An End to Equivocation?
10/12/2012 5:21:00 PM -New Oxford Review

The word out West is that there's a new sheriff in town.

George Niederauer, archbishop of San Francisco since 2005, turned 75 last year, the mandatory retirement age for prelates, and is stepping down. Pope Benedict XVI didn't have to look far to find the man he wanted to replace Niederauer. He simply cast his gaze across the Bay and tapped Salvatore Cordileone, bishop of Oakland (the diocese out of which the NOR operates), for the job. Cordileone will be installed as the new archbishop of San Francisco on October 4.

The outgoing and incoming prelates present a stark contrast in character and style. Niederauer was an unknown quantity when he arrived, and he leaves pretty much the same way. Early in his tenure, we parsed an interview he gave to a local news-radio station and were left with no option but to describe him as "the most equivocal man in town" (New Oxford Note, May 2007). "It's almost impossible to get a handle on where he stands on the burning issues facing the Church today," we wrote.

Throughout his tenure, Niederauer consistently gave the impression that he was doing his darnedest to steer clear of controversy and confrontation. Perhaps in deference to the city's notoriously thin-skinned residents, he always seemed more anxious to avoid the spotlight than to seize opportunities to highlight the hard teachings of the Church. It could be said that he found - and stayed in - his comfort zone in this most liberal of liberal cities. That's not to say that Niederauer was thought of as a liberal. On the contrary, he was routinely described in the local media, somewhat curiously, as a "social conservative." That might be because, according to general attitudes around here, as expressed by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a widely circulated, independent weekly newspaper, "All the bishops appointed by this pope are conservatives" (July 27).

As observant Catholics will realize, the Bay Guardian's assessment, especially with regard to Archbishop Niederauer, is far from accurate. If he's a conservative, he's at best a reluctant conservative. Perhaps he would be better described as a slow-motion moderate. This became evident when controversy and confrontation eventually snuffed him out. Niederauer had his share of struggles: most infamous were his run-ins with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Most Holy Redeemer parish in the city's "gay district" (chronicled in our New Oxford Note "Archbishop Niederauer's Eucharistic Moment," Dec. 2007) and with Nancy Pelosi, then-speaker of the House of Representatives (chronicled in several issues, most recently in our New Oxford Note "Free Will & Freedom of Choice," Apr. 2010).

But now into the fray steps a man who leaves no doubt about where he stands on the burning issues facing the Church. Most notably, Cordileone has made his mark as an ardent defender of traditional marriage. As coadjutor in San Diego (his hometown) he was instrumental in the passing of Proposition 8, California's controversial 2008 ballot measure that restricts the definition of marriage to one man and one woman. Prop 8, which is still held up in the courts, was exceedingly unpopular in San Francisco, which is home to a large and loud gay population, and whose former mayor once legalized same-sex marriage within city limits.

Naturally, Cordileone's appointment has also proven to be exceedingly unpopular in San Francisco. And the local press has given voice to popular displeasure: He's been branded by the San Francisco Chronicle as not only "conservative" (July 27) but "extremely conservative" (Aug. 21). The editors of the San Francisco Examiner called him "a throwback to the Catholic Church's dark ages," and described his appointment as "a slap in the face of many city residents" (July 31). Not to be outdone, the aforementioned Bay Guardian called him "a genuine culture-warrior" (that's an insult in these parts) and "the worst archbishop ever" (no hyperbole intended).

Cordileone is going to have to live up to his name (which translates to "lionhearted") if he is going to hold his own in this hostile environment.

Predictably, the invective issuing forth from the secular media was echoed in the liberal Catholic media. As if taking a cue from the Bay Guardian, Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, branded Cordileone a "fundamentalist" and decried his "extraordinary efforts against marriage equality." (Marriage equality is the liberals' latest euphemism, on par with abortion rights.) Cordileone's appointment, Manson writes, is "downright combative" and provides "further, glaring evidence of the hierarchy's deepening descent into meanness, spitefulness and pastoral insensitivity" (Aug. 17). Well, at least she's not too shy to tell us where she stands. Manson writes as if Cordileone came to her house and kicked her cocker spaniel.

John L. Allen Jr., a respected Vatican correspondent and often the lone voice of reason at the increasingly shrill Reporter, noted that Cordileone's appointment is a "notable departure from the status quo" (Aug. 17). For all the furor over his marriage advocacy, Cordileone isn't a one-note song; there's more to him than his reputation admits. As Allen explains, he is a "devotee of the traditional Latin Mass." Indeed, your editor had the chance to meet Cordileone for the first time, shortly after he was installed in Oakland in 2009, after he presided over the anniversary Mass in honor of the establishment of the diocese's "indult" parish. Cordileone also has "a record of commitment to elements of the church's social teaching typically seen as more progressive, such as opposition to the death penalty and promotion of immigration reform." As to the latter, Cordileone is a fluent Spanish speaker and served for four years as pastor of a parish in the border town of Calexico, California. The danger and discrimination faced by Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, isn't something beyond his understanding. For such reasons, many of the thought-leaders in the City by the Bay are taking a wait-and-see approach to Cordileone's episcopacy - something Jamie Manson, for one, appears unwilling to do.

Perhaps it's best, therefore, to allow Bishop Cor­dileone to speak for himself. Shortly after his appointment was announced in late July, he appeared on the same radio station as Archbishop Niederauer. Jane Mc­Millan and Ed Cavagnaro hosted Bishop Cordileone on a recent episode of their half-hour program, KCBS In Depth. Cordileone was asked some pointed questions and was given the chance to expand on various topics, including:

Whether or not he's a conservative. Cordileone responded: "Certainly, by today's standards, I would be conservative on a number of issues, but as a Catholic, as a person of faith, I don't approach these issues from a political standpoint. It's not a political position that determines my thinking on these issues. It's the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what most affirms true human dignity and true justice. I've spoken often of affirming a consistent ethic of life.... Not all issues are the same; issues have different considerations. But if we confirm a consistent ethic of life, we're going to come down on different sides of the political spectrum."

The role of the Church in a secular society: "The United States is a secular country in the sense that there is not a state-endorsed religion, and people have the free exercise of religion. It's not secular in the sense - at least constitutionally - of secularism being the state religion. What I think is happening in the culture is precisely that: There's a secular orthodoxy that is becoming the religion of the society, which makes it difficult for those of us who adhere to a faith tradition that doesn't cohere with that to live our faith in the society. Faith, though, does have tremendous power to transform a society for the sake of justice and building up the common good."

The role of the Church in politics: "When we endorse policies and ballot propositions, issues that are coming up for a vote, we do so not out of self-interest. We do so out of what we think is going to build up justice, with a special regard for those who are the poorest, the most vulnerable, in society.... It's not like the Church stays out of politics - the Church stays out of partisan politics. It's the role of the lay faithful to be involved in partisan politics.... No one was complaining about the Church being involved in politics when the Church was advocating, lobbying for, being very active in obtaining civil rights back in the 50s and the 60s."

Immigration: "This is also a complex issue, although I think the basic principles are not all that complex. In fact, the bottom line, in my opinion, is the immigrants coming into this country are coming here to work. They need the jobs and we need the labor. That seems to me a pretty simple equation.... The first principles that we [the U.S. bishops] endorse is that people have a right to work in their homeland to be able to support their families. The second principle is they also have a right to immigrate when they have a justifiable need, such as needing to support their families, seeking employment. Nations do have a right to protect their borders, but that doesn't mean we should shut down the borders - people need to be welcomed who are immigrating. And the people who immigrate without proper documentation, still, their human dignity does not depend on their legal status. Their rights and their basic needs need to be supported as well."

Contraception: "That, obviously, is a huge challenge in the society that we're living in, and it's something people are very poorly educated about.... We have a lot of competition to educate our people around this issue. But again, the Church has a lot of wisdom to offer, and certainly as Catholics we believe that Jesus Christ founded the Church, and Jesus Christ founded the Church in order to keep us in the truth. Where are we going to look for the truth? Does it come through the Scriptures as they've been handed down through the Church, or [through] whatever the popular trends of society are? That would make me very nervous, if that's where we're looking for the truth. There is a lot of wisdom here. We need to do a much better job in educating our people around this, and I think if we did that effectively, they would see the wisdom of the Church's teaching."

Clerical sex abuse: "If accusations came up, we would follow the law, report it to the legal authorities, then take action - it wouldn't be removing [the accused priest] from active ministry, that's a canonical penalty, but it would be prohibiting him from exercising his ministry so he would still, for example, remain in the office as the pastor but he would not be able to exercise any ministry until a determination is made as to his guilt or innocence."

Women's ordination: "With our theology of priesthood, that would be impossible because it's a sacramental understanding.... The sacramental principle is made visible through the physical.... The priest acts - the technical phrase we use in theology is 'in the person of Christ.' He is acting sacramentally in the person of Christ, making His sacrifice present on the altar. Only a man can be the sacramental presentation of Christ, who is also the Bridegroom of the Church. The Church is the Bride, the Church is the female principle. Christ as the male principle is the One who gives the seed of life to the Church so that the Church, receiving His seed, which is the blood He shed on the cross - and then from His wounded side there flowed blood and water, representing the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist - that give life to the Church. The grace of the sacrament and the truth of His teaching: this is the seed of life that Christ gives to the Church so that the Church, through the sacraments and especially baptism, can generate new life for God's Kingdom and nurture that new life with His teachings and the grace of the sacraments.... If we have this theology of orders and our theology about the Church, then we'd understand only a man can be a priest because Christ is the Bridegroom, the male principle; the Church is the female principle. If it is just a matter of conducting services for the people, yeah, there are lots of women who would do that very well.... But if there's this deeper sacramental reality that is going on, then it can only be a man."

But what everybody wanted to hear about are his views on marriage.

Cavagnaro: "You are a very big outspoken opponent of gay marriage.... Was the Vatican by your appointment sending a message that issues such as gay marriage aren't to be glossed over or compromised in any way?"

Cordileone: "I don't define myself by what I'm against. It's because of what I'm for [that] naturally I'm against some things, as anyone is.... My position is preserving the traditional definition of marriage in the law. It's not a question of extending rights of marriage. It's a question about what is going to be our definition of marriage. It's because of that - preserving that definition - that, yes, I would be opposed to gay marriage, as I would be opposed to legalizing polygamy, polyandry, poly­amorous marriages. There's no reason why we have to limit the number of parties to a marriage to two if we're going to redefine it....

"Whether or not the Vatican is sending a message, no one has said that to me, so I can't say with any certainty. But if we look at the statements of Pope Benedict, and conferences of bishops throughout the world, we do recognize this as one of the very critical issues that are facing us right now. And it's an issue that really determines the direction of civilization and the viability, even, of civilization. So it is recognized as a priority issue. So I suppose we could affirm that there is a statement being made, but I couldn't say that with certainty."

Cavagnaro: "To what extent can Catholics disagree with what you are saying and still be considered good Catholics and take the sacraments?"

Cordileone: "Some issues are defined as matters of faith or matters pertaining to the natural moral law, such as marriage, that all Catholics are bound to in conscience. Other matters, such as the immigration matter, are basic principles that Catholics must accept, especially revolving around the human dignity of immigrants. In terms of what an actual policy should look like, as long as it doesn't deny one of those principles, Catholics can have differences of opinion. But a matter of something that's clear from the natural moral law, yes, Catholics must believe that in order to be properly disposed to receiving the sacrament."

Cavagnaro: "And that would include gay marriage?"

Cordileone: "That would include the marriage teaching, yes."

While Archbishop Niederauer dodged the hard questions and offered vague and inconsistent replies, Bishop Cordileone was, for the most part, clear, forthright, and direct - a breath of fresh air and, yes, a break from the status quo. Yet it's precisely Cordileone's forthrightness that could cause him untold troubles in his new position. That shouldn't, however, be a deterrent to a "culture-warrior" like Cordileone.

John Allen summed up the situation: "In the teeth of a perceived war on religion in America, the church is sending clear signals that it has no intention of backing down," and Cordileone's appointment is "the latest example." To their credit, the editors of the Reporter write that "NCR does not believe the church should 'back down.' The church's involvement in the public square is vital.... The question is whether the 'culture-warrior' model...is the right model for such involvement" (Aug. 17). We at the NOR believe it is. Ultimately, the answer will be provided by Archbishop Cordileone himself in his new role as the defender of the faith in the See of San Francisco.


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