Teacher petition asks Cordileone to drop San Francisco faculty handbook statement

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

by Dan Morris-Young

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Four-fifths of the faculty and staff of the four high schools under jurisdiction of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone have signed a petition asking him to forgo his announced insertion into those schools' faculty handbooks and to leave the current handbook text in place.

Read into the minutes of Tuesday's San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting, the petition said signers "believe the recently proposed handbook language is harmful to our community and creates an atmosphere of mistrust and fear."

In all, 358 teachers and staff signed the grassroots petition over two days: 126 at Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco; 87 at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo**; 77 at Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco**; and "more than" 68 at Marin Catholic in Kentfield, according to a news release by the organizing group. The archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, reports that about 470 full and part-time teachers and staff are employed at those four schools, which enroll about 3,600 students.

The petition dovetailed with the supervisors' unanimous passing of a resolution at that meeting urging Cordileone to respect the rights of teachers and administrators, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Supervisor Mark Farrell, a Catholic, introduced the resolution. (Read it here.) Farrell "has previously said city officials are considering legal action to prevent what he described as Cordileone's discriminatory measures from going into effect," according to the Chronicle.

The petition and resolution are the latest reactions generated by the Feb. 3 release of "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church."

The 2,000-word explication crafted by Cordileone delineates areas of sexual morality and religious practice the archbishop said need increased clarity, emphasis and understanding by students, faculty, staff and administrators.

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

On Feb. 3, the archdiocese also made public texts of new clauses it asked to be included in the teacher labor contract currently under negotiation, including a call for all employees at the four schools to be considered "ministers."

Cordileone has since repeated willingness to reconsider use of the word "minister" after union officials, legal experts and others charged that the designation could severely weaken teachers' legal protections by making them appear to be part of church work, akin to ordained ministry.

Church teaching distilled in 15 "affirm and believe" clauses in the Cordileone document include condemnation of abortion, homosexual relations, same-sex marriage, artificial birth control, "artificial reproductive technology," women's ordination, pornography, masturbation and human cloning.

Many have criticized the focus on sexual topics and claimed 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," the teacher-and-staff petition said.

"Whenever you label something gravely evil, you are giving tacit permission to destroy," teacher Jim Jordan told NCR Wednesday.

He said he fears the language as proposed could be hurtful to students, especially at a "fragile" state in their lives. "To highlight it in this way is condemning and hateful."

One of "a dozen or so" employees of the four schools to develop the petition, he said its text was finalized Friday.

"The response was immediate and overwhelming," said Jordan, chair of the English department of one of the four schools, San Francisco's Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. "We had all of the signatures in two days."

"We actually feel that our school [SHCP] is closer to 95 percent," he said, noting that some supported the petition but "were afraid to put their names on it."

While Cordileone and archdiocesan officials have pointed out that the faculty handbook statement simply quoted the catechism and other church documents, on Feb. 24 the archbishop said he was establishing a committee of theology teachers from the four schools to review, expand and clarify the document.

Requests to archdiocesan officials for comment on the petition and city action had not been acknowledged as of Thursday.

Officials of San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers Local 2240, which represents full-time teachers at the four schools, have emphasized that the contract talks can address issues surrounding use of the word "minister," but that handbook language comes under the archbishop's purview.

The union represents "about 400 members," nearly all of them full-time teachers, union official Susan Woodall told NCR. The union does not represent other staff members who are part-time, maintenance or administrative, she said. The union was formed more than four decades ago.

The handbook text and "minister" discussions are interrelated, and "separating them can lead to half-truths," Jordan said, explaining why the ad hoc group of teachers and staff joined to field the petition.

The group includes teachers of math, science, English, history and others, he said.

"We did not do this behind the union's back, but in addition" to its work, he said, noting that the petition itself had been presented to a union representative for delivery to the archdiocese.

"This is a way bigger fight" than teacher contracts and handbook language, Jordan continued. "People in the local community want their church back."

Contention over the handbook has galvanized school personnel resolve, Jordan said.

"There is a sense of unity and community emerging that I have never experienced ... and some hope emerges from that, too."

The archbishop "has caused all of us to look deeply" and to ponder personal convictions, church teaching authority, and the catechism, he said. "If that was his goal, he is succeeding."

Jordan said he and other employees acknowledge the archbishop's authority to oversee handbook content as well as the teaching role of the catechism. "But the conversation needs to be more sensitive to the culture in which we live," and if the proposed statement "becomes the operative law of the land," it could diminish "the environment of our schools."

Jordan said he trusts "what the archbishop said about not wanting to fire anybody, but we need to say something ... to step up now."

Concerned Parents and Students: Teach Acceptance, a group formed Feb. 3, announced this week that it is co-sponsoring a March 16 forum on the handbook and teacher contract at the University of San Francisco's McLaren Conference Center.

The 7:30 p.m. event will include a panel discussion by parents and students from the four schools. Speakers will be Brian Cahill, former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities; Jim McGarry, a former long-time religious studies instructor; and Leslie Griffin, William F. Boyd professor of constitutional law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.*

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

*The original version of this story listed USF's Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership as a co-sponsor for the event, which is inaccurate.

**An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect location for these schools.

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