Yesterday, my colleague Dan Morris-Young reported on additions to the official handbook for the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The additions are part of the effort by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to address the issue of the Catholic identity of the local Catholic schools.
As regular readers know, the issue of our schools’ Catholic identity is near and dear to my heart. At all levels of our vast school systems, this is an issue that we should take to heart. My usual caveat, however, one that applies in all issues of “identity” is that it is usually a good idea to render that concept in the plural, especially for a religion. Any religion that has a narrow, singular understanding of identity is well on its way to being a cult. Especially a religious community that bears the name “Catholic” should recognize, and even celebrate, the tension that exists between what we share in common and the variety of ways that which is shared is expressed by different individuals and in different cultures.
So, I was heartened when I read these two graphs in Morris-Young’s story:
Cordileone and [Superintendent of Schools Marueen] Huntington both said the handbook statement is aimed at countering societal forces on students and faculty "to conform to a certain agenda at variance with, and often aggressively so, our Christian understanding of the human person and God's purpose in creation," in the archbishop's words.
"The pressure is exerted relentlessly in the media, in entertainment, in politics, in academia, in corporations -- in short, in all of the influences of popular culture," Cordileone wrote.
I agree with the good archbishop entirely. In our spread eagle capitalist, consumerist society, it is hard to even notice the Church or to hear the Gospel. The pressure to adopt a consumerist sense of personal fulfillment, to indulge the culture’s dominant transactional and economic understanding of what matters, and the hyper-individualism that threatens the very idea of the common good, these do make it hard to teach a Catholic, sacramental, relational understanding of the world and of what really matters.
Alas, that is not exactly what the archbishop in mind. No, for him Catholic identity is all about sex. Seven of the fifteen new “Whereas” clauses pertain to sexual matters, four of them dealing with reproductive issues and three with marriage and homosexuality. Really? I understand that a faith that has nothing to say about our most intimate relationships is an odd kind of faith. I understand, too, that the Church’s teachings in these matters is often misunderstood by Catholics, rejected by others, and at odds with much of what we see in the ambient culture. Certainly, a full-throttled embrace of a culture of life should be at the heart of any Catholic school’s curriculum. But, to borrow an observation from the Holy Father, do we have to be “obsessed” about contraception and same-sex marriage?
In his letter announcing the changes Archbishop Cordileone wrote:
Confusion about the Church’s stance is prevalent in areas of sexual morality and religious discipline. For this reason, the statements for inclusion in the faculty handbook focus on these two areas. This focus does not imply lesser importance to Catholic teachings on social justice, which in fact are widely accepted and well interpreted in Catholic educational institutions. The areas requiring clarification are in Catholic teachings on sexual morality and religious practice.
I am not familiar with how the schools in the archdiocese teach social justice. I hope it is exemplary. But, +Cordileone himself attended last year’s Napa Institute, where those teachings were turned on their head, and he did not raise any objections that the plutocrats among the Catholic one percenters were “confused.” Call me dubious.
Catholic identities matter. Many on the Catholic left decided to ignore or sideline or dismiss Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the document of Pope John Paul II that addressed the issue in the context of Catholic higher education. They should have recognized its significance and engaged it, but they didn’t. So, perhaps it is not surprising that the Catholic right turned the issue of Catholic identity into a battering ram with which to change our schools into little West Points for the culture wars. There is the ill-named Cardinal Newman Society, always ready to conflate a defensive crouch with Catholic orthodoxy. Archbishop Cordileone seems to have taken his talking points from them, reducing the desired Catholic identity of our schools to a checklist of conservative concerns. I am guessing that the soon-to-be beatified Oscar Romero might have composed a different set of “whereas” clauses for the handbooks at the schools in his diocese.
I fear that these changes to the handbook are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg for the good people of San Francisco. Archbishop Cordileone is not the kind of man to back down easily and he seems utterly inalert to the way his efforts will be perceived by the wider public or by his own flock. In a culture awash in relativism, seeing nothing but gloom, he wishes to go down in flames and bring the local Church with him. It is very sad.