Controversy in San Francisco highlights importance of Pope Francis, synod on family

This article appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

As San Francisco's elected city attorney for the last 13 years, I've had a role to play in many of the high-profile "culture war" clashes that seem to erupt regularly in our famously liberal city.

In 2004, I was the lawyer who defended then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's bold decision to issue licenses allowing same-sex couples to wed. I shortly after sued to invalidate state marriage laws that discriminated against lesbian and gay partners, beginning a nine-year legal battle that twice helped secure marriage equality in California: temporarily in 2008, then permanently in 2013. And I've defended my clients' actions from lawsuits by organizations whose Catholic faith (though usually not conservative principles) I share.

Last month, as you're probably aware, yet another controversy erupted to reclaim San Francisco's familiar place as ground zero in the culture war. The contention involved Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's decision to designate high school teachers as "ministers," which could profoundly diminish their employment rights, and to modify the faculty handbook at four Catholic high schools by adding what many regarded as "morality clauses" to govern private conduct.

To be fair, none of the archbishop's modifications represents novel Catholic teaching. But in the context of an employer's guidance to employees, it was a chilling directive -- for Catholic teachers particularly -- to "conform their hearts, minds and consciences, as well as their public and private behavior" to tenets of church teaching that include "chastity" and "abstinence from all sexual intimacy outside of marriage." Directives included refraining from "gravely evil" acts like "masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations."

The modifications additionally required faculty to "affirm and believe" church teaching on "the sinfulness of contraception" and to accept that "the fundamental demands of justice require that the civil law preserve the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman." Teachers were also to affirm and believe that medical procedures that assist in reproduction -- presumably including in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination -- are "gravely immoral" for betraying spouses' "right to become a father and a mother only through each other."

Public reaction to the moves was predictable: a firestorm of opposition from teachers, parents, students, legislators, newspaper columnists, editorial boards and others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Elected city leaders who agree on little else agreed on this: The archbishop's move was high-handed and wrong. In fact, the archbishop appears to have been virtually alone in saying he was "surprised at the degree of consternation over this."

As for my own perspective, the newly erupted controversy was unusual in a key respect: Here was a San Francisco-based flashpoint in the culture war with no direct connection to city government. Without a duty for me to respond professionally -- to litigate or advise clients about -- I was liberated to contemplate the matter personally, and in many ways more meaningfully, as a Catholic and a parent.

My wife and I were both raised Catholic. We are both beneficiaries of Catholic educations. Like most of the Catholics we know and attend church with, we don't proselytize about our faith, but it guides our lives in important ways. As parents especially, we place a high priority on encouraging faithful Christian discipleship in our son, and we do everything we can to make sure he has the benefit of a well-formed Catholic conscience.

Of course, we expect our son will struggle with aspects of Catholic teaching -- just as his parents have, and just as so many conscientious Catholics do in trying to live their faith. But the controversy stirred up by the archbishop's needless insertion of personal morality dictates into faculty handbooks highlighted to me the mounting challenges today's Catholic parents face as we strive to make our church relevant in the lives our children will lead.

In short, it's not making our jobs easier.

My son is growing up in a generation that has witnessed laudable progress in civil rights, in science, and in how a more just society views and better affirms the dignity of nontraditional families and once-reviled minorities. Church ideologues may quarrel with much of that progress. But we should make no mistake that his generation (and those to follow) will view prohibitions on same-sex marriage with the same disdain my generation held for racist Jim Crow laws. For my son and his contemporaries, rejecting discrimination isn't at odds with a well-formed Christian conscience -- it's the product of it. And it's hard to argue that they're wrong.

So when church ideologues express disdain for contemporary society (as Cordileone often does) or bring disproportionate emphasis to the catechism's most discriminatory and divisive elements (as Cordileone did last month), it risks losing a generation of Catholics quite unlike anything has before.

To me, San Francisco's recent controversy threw into stark relief the challenges that make Pope Francis' leadership so vitally important at this moment in our church's history. Progress is desperately needed to renew our church's mission to serve the world rather than scold it and to emphasize teaching that young Catholic consciences will recognize as legitimately Christlike.

One can see hopeful signs -- and perhaps even the Holy Spirit at work. It was there, I think, in the principled reaction of San Francisco's Catholic high school students last month. It was there, too, in some initial steps by the Synod of Bishops on the family, which Pope Francis first announced in 2013 to re-examine many of the very issues in contention last month. It may even be there in Cordileone's decision to drop the "minister" provision and invite a committee to reconsider his controversial faculty handbook additions.

Catholic parents like my wife and me, who are doing the important field work of trying to instill Catholic values in our children, are grateful to Pope Francis for emphasizing our faith's capacity to bring us together instead of divide us. But we could do without Cordileone's efforts to seemingly teach the opposite. Most of all, we're praying for the synod's success -- and for Pope Francis' -- to make needed progress and to forge consensus for a compassionate, inclusive and ministering Catholic church for the 21st century and for generations to come.

[Dennis Herrera is the city attorney of San Francisco.]

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