SAN FRANCISCO — Five years ago, he launched a statewide campaign to defend traditional marriage in California, securing the passage of Proposition 8 against daunting odds.
Now, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., will succeed Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, assuming a prominent role in a city that is seen as a major center of the homosexual-rights movement.
During an era of more aggressive advocacy for same-sex “marriage,” the striking appointment will yield unpredictable, possibly explosive consequences for both the local Church and the U.S. bishops’ national effort to defend traditional marriage and religious freedom against a hostile, increasingly secular current.
The Archdiocese of San Francisco incorporates approximately 1.7 million people. There are almost a half million Catholics in the archdiocese, with 416 priests, 90 deacons and 675 women religious. Its 91 parishes stretch from Marin County, north of the city, down to San Mateo, which incorporates Silicon Valley towns like Menlo Park, home to Facebook.
Reportedly, an estimated 15% of San Francisco residents identify themselves as same-sex-attracted.
Announced on July 27 by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the U.S. apostolic nuncio, the appointment offered a dramatic contrast to other breaking news that signaled growing political traction for same-sex “marriage.”
This past week, Democratic Party leaders have promised to incorporate same-sex “marriage” into their party platform, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, pledged to commit more than $2 million to the “marriage equality” campaign in the state of Washington.
Meanwhile, the Christian owner of Chick-fil-A, an Atlanta-based fast-food franchise that has locations across the country, has been publicly attacked by several Democratic politicians for expressing his personal support for traditional marriage.
In the wake of headlines marking his appointment, San Francisco’s new Catholic leader sought to tamp down the impression that he was prepared for combat. Instead, he expressed his resolve to minister to all Catholics, irrespective of sexual orientation.
But during an interview with the Register, Archbishop-designate Cordileone did not discount the challenges faced by any Catholic leader or lay activist who defends traditional marriage in the public square.
“People need to understand that if they want to live by the principle that marriage is between a man and a woman, they are likely to be regarded as bigots and treated by society and the law as such,” he said, predicting that Catholic schools that uphold Church teaching on marriage could one day lose their licenses.
Yet he also viewed hostility to traditional marriage and its defenders as a “sign of how much pain there is in our society. When people react so violently--not physically, but emotionally, it shows that we have a lot of healing to do.”
“But we won’t be able to heal the society if we don’t let children grow up with a mother and a father,” he added.
That kind of straight talk has prompted at least one local critic to announce plans to begin picketing the Oakland cathedral immediately. And San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption may well attract demonstrators when the archdiocese’s ninth archbishop is installed on Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.
Indeed, while Archbishop-designate Cordileone insists that his new appointment “took him by surprise,” it now seems almost inevitable that he would have been on the short list for the San Francisco post. Once the destination for the “summer of love” during the 1960s, the city has been shaped by almost five decades of social transformation, leading many of its denizens to view traditional Christian values as more distinctively “countercultural” than “hippie” values of the past.
In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has made a series of bold appointments, moving unapologetic defenders of Church teaching to key positions in New York (Cardinal Timothy Dolan), Los Angeles (Archbishop José Gomez), Philadelphia (Archbishop Charles Chaput) and Baltimore (Archbishop William Lori).
As the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Defense of Marriage, Archbishop-designate Cordileone has sought to shore up support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), now under assault by the Obama administration, which formally stated that it would no longer defend the federal law. Legal challenges to DOMA are expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
But the bishops’ conference has been equally concerned about the impact of legal same-sex “marriage” and civil unions and related non-discrimination statutes in states or localities like San Francisco, where Catholic adoption and foster-care services have been forced to close.
“Archbishop Cordileone has been a great ally in the struggle for religious freedom. He saw immediately the implications for religious liberty of legalizing same-sex ‘marriage,’” Archbishop Lori told the Register.
As the push to redefine marriage continues, “The focus has to be on children and young people. We have to look at marriage not only in terms of adult feelings, but we have to look at marriage and the family in terms of providing safe, loving and stable homes for our children,” said Archbishop Lori, who is working with an alliance of Maryland churches to defeat same-sex “marriage” in the state in the November election.
During the battle to secure Proposition 8 and in his ongoing public statements regarding the importance of traditional marriage, Archbishop-designate Cordileone has echoed this message, arguing that the defense of this central social institution is a matter of justice. “Out of justice for children, we need to do the best that we can to help them grow up with their mother and their father, married to each other in a stable relationship.”
While the media tends to present Catholic witness in the public square as a choice between “conservative” moral values and “liberal” social-justice activism, Bishop Cordileone and other like-minded Catholic leaders refuse to make such distinctions. Thus, he chooses to present the fight for traditional marriage as a matter of social justice, because it serves the needs of children.
Following the passage of Prop. 8, the constitutionality of the ballot measure was soon challenged in court. Most recently, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the measure unconstitutional because it "works meaningful harm to gays and lesbians.”
On July 31, supporters of Prop. 8 asked the Supreme Court to allow the law to take effect; the high court is expected to respond soon to that request.
‘He Is Solid’
Born in San Diego in 1956 and ordained there in 1982, Father Salvatore Cordileone pursued advanced studies in both California and Rome. He is fluent in Spanish.
He was named an auxiliary bishop of San Diego in 2002, and, six years later, after the passage of Proposition 8, he was appointed to lead the Oakland Diocese, bringing him within striking distance of San Francisco.
“The Vatican rewarded his courage,” noted Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organization for Marriage, who worked closely on the Proposition 8 campaign. She said the bishop was the person most “responsible” for the groundbreaking political upset.
But his rapid ascent as a U.S. Catholic leader, she suggested, was not a function of the kind of big charismatic personality that has marked the rise of some high-profile bishops.
“There is some quality within him that makes people willing to die by his side. He generates an enormous amount of confidence and warmth. People trust him. His is not authoritarian; he is solid,” she said.
“Archbishop-designate Cordileone is unique in his willingness to become actively engaged with the laity, supporting them in their unique role for the just ordering of society,” said Bill May, president of Catholics for the Common Good, a national apostolate for the evangelization of culture in San Francisco.
“He is consistent in advocating protection for the dignity of the human person, whether the unborn, the immigrant or the rights of children by promoting marriage, the only institution that unites them with their moms and dads.”
May recalled that when he accepted the invitation of the California Catholic Conference to lead the Catholic part of the Prop. 8 campaign, he met with Bishop Cordileone and asked if there was any message he would like him to communicate to Catholics while traveling through the state.
“Without hesitation, he said, ‘Yes.’ Waiting for wisdom about the importance of marriage, he responded, ‘Ask them to go to confession.’ Tears welled up in my eyes,” May said.
Charles LiMandri, the executive director of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and a longtime friend from San Diego, recalled the bishop’s strong spiritual leadership during the grueling Proposition 8 campaign and beyond. He remembers the bishop’s ability to anticipate events and his great stamina for engaging in the daily demands of such a campaign, beyond his responsibilities as an auxiliary bishop.
LiMandri still recalls Bishop Cordileone praying over 150 Protestant pastors, allies in the Prop. 8 battle, and, on another occasion, leading a two-mile Eucharistic procession in the southern California heat.
In the Diocese of Oakland, that remarkable stamina will be sorely missed.
“He had just begun to lay the foundation for more significant work,” noted Father George Mockel, vicar general of the Diocese of Oakland and moderator of the Curia, who also described the archbishop-designate as a “person of energy … who is not only spiritually strong, but physically strong.”
Now, that physical drive and gift for inspiring confidence and loyalty will be tested, as he sets his priorities for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
“We need to ramp up catechesis. We need to do a better job of faith formation, so that Catholics develop the virtue they need to live the teaching of the Church,” he said in an interview with the Register
If the lay faithful are to fulfill their obligation to transform the culture with the Gospel, they “need to be informed of the issues and the principles underlying the issues. They need to be advocates and learn how to articulate the truth, because so many people misinterpret it as harmful,” he added.
As he moves to strengthen catechesis, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and school programs, however, there is likely to be considerable resistance from some of his flock.
Recently, his efforts to clarify the policies of the Oakland-based Catholic Association for Gay and Lesbian (CALGM) ministries, underscored his insistence that the national organization confirm its adherence to Catholic sexual ethics. During his interview with the Register, Archbishop-designate Cordileone said he would not discuss the issue until his discussion with the group had been concluded.
A resolution to that particular conflict will invite a great deal more scrutiny than it would have before his appointment. Indeed, as the Chick-Fil-A controversy suggested, opponents of "marriage equality" could be stigmatized for their views, and Archbishop Cordileone may have trouble gathering local allies.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat cast a spotlight on the emerging tactics of the "marriage equality" movement in a July 31 post:
“No cause could move so swiftly from the margins to the mainstream if it didn’t have appealing arguments supporting it and powerful winds at its back. But it has also advanced, and will probably continue to advance, through social pressure, ideological enforcement, and legal restriction."
This movement, Douthat suggested, was not the first to employ social and legal pressure to achieve a desired political outcome. Then he offered a blunt assessment of the attacks on the owner of a fast food empire: "the gay marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologizing them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage.”
But the city’s next archbishop appears to be undaunted by the pressure, and even hostility, he will likely face after his installation in October.
He will serve as a shepherd to all, he said, but left no doubt that he would stand his ground on marriage.
“If we don’t save marriage, things will get very dark. The idea that you can change the definition of marriage is a lie. If our society accepts this lie, it will fall,” he stated.
That said, he offered one further prediction: “Marriage will ultimately triumph,” because it is a “social and religious institution based on nature. But we don’t know how long” the campaign to redefine marriage “will perdure — or how much damage it will do.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.