Cordileone's continuing controversy in San Francisco revolves around Catholic identity

by Brian Cahill

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The continuing controversy surrounding San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's attempt to emphasize Catholic teaching on sexuality in the San Francisco high schools under his control is, among other things, about how we understand Catholic identity.

In the context of our secular society, it is good and necessary for a diocesan bishop to focus on Catholic identity.

The question is: How does a Catholic organization -- a school that does not limit its hiring or its services to Catholics -- manage the tension between what our church teaches in the area of sexuality and how it is expected to carry out its mission, serve its students and support its staff in the pluralistic society in which we live and operate?

The answer: very carefully. It's an ongoing challenge, one not conducive to an ideological, thought-police approach.

Some years ago, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, who did his dissertation on the writings of Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray, wrote: "It is the responsibility of the Church to proclaim the whole Gospel, but it is not the responsibility of each part of the Church to proclaim it the same way."

McElroy is an assistant bishop in San Francisco, but Cordileone appears tone deaf to this kind of nuanced thinking.

Cordileone could also learn from former San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, who has written about the public duty of bishops. In 2009, Quinn wrote expressing concern that some bishops are exacerbating the existing culture war mentality, "which corrodes debate both in American politics and in the internal life of the Church." He then quoted Christus Dominus: "The Church has to be on speaking terms with the human society in which it lives."

If Cordileone can't listen to two bishops in his own backyard, why should we be surprised that he won't listen to anyone else?

The archdiocese has declared that Catholic schools "exist to affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus." Cordileone and his fellow culture warriors seem to have forgotten that the "Gospel of Jesus" can best be found in the Beatitudes and in Matthew 25: "What you did for the least of my brothers and sisters." The Gospel of Jesus is a message of love and inclusiveness -- a calling to charity and justice.

The conduct, maturity, integrity, loyalty and compassion of members of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory School and other demonstrators in front of the St. Mary's Cathedral last week tell me and should tell Cordileone that Catholic identity is alive and well in our Catholic high schools. In their compassion and support for their teachers, they were giving witness to charity and justice -- the essence of Catholic identity.

Cordileone and his representatives keep insisting there is nothing new here, but there is: in the specificity of the handbook, in the implied threat to non-Catholic teachers and to dissenting Catholic teachers. There is a cloud of uncertainty, confusion and demoralization over these schools -- teachers, students and parents -- even if the "minister" issue is taken off the table and this situation is dialed back to some form of "don't ask, don't tell."

The archbishop constantly refers to confusion about church teaching about sexuality, not just in his announcement of his handbook changes, but also in many of his public pronouncements, implying that if we just understood the teaching, everything would be fine. But there is no confusion about contraception and, increasingly, same-sex civil marriage. There is strong, thoughtful, conscience-driven opposition. He also uses the words "timeless church teachings" and conveniently forgets how the church was wrong on Galileo and slavery and ignores that the "timeless church teaching" on same-sex adoptive parents was written in 2003.

Cordileone suggests that he is in line with Pope Francis. In one way, he may be correct: It doesn't appear that Francis is going to be changing any doctrine in the near future. But the whole world knows we have a pope who is focusing on Jesus' message of love and inclusiveness and who has told Cordileone and his fellow culture warrior bishops to quit being obsessed with the sexuality issues. Our archbishop doesn't even appear to be listening to his boss.

Cordileone turns out not to be a very good culture warrior. He's been the point man for the American bishops trying to stop civil same-sex marriage, and he won one battle with California's Proposition 8. Since then, 37 states have approved gay marriage. He is 1-37. If he were a football coach, he would have been fired a long time ago. But no other bishop probably wants the job.

[Brian Cahill is the former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities.]

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