childhood education as a way to combat generational poverty and programs aimed at battling drug and alcohol addiction in a state with a high opioid overdose rate.
His outspoken nature, especially on poverty issues, is a departure from his predecessor.
Before Wester, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe had worked to recover from years of priest abuse scandals. A number of lawsuits are still pending, and victims are pressing for documents to be released.
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Wester is the right choice for the archdiocese. He pointed to Wester’s preaching of the “Social Gospel,” which refers to a movement of using Scripture to combat poverty and injustice.
“The church has purged itself of predators,” Sanchez said. “Now we need to purge ourselves of the predatory ills of society.”
Javier Benavidez, executive director of the advocacy group SouthWest Organizing Project, said he’s pleased Wester has not focused too much on divisive issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and instead called upon residents to tackle poverty.
“This is the spirit of the church. It’s about the preferential treatment of the poor,” Benavidez said. “That’s the Gospel.”
Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque said Wester has helped change the “body politic” in New Mexico and is forcing some state lawmakers to consider poverty issues.
“I think Archbishop Wester is a breath of fresh air in New Mexico,” Maestas said. “He is using the moral authority of the church to make all of us focus on what’s important.”