Different visions of church collide in San Francisco archdiocese

The #TeachAcceptance group holds a rally for Catholic school teachers outside the chancery of the San Francisco archdiocese April 27. (John Bare)
This article appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

San Francisco — "The religious fabric of the San Francisco archdiocese has been torn, and it did not need to happen. Intentionally or not, it has been wrenched," said Thomas Sheehan, a Stanford University scholar who summarized what several observers shared with NCR.

Conflict has marked the tenure of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone since his arrival in San Francisco in 2012. In recent months, highly publicized events have made the archdiocese and Cordileone a staple of media coverage, and local Catholics have made their feelings known, from critics calling for Cordileone's removal in a full-page ad in a major daily, to supporters rallying for the archbishop with a picnic, petitions and a website.

Related: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone takes divisive action in San Francisco archdiocese by Dan Morris-Young

The Bay Area has become an epicenter for colliding visions of what being Catholic means, the role of conscience, church teaching on sex and sexuality, the core role of Catholic schools, the understanding of revealed truth, and how authority should be exercised.

In short, Catholic identity.

"I still think there is a possibility of reconciliation if both sides would just pause for a moment, if Archbishop Cordileone publicly announced as pastor of the archdiocese that he is willing to sit down and start from scratch. He arrived here running, landing with all four episcopal feet on the ground, and with an agenda," Sheehan added.

Bay Area social and theological ethicist Toinette Eugene agreed that addressing "antipathies and conflicting issues" is paramount.

"I know from experiential certainty that the meaning of 'Catholic identity' is a bigger and broader concept and understanding than that articulated by Archbishop Cordileone," said Eugene, a founding member of the National Office of Black Catholics and the first associate director of the Black Sisters' Conference.

Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, echoes calls for Cordileone to stop, look and listen.

"It is not uncommon for corporate CEOs or university presidents or deans hired from outside to come charging in and badly misread the cultures of their organizations," Hanson wrote to NCR. "The prescription is usually to go on a humble listening tour and then press the restart button. That is what I would suggest to Archbishop Cordileone, but as yet there is no indication he is interested in doing that."

NCR attempted multiple times over several months to interview Cordileone and the archdiocese's vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, Jesuit Fr. John Piderit. On April 6, NCR received an email from Larry Kamer, principal of the Kamer Consulting Group, who said he had been asked by Piderit to "respond on the Archdiocese's behalf." NCR has yet to receive a response to questions sent to Kamer.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of San Francisco-based St. Ignatius Press, said he feels Cordileone has made efforts to quell the tumult.

The Jesuit, who is also publisher of the online Catholic World Report, asked if "Pope Francis might have even been wittingly or unwittingly responsible" for bringing about conflict via the media highlighting comments the pope has made on homosexuality, marriage and other topics that might have "heightened expectations" of those who question areas of church teaching.

Fessio pointed out that Cordileone responded to the outcry earlier this year about the tone and content of a faculty handbook statement by conceding it was not nuanced enough. Cordileone had mandated that the handbooks for archdiocesan-owned high schools include a statement clarifying church teaching, largely on sexual issues, and put faculty on notice to "arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church teaching.

In response to the uproar, Fessio noted, Cordileone formed a task force of high school theology teachers to recast it in more readily absorbable language and with a social justice element. That work is reportedly ongoing.

Fessio also noted that the archbishop candidly admitted during a one-hour meeting Feb. 24 with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial staff that in hindsight "he would have gone about things differently" in development and promulgation of the handbook statement -- seeking more input "from stakeholders."

Prop 8 history

A significant amount of the "pushback" in some quarters, Fessio said, draws energy from lingering frustration with the prelate's pivotal role in the passage of Proposition 8, the 2008 California referendum that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. A federal court ultimately ruled the law unconstitutional.

Cordileone's Proposition 8 history, as well as his role as "point man" for the U.S. bishops in "defending traditional man-woman marriage," often leads to the archbishop being portrayed as harboring animosity toward gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual individuals, according to Fessio and others interviewed for this story.

The director of the archdiocese's new Office of Catholic Identity Assessment, Melanie Morey, told NCR in February that hurting or diminishing gay persons "is the last thing" Cordileone would want to do.

Regardless, the Cordileone-authored faculty handbook statement has had that effect, notably by employing usages such as "intrinsically evil," "grave evil" and "gravely evil."

Cordileone friend and erstwhile adviser Nick Andrade said he has told the archbishop "that because of this language, some young man is going to kill himself, and that is not what you want at all. Therapists will tell you that that is exactly what can happen, that some kid is going to kill himself because he has been told he is gravely evil."

The archbishop "knows I am married to a man," said Andrade, who is known for his board work and support for Catholic Charities CYO, as well as with various Catholic schools in the archdiocese. "My partner and I have been together for 25 years, and I am not gravely evil."

Cordileone "is a good and holy man who really does mean well," Andrade said. "He might not be trying enough for everybody, but he is trying."

But, Andrade emphasized, "he needs to get better advice."

The perception that Cordileone depends on a tight sphere of like-minded advisers surfaces often among his critics and was among charges leveled in the April 16 full-page San Francisco Chronicle advertisement, signed by more than 100 high-profile local Catholics, that asked the pope to replace the archbishop.

Jesuit Fr. John Coleman, associate pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, said it is common to hear concerns about Cordileone having "brought in a bevy of outside priests" who serve as his priest secretary, moderator of the curia, and development director, and in other positions.

"Even some more conservative priests of the archdiocese ... resent that he has bypassed the San Francisco presbyterate to bring in such outsiders," said Coleman, a sociologist who taught at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., for more than two decades and held the Charles Casassa Chair in Social Values at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (1997-2009).

In December, Cordileone announced the creation of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment. It has had a lukewarm welcome.

Sheehan, who has "talked to a number of teachers" in the archdiocese, says the office's mandate of "assessing the schools for orthodoxy" implies "the notion that such an office is needed in San Francisco" and tells "people who have worked so hard ... that they are not Catholic enough. It reflects the archbishop's own personal assessment that something needs to be fixed."

"The office reflects a personal agenda that only Archbishop Cordileone embraces, in opposition to his faithful," said Sheehan, who specializes in contemporary European philosophy at Stanford and its relation to religious questions, with particular emphasis on Roman Catholicism.

"This is an arrogant, condescending attitude, almost bullying," Sheehan said. "Cordileone seems unwilling to consider he might be wrong" and comes across as "an unyielding ideologue who is trying to tell faithful employees to behave in ways in- consistent with their consciences."

Hanson and Eugene are just as blunt.

"There is a culture clash between an image of a Church which engages with the community, demonstrating an interest in and understanding of the lived reality of the faithful," Hanson said, "and a Church which is the defender of truth and uses its authority to discredit and marginalize any who disagree with the truth as defined by the local bishop. There is a broad discussion of the role of conscience in the Church today, which threatens some leaders like Archbishop Cordileone."

He continued, "There is another culture clash between an understanding of truth as focused on a set of reproductive and marriage-related issues, and a truth focused more broadly on love and mercy, which has more recently been the hallmark of Pope Francis."

Bay Area culture

Eugene noted that despite the "obvious social and religious diversities" in the Bay Area, "there is a callous disregard on the part of the archdiocese for those individuals and groups who have taken a stance that in any way differs from or questions the Catholic doctrine and authority which is being held up as the standard."

Eugene and Fessio both downplayed the idea that Cordileone arrived in San Francisco naive of its culture and then misread it. After all, Fessio pointed out, the archbishop is a San Diego native and had spent three years as bishop of the neighboring Oakland diocese.

Eugene says the current turmoil should be viewed in the context of the Bay Area's long history of social upheaval.

"I have lived in the Bay Area most of my life," she said. She grew up amid the student Free Speech Movement at the University of California in the 1960s; lived in San Francisco in the time of the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement; ministered in an urban parish "at the height of the Black Panther Party developments"; and has had "ties with the nascent and now flourishing LBGT community through friends and associates," she explained.

"I do not believe that these seemingly disparate historical movements and aspects of a regional culture have faded into the dim past, but in fact they give substance and roots to the reality of a vibrant multi-layered Bay Area culture," she said.

"From the perspective of the ordinary person in the pew," Eugene wrote, "I think that dealing and dialoguing more directly and pastorally with the constituencies who represent the cultural, social, racial and sexual diversities of the archdiocese is a critical priority."

Perhaps ironically, a lead organizer of the student-parent group #TeachAcceptance, which has battled against the Cordileone faculty handbook and labor stances, also argues against polarized, black-white argumentation.

"It is not a matter of love versus rules," Jim McGarry wrote in response to a recent NCR essay by John J. Savant on the San Francisco situation. "This often translates to the pejorative label of 'legalism' or it surfaces as an attack on sentimentalism. It sometimes allows opponents of Archbishop Cordileone, for example, to label him as rule-bound and hence unloving or not compassionate. That is neither true nor helpful."

McGarry, who taught religious studies in the archdiocese for more than three decades, warned that such "dualism" can lead "to a sense of soft vs. hard Catholicism, and that is problematic stereotyping leading to unresolvable intramural squabbling, leaving us with intractable 'culture wars' instead of theological debate. Rather, we need to move towards social justice and the Beloved Community."

McGarry said he sees church teaching on homosexuality as a bedrock issue in the current San Francisco upheaval.

"Doctrinal development matters. Discrimination against homosexuals is wrong. Persecution of homosexuals is real," he said. "If church teaching is not part of the protection of a vulnerable population, it is part of the persecution. Civil rights for gays must be understood and incorporated into the Catholic tradition -- theologically, just as opposition to slavery finally was promulgated. This inclusion of civil rights in moral teaching may or may not imply other developments of doctrine on this issue, but this first, true step must be fully taken -- to the point of support for civil marriage as a human right -- in a world where violence against gays, lesbians and transgender people is still the norm."

McGarry continued, "Mercy does not mean acquiescence or procrastination. We do not condemn our opponents but we do not wait for them. We pray that they will eventually come along. The long arc of Church history suggests that they will."

Record on dialogue

Cordileone's record, ability and style when it comes to dialogue receives divergent reviews.

Proponents can list multiple examples of him meeting with groups or persons who might disagree with him:

  • He invited all clergy of the archdiocese to a gathering at his residence to offer background and updates on the faculty handbook uproar.
  • He addressed more than 350 high school teachers about the faculty handbook statement at a Feb. 6 convocation and answered questions from the assembly.
  • He requested a meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial staff to open communication lines with the newspaper, which is perceived by many archdiocesan officials as negative toward the church.
  • He has sent archdiocesan officials to local radio talk show programs to represent the archdiocese's perspective.
  • He recently invited Brian Cahill to lunch; the retired Catholic Charities director has been an outspoken critic and is one of the signers of the full-page ad asking Cordileone's removal.
  • Cordileone met recently with at least one retired clergyman; a letter signed by 21 retired priests of the archdiocese in March took Cordileone to task for his lack of consultation and implicit disrespect of teachers in the handbook language.
  • He has met separately with the campus ministry/religious studies faculties of at least two of the archdiocesan-owned high schools.
  • In early October, he met with officials of Dignity, an organization that advocates "for respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities ... in the Catholic Church," according to its website.

"I have never felt him to be unwilling to listen or to consult and talk about issues," Andrade told NCR in February. "He's really good with small groups, but once he gets with large groups he can take on a different persona. I think he is terribly shy, and as a result of that he does not come off as being welcoming. But I have found him to be very friendly, and even though we have disagreed on some major issues, he's listened and he's been thoughtful."

Sheehan and others, however, see Cordileone dialogue as tactical.

"His style seems to be delay, delay, delay and then send out" representatives "who refuse to compromise," observed Sheehan, who said people he knows "have come away with a sense of futility in regard to dialogue" with the archbishop.

Presidents of the four archdiocesan high schools might nod their heads. A Dec. 29 letter to Cordileone signed by the four administrators pleaded not to go forward with plans for the controversial school handbooks. They asked the archbishop to "consider a different path" to pursue his goal of "effective catechesis on the key doctrinal teachings on which you would like the local Church to focus, as well as the spiritual formation of those called to serve in your schools across all academic disciplines and extra-curricular programs."

The educators wrote, "We are unable to support the inclusion of the 'affirm and believe' language" into the collective bargaining agreement or the school handbooks.

They told the archbishop they "remain very concerned about the deleterious effect that will result from this particular language. Our experience with our teachers assures us that the 'affirm and believe' statements you have submitted will not be received as you intend and will counter much of the bolstering of our schools' Catholic identity on which we have all focused over the last 20 years."

They warned that "undue confusion and turmoil" could result.

They suggested that Cordileone "make clear to the teachers the doctrines upon which you place high priority" at the scheduled Feb. 6 convocation of high school teachers, and have the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment follow up on campuses "and give further information about the role we are called to play."

However, that advice was set aside. On Feb. 3, the administrators shared with their faculties and staffs the texts of the handbook statement and the contract language.

In a draft of an op-ed on the San Francisco developments, teacher union representative Ted DeSaulnier from Archbishop Riordan High School described a meeting at which the union executive board, high school presidents, and Piderit were present.

When a school president asked for clarity on what the archbishop expected of the administrators in the face of potential resistance from faculty and staff, he was told he should "vigorously follow the directives that he was given" to support the archbishop, DeSaulnier wrote.

Piderit told the administrator to "fall on your sword," said DeSaulnier.

Fr. Coleman is among the handbook critics. In a Feb. 17 blog on the St. Ignatius Parish website, he critiqued its rationale and content.

"By so stressing sexual morality," Coleman wrote, the handbook "tends actually to distort the fullness of Catholic teaching and overemphasize the hot button issues in its place and to neglect, entirely, a personal conversion to become a disciple of Jesus."

Interviewed, Coleman underscored what he sees as a disconnect between Cordileone and a large portion of the clergy.

He described instances of Cordileone missing priests' funerals, seeming unawareness of priests' illnesses in hospitals, and a sense among "thoughtful priests that he really does not hear their deepest pastoral concerns."

"I have never known an archbishop of San Francisco with so much public opinion, elected officials, good Catholic businessmen, school teachers and students against him -- as well as such lack of support from priests," he said.

A member of the Council of Priests told NCR that during a meeting of the group last summer, one priest stated that in all his years of ministry in the archdiocese he had never seen morale in the parishes and chancery at a lower level. He said that if any of the group disagreed, to say so. There were no responses.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

More: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone takes divisive action in San Francisco archdiocese by Dan Morris-Young

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here