Opponents of changes to San Francisco teacher contracts hold candlelight vigil

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

by Monica Clark


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More than 400 students, teachers and parents held a candlelight vigil on the plaza of St. Mary's Cathedral on Ash Wednesday to show their opposition to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's additions to the teachers' handbook at four archdiocesan high schools.

They sang, prayed and, as the sun went down, silently held their lit candles for an hour along both sides of the two blocks surrounding the cathedral. This was the second demonstration there since the handbook changes were announced two weeks ago.

The new handbook section, "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church," includes text condemning homosexual relations, same-sex marriage, abortion, artificial birth control, "artificial reproductive technology," women's ordination, pornography, masturbation and human cloning.

It also says "administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or no faith are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church doctrine and practice.

It calls on the employees to additionally strive to "conform their hearts, minds and consciences, as well as their public and private behavior" to church teaching.

Those gathered outside the cathedral, many wearing "Teach Acceptance" lapel stickers, held signs reading, "All are welcome," We support our teachers," and "Who am I to judge?" There was a general consensus that the handbook additions have a tone of discrimination and exclusion that is offensive and contradicts Gospel teaching.

"We shouldn't throw barbs," said Richard Patrick Murphy, a parishioner at St. Gabriel Parish in San Francisco and parent of a student at St. Ignatius High School, from which he graduated in 1978. "The language is harsh and unfair to our teachers."

Although St. Ignatius, a Jesuit-run school, is not covered by the new handbook, Murphy said he came to the vigil to show that St. Ignatius parents and students are also upset by the archbishop's actions. "We hope he'll change his mind."

Mairead Ahlbach, a senior at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco and one of the event leaders, said the participating students are "learning and living the Catholic values of acceptance and love" at their schools. "We hope the archbishop hears this," she said.

She added that if Jesus were alive, "he would be here next to us."

During a litany of petitions, students from eight of the 14 high schools in the archdiocese prayed for all those impacted by the controversy.

"May our teachers know we stand and support them," said a student from Marin Catholic in Kentfield.

"For our parents who are worried about the future, may they continue to guide us in standing up for what is right," said an SHCP student.

"We pray for all those who are excluded and marginalized," said a student of Junipero Serra High in San Mateo.

A student at San Francisco's Archbishop Riordan High School prayed for Cordileone to "open his heart" and "choose love over hate and inclusion over exclusion."

The four students attend the schools covered by the new handbook. Students from St. Ignatius, Mercy High in San Francisco, Mercy High in Burlingame, and Stuart Hall in San Francisco also led prayers.

Jesuit Fr. John Piderit, archdiocesan vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, held a brief press conference prior to the vigil. He said the archbishop wants the high schools to have a "consistent message" that is faithful to Catholic doctrine and tradition.

"We expect our teachers not to speak against traditional Catholic doctrine" and not to contradict it in their public lives, he said. "We are not going after them" in their private lives.

Regarding the handbook's emphasis on sexual morality, Piderit said it "simply reiterates standard Catholic teaching" that sexual intimacy "outside of marriage is not appropriate." He acknowledged that sexual mores "have definitely changed" in secular society but emphasized that the church should be allowed to stand up for what it believes and expect its employees to do the same. He used the analogy of an employee of Coca-Cola who wouldn't be permitted to carry a Pepsi can around the office and tout the values of Pepsi over Coke.

Critics of the handbook changes assert that the LGBT community is a particular target, something Piderit denied.

"We affirm that all gays should be respected and have the same rights as all our students," he said during the press conference. "Our issue is about educating young men and women not to engage in sexual intimacy in high school, after high school, or outside of marriage."

Jim McGarry*, a retired teacher who spent more than 25 years at St. Ignatius and Mercy San Francisco said he fears that gay students in the Catholic schools will "return to the closet" and see themselves as "freaks," an affront to "dignity that is unacceptable." 

At the same time, McGarry said he believes the vast majority of students "cannot and will not turn their backs" on their gay peers. Students are very aware of the violence to which their LGBT friends can be exposed, he said, and many "have seen gay friends of theirs beaten up."

The church needs to be "putting its arms around, providing extra layers of protection" for the gay community, not turning its backs on them as he feels the new handbook statements could encourage, he said.

"The archbishop is not providing church teaching; he is offering his interpretation of church teaching," McGarry said.  

Cordileone and other archdiocesan officials have stressed that teachers are not being required to sign a loyalty oath or a statement agreeing with the handbook language.

The 15 "affirm and believe" segments within the 2,000-word statement apply to the schools as institutions, "not [to] all individuals in the institutions," wrote the archbishop in a cover letter to teachers.

That does not reassure Enrique Mireles, a counselor and instructor at City College of San Francisco and former teacher at SHCP. Carrying a sign that read, "Respect and support our lay faculty, they too deserve social and spiritual justice," Mireles told NCR: "The Spirit moved me to come here today. I wanted to speak out for justice."

Some leaders in the public school teachers' union, United Educators of San Francisco, also attended the vigil.

Vigil organizers say there will be additional actions in the coming weeks.

*An earlier version of this story did not identify McGarry.

[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast correspondent. Her email address is mclark@ncronline.org. West Coast correspondent Dan Morris-Young contributed to this story.]

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