Influential Catholics call for removal of San Francisco archbishop in full-page ad

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

by Dan Morris-Young

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A powerful cross-section of Catholics in the San Francisco archdiocese is asking Pope Francis to replace Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, saying the archbishop has "fostered an atmosphere of division and intolerance."

In an April 16 full-page advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 100 signers say the embattled archbishop pursues "a single-issue agenda," coercing teachers with a "morality code which violates individual consciences as well as California labor laws" and "[isolating] himself from our community" as he "relies ... on a tiny group of advisors recruited from outside of our diocese and estranged from their own religious orders."

Referring to themselves as "committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II," signers include well-known philanthropists in the archdiocese, members of school and university boards, the former director of Catholic Charities CYO, high-profile attorneys and physicians, major figures in the business and corporate world, and officials of trusts, foundations and charitable organizations.

The archdiocese issued a press release Wednesday afternoon calling the open letter "a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, a misrepresentation of the nature of the teacher contract, and a misrepresentation of the spirit of the Archbishop."

"The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for 'the Catholic Community of San Francisco.' They do not," the release states. "The Archdiocese has met with a broad range of stakeholders. Together, we have engaged in a constructive dialogue on all of the issues raised in this ad. We welcome the chance to continue that discussion."

The statement was likely a response to a piece posted on the Chronicle website Wednesday by columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, who had been tipped to the ad's pending publication. A copy of the ad serves as a graphic for their commentary.

"According to a source familiar with the drafting of the open letter to Francis, the disaffected Catholics first considered running the ad weeks ago. They held off while they appealed to church higher-ups -- including the papal representative in Washington -- to address their concerns. When nothing came of that, they went public," the two wrote.

There is a press conference scheduled for 10:30 a.m. today at the Merchants Exchange Building owned by Clint Reilly, reportedly one of the major drivers behind the open letter and a prominent figure in San Francisco civic life. Reilly is a former chair of Catholic Charities CYO's board and is president and chairman of Clinton Reilly Holdings.

The signers of the Chronicle ad criticized what they called "the absolute mean-spiritedness of [Cordileone's] required language for the Archdiocesan high school faculty handbook" that "sets a pastoral tone that is closer to persecution than evangelization.

"Students, families and teachers have been deeply wounded by this language, yet the Archbishop refuses to withdraw his demands," the ad continues.

A 2,000-word statement developed by Cordileone for inclusion in 2015-16 faculty handbooks of the four high schools owned by the San Francisco archdiocese was made public Feb. 3. It delineates areas of sexual morality and religious practice the archbishop said need increased clarity, emphasis and understanding by students, faculty, staff and administrators.

The narrative also cautions "administrators, faculty and staff" to "arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church teaching.

Many say the document runs roughshod on individual conscience, stands in contrast to Pope Francis' pastoral and inclusive teaching, and criticize what they say is an overemphasis on sexual topics. They say some passages are insensitive and incendiary, notably usages such as "intrinsically evil," "grave evil," and "gravely evil,"

"Such language has no place in our handbooks" and "is harmful to our community and creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear" said a petition signed by 80 percent of the faculty and staff of the four schools in early March and read into the minutes of the March 2 San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting.

Contacted by Matier and Ross about today's open letter message, signer and attorney Frank Pitre said: "It seems [Cordileone] is going in a direction that is completely opposite where Pope Francis is going and creating an atmosphere of complete intolerance. Hopefully, this is going to get someone's attention.'' He and his wife, Diane, both signed.

Larry Nibbi, CEO of Nibbi Brothers Construction, told Matier and Ross he thinks Cordileone "is just causing a lot of discord, especially with the young people in the diocese."

"The crux of our worry is that the faithful are going to become very disenchanted and stop going to church because they don't like the message, and the message is not the way they lead their lives," said Nibbi, a donor and former chair of the trustees of Archbishop Riordan High School, one of the four high schools affected by the handbook insertion.

"Neither The Chronicle's business department nor those associated with the ad would say how much it cost. We're told, however, that full-page ads typically run in the tens of thousands of dollars," the columnists write.

"We believe in the traditions of conscience, respect and inclusion upon which our Catholic faith was founded," states the introduction to the open letter advertisement. "From Archbishops Alemany, Hanna, Mitty and McGucken, to Quinn, Levada and Niederauer, our Archdiocese has been 'an immigrant Church' built on a rich tradition of diversity."

The open letter also rebuked Cordileone for his appointment of "a pastor for Star of the Sea Parish who marginalizes women's participation in the church by banning girls from altar service and who has inexplicably distributed to elementary school children an age-inappropriate and potentially abusive, sexually-oriented pamphlet."

Star of the Sea administrator Fr. Joseph Illo and associate pastor Fr. Patrick Driscoll have been at the center of controversy over developments at the parish school that have generated wide media coverage. Tensions led to a March 25 gathering at the school attended by nearly 200 at which Auxiliary Bishop William Justice and vicar for clergy Fr. Raymund Reyes listened to 16 brief talks by parents.

The Star of the Sea gathering, the four schools' faculty-staff petition, and the new full-page appeal to Pope Francis are three of several pushbacks against the initiatives Cordileone has undertaken since he was installed in 2013:

  • A March 21 letter to Cordileone signed by 21 retired priests of the archdiocese faulted him for lack of consultation and collegiality and questioned the tone and thrust of the faculty handbook language.
  • Two requests for statements disavowing the Star of Sea ban on altar girls surfaced during a February Council of Priests meeting but were set aside by Cordileone, who argued that Illo was acting within his rights as a pastor.
  • Three vigils have been staged at St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral organized by a student-parent organization, #teachacceptance, formed following revelation of the handbook language. The most recent, March 30, drew more than 500 participants who processed from historic Mission Dolores Church in San Francisco to the cathedral, where a petition signed by more than 6,500 protesting the handbook narrative was attached to a church door.
  • The Chronicle ran a front-page analysis charging that the faculty handbook statement flew in the face of Pope Francis' call for embracing the marginalized and editorialized against the initiative.
  • Eight San Francisco Bay Area state lawmakers jointly signed a letter to Cordileone accusing him of sending "an alarming message of intolerance" to students and urging withdrawal of the handbook section.
  • The California Federation of Teachers issued a release objecting to language proposed by the archdiocese for pending labor contracts and to the handbook statement's warning to school employees to avoid off-campus activities that contradict church stances.

Matier and Ross called attention to Cordileone's scheduled participation in the April 25 March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., "three days before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that could result in the justices declaring a constitutional right for gays and lesbians to wed."

Do not "expect Cordileone to start soft-pedaling his opposition to same-sex marriage," they wrote.

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is West Coast correspondent Monica Clark contributed to this story.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: Ad calls for removal of San Francisco archbishop.

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