Release of new language for San Francisco teacher handbooks sparks protests

Students and supporters carry signs Friday as they walk toward Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory after a vigil outside of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
This article appears in the San Francisco faculty handbooks feature series. View the full series.

San Francisco — Students, parents, teachers, gay activists, media commentaries, and others have challenged San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone's assurances that new faculty handbook language for the four archdiocesan-administered high schools does not "introduce anything essentially new" or "target ... any teachers, singly or collectively."

However, some have lauded the archbishop for the 2,000-word handbook statement, "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church," and its focus on sexual morality and religious practice as well as its strong warning to "administrators, faculty and staff" to "arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny" church teaching.

The handbook statement and teacher labor contract language Cordileone seeks at those four schools were made public Feb. 3 during afternoon meetings between school administrators and their faculties.

That same day, Melanie Morey, the director of the archdiocese's new Office of Catholic Identity Assessment, emailed the text of the handbook language, a letter from Cordileone, and the three desired labor clauses to administrators of the 10 other Catholic high schools within the archdiocese in what she said was an informational courtesy.

In her email, Morey told the school officials that the documents "contain information that is critical to Catholic identity" and "lay out some of the beliefs a Catholic school claims when it chooses to operate as Catholic. It also explains the responsibilities of faculty and administrators in relation to those beliefs."

Immediately after the documents were released, opposition surfaced to Cordileone's handbook language and labor contract clauses, including a social media campaign launched by students, #teachacceptance, which also supports a petition promoted by Call to Action, "Discrimination and Fear Do Not Belong in Our Schools." The petition had received more than 5,400 signatures by Monday morning.

On Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page analysis on the issue and an editorial titled "Wrong city, wrong century."

The editorial conceded the archbishop's authority "to ensure that his rigid interpretation of church doctrine is taught," but criticized what it called "this attempt to silence teachers and other school employees."

The editorial called the handbook statement "an affront to the many practicing Catholics -- especially in this region -- who have issues with doctrine that would deny same-sex couples the right to marry or prevent families from employing modern medicine to experience the joy of parenthood or to prevent or terminate pregnancy."

Cordileone was the keynote speaker at a long-planned Friday in-service event under the auspices of the Department of Catholic Schools that was open to teachers from all 14 Catholic high schools. More than 350 people attended the event at San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP), two blocks from St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, where a 9:30 a.m. Mass was held for the educators prior to the assembly. Cordileone presided and was homilist.

SHCP is one of the four archdiocesan-operated high schools. The others are Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Junipero Serra in San Mateo, and Marin Catholic in Kentfield.

Archdiocesan security personnel did not permit people without convocation badges or other clearance into the cathedral for the liturgy. Several teachers entering the church declined to comment.

Braving driving rain, nearly 200 protesters, most of them students dressed in black as a statement of solidarity, staged a vigil and prayer service on the cathedral's plaza during the Mass.

Many protesters carried signs: " 'If a person is gay and seeks the Lord out of good will, who am I to judge?' -- Pope Francis"; "Inequality is the root of all evil"; and "Homosexuality is not a sin, intolerance is."

The protesters formed a two-block-long line from the cathedral's exit to the entrance of SHCP as teachers left the liturgy. Clearly moved by the show of support, many teachers thanked the protesters as they walked to the school.

Passing cars on busy Gough Street honked continually, and some people shouted support for the protesters out of their windows.

Elizabeth Purcell, an English teacher who has been at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco for 19 years, told NCR during the vigil that she was not representing her school but was participating "as a teacher in support of other Catholic school teachers."

"The language that the archbishop has laid out is unacceptable," she said. "It's exclusive. It's hateful. It denies everything we teach our students about inclusion. ... The kids at St. Ignatius are very upset. They're afraid it'll lead to indoctrination, not education."

Purcell is also one of the promoters of a statement opposing the archbishop's contractual and handbook initiatives. Backers were seeking signatures for the "open letter" and donations to run it as an advertisement in NCR.

Linda Swan, a mother to two SHCP alumni, said, "My brother is gay, so I know what it's like to feel like you're on the outside. I can't believe we're going back to the Stone Age, especially with this new pope."

Kathy Curran, who has one child at St. Ignatius and another at SHCP, said: "I sent my kids to Catholic school because of the strong academics, but also because I wanted them to have the best church foundation possible in charity, love and justice. This initiative pulls us away from that. I'm deeply saddened and profoundly troubled by the change in the teacher contracts and the handbook. I don't want the teachers to be put in a position of signing a contract they disagree with because they need a paycheck or health care."

SHCP junior Morgan Hood and St. Ignatius senior Jasmine Barnard summarized what many of the student protestors said.

"We have a lot of faculty and students who are part of the LGBQT community, and we don't want them to feel they're not welcome and supported," Hood said.

Barnard agreed. "A bunch of my friends are gay. I have an amazing teacher who changed my life, and she's gay."

Billy Bradford traveled from Castro Valley to join the protest. Holding a sign that says, "Cordileone denies gay families," he said, "I'm a gay father with a kid in college. I'm unhappy about what the archbishop's saying about my moral failings and how my family is not a family."

Nick Andrade, well-known for his board work and support for Catholic Charities CYO in the archdiocese as well as with various schools, also took part in the vigil.

Andrade told NCR he considers Cordileone a friend and has driven the archbishop to help serve at Wednesday evening meals sponsored by San Francisco's Most Holy Redeemer Parish. The parish website describes it as "a spiritual home to all: senior citizens and youth; single people and families; those who are straight, gay, lesbian, and transgendered; the healthy and the sick, particularly persons with HIV disease."

"We have had some good times talking" during the trips to and from the parish, Andrade said, although he said he has not had an opportunity to visit with Cordileone about the faculty handbook declarations.

What advice would he have given Cordileone?

"I would have asked him to be really cautious and ... most importantly to be concerned how it is going to affect other people especially within the gay and lesbian community," Andrade said.

"I understand and completely honor his beliefs ... and he will also tell me he honors my beliefs. He does not agree with them, and I do not agree with his. But the one thing about the Catholic church that is really nice is that we are allowed to agree and disagree."

"I have never felt him to be unwilling to listen or to consult and talk about issues," Andrade said. "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."

"He is surrounding himself with some people who, I think, are like-minded, and that is a difficulty," Andrade said. "I don't think he's getting other points of view."

In conversation following Cordileone's address to the teachers Friday morning, archdiocesan Catholic Identity Assessment director Morey underscored Cordileone's "deep integrity" and desire to help young people develop healthy, integrated spiritual and sexual lives.

Morey said hurting or diminishing gay people "is the last thing" Cordileone would want to do. 

SHCP graduate and chaplain Fr. Mark Doherty said he supports Cordileone's move.

Catholic school teachers, he told NCR in an email Saturday, "bear the responsibility -- at a bare minimum -- to conduct their professional and public lives, in both word and deed, in such a way as to not present a contrary witness. The new language to be introduced in the faculty handbook is meant to be an aide to faculty members. By clarifying what exactly the Church teaches on neuralgic points of human sexuality and religious practice, the new language ... can help faculty members direct the course of their professional and public conduct in such a way as to not flagrantly contradict the Church's stated mission."

"This is especially true in an age and region where the prevailing cultural trends promote an often-times harmful vision of spirituality and sexuality that hinders and threatens human flourishing," wrote Doherty, who is also parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish in San Francisco.

Another priest of the archdiocese, who asked not to be named, said he has deep reservations about the handbook language. He and others said Cordileone did not consult the archdiocesan priests' council or his consultors in development of the statement, and he had not provided them a heads-up of its content or pending release.

The priest said many of his clerical colleagues are "outraged."

"If I were asked to do a handbook," he said, "I would write, 'We believe and affirm the 16 documents of Vatican II, which are the supreme teaching authority of the church.' "

"This is a wonderful church in the archdiocese," Fr. David Ghiorso, pastor of St. Charles Parish in San Carlos, told NCR, "[but] I struggle with understanding what is transpiring. At the same time, I take the promise of obedience very seriously and to publicly challenge the decisions and actions of our leaders is not easy for me to do. It goes against so much of my priesthood. We can be so much better than what is happening presently in this local church."

In the wake of extensive news coverage about the handbook changes, Head of School Karen Hanrahan at Mercy High School in Burlingame sent a letter to parents clarifying that the school is "one of 10 high schools that are sponsored by religious orders and, therefore, considered independent."

"We understand that this is a challenging time for our colleagues in the four archdiocesan high schools and we hold them in our thoughts and prayers," the letter also said.

An independent Catholic high school official texted NCR on Saturday to say she was "still processing" the previous day's cathedral events and the issues involved.

"More than anything, I am saddened by Archbishop Cordileone's overall approach," she wrote. "It's Pharisaic to say the least -- and his comments about trying to be with the people are simply empty words."

"If he rented a room in [a poor neighborhood], got rid of his body guard, and started having real conversations with people, then he might build credibility," she said. "Cordileone will do much more damage if he continues in this trajectory. ... Imagine if he had started from the ground up and tried to have an impact on the culture by engaging in conversations with educators, students, and their parents. No -- this was about asserting his power and control, which is absolutely contrary to the message of Jesus."

San Francisco activist and blogger Michael Petrelis announced that a "kiss-in" protest of what he called Cordileone's "bigoted remarks and policies" would be held Feb. 21 outside the cathedral to coincide with the archdiocese's annual liturgy to honor married couples.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is Mandy Erickson, a freelance journalist based in San Francisco, contributed to this story.]

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