A committee of theology teachers from the four high schools administered by the San Francisco archdiocese will be asked to expand and clarify a statement on church teachings and practices developed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and scheduled for inclusion in those schools' 2015-16 faculty handbooks.
In an open letter to teachers dated Feb. 24 as well as during an hourlong meeting with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, Cordileone said he has been surprised by the uproar generated by the Feb. 3 release of the handbook insertion, "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church."
An archdiocesan "media advisory" issued late Tuesday appeared to counter a Chronicle characterization of the committee's formation and the newspaper's meeting with Cordileone as the archbishop backing down.
WATCH: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone meets with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle
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"The Archbishop has not repealed anything," Jesuit Fr. John Piderit, archdiocesan vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, said in the advisory. "He is adding explanations, clarifications, and material on Catholic social teaching, via a committee of religion teachers he is establishing. The committee is to expand some areas of the material to be included in the faculty handbook, and clarify other areas by adding material.
"Nothing already planned to go in is being removed or retracted or withdrawn," said Piderit, who accompanied Cordileone to the meeting with the newspaper.
The faculty handbook statement contains 15 "affirm and believe" distillations of church teaching and practice, including prohibitions of abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, homosexual relations, masturbation, artificial birth control, "artificial reproductive technology," women's ordination, and human cloning.
"Since these are doctrinal statements, I anticipated the teachers would interpret them as such. In fact, what occurred was an interpretation of the statements as if they were designed to be spoken primarily to students and parents," wrote Cordileone in a letter to teachers in the Feb. 27 archdiocesan newspaper.
Many parents, students, teachers and others have criticized the focus on sexual topics and claimed some language was inflammatory, notably use of "intrinsically evil," "grave evil," and "gravely evil."
"These statements are, admittedly, not nuanced for students or even for parents, nor are they placed in the proper context within which they need to be interpreted," wrote Cordileone, adding that he was open to the handbook statement including other areas of church teaching, "including material on social justice and Catholic social teaching."
"The teachers wanted all the statements related to sexual intimacy as well as religious practice to be heard in a broader context that corresponds better to the way in which students positively evaluate various components of the Catholic faith," he wrote.
The new theology teachers' committee will recommend a draft, which, "while retaining what is already there, expands on these statements and adjusts the language to make the statements more readily understandable to a wider readership," Cordileone wrote. "I will also leave to their discretion how to include the proper wider context within which to understand these points of doctrine."
Cordileone told teachers he had been "moved by your sincerity and commitment" and noted how "a number of you spoke to me seeking advice on how to effectively present the Church's teaching in a compassionate and compelling way to your students who may be struggling in these areas and perhaps even feeling rejected or unwelcomed by the Church because of them."
Reaction to the faculty handbook language as well as to the archdiocese seeking to define teachers as "ministers" in union contracts has included:
- Two vigils staged at St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, one in conjunction with a Feb. 6 convocation of Catholic high school teachers and an Ash Wednesday candlelight prayer gathering;
- A Chronicle editorial charging Cordileone with an "attempt to silence teachers and other school employees" and "an affront to the many practicing Catholics -- especially in this region -- who have issues with doctrine";
- A social media campaign, #teachacceptance, launched by students;
- An online petition, "Discrimination and Fear Don't Belong in Our Schools," which has received more than 6,500 signatures;
- A jointly signed letter from eight Bay Area state lawmakers in which they accuse Cordileone of sending "an alarming message of intolerance" to students and urge withdrawal of the handbook section;
- A statement by the California Federation of Teachers objecting to the handbook statement's warning to Catholic school employees to avoid off-campus activities that might contradict church stances and claiming that contractual use of the designation "minister" could erode teachers' legal protections.
Cordileone has repeated flexibility on the use of "minister" as long as two goals are achieved -- clarity that the Catholic high schools embrace the entirety of Catholic church teaching and that all Catholic school employees are integral to a Catholic school's mission.
In his letter to teachers, the archbishop said he hopes the handbook revisions "can all be completed prior to the beginning of the next academic year."
Melanie Morey, director of the archdiocese's Office of Catholic Identity Assessment, told NCR in an email Wednesday that the handbook would not go to print "before the process is completed."
The office, which is charged with assessing and bolstering the Catholicity of Catholic high schools within the archdiocese, opened last month.
Cordileone concluded his letter to teachers: "This has been a very trying time for all of us. I implore your patience, good will, and especially prayers as we continue to work toward a consensus. And as we have just begun this holy season of Lent, I would ask one specific favor from our Catholic teachers: please join me in offering your Lenten fasting for the intention of a happy resolution and calming of tensions."
[Dan Morris Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]