A True Shepherd

EDITORIAL: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone responded to the death of political adversary Dianne Feinstein with charity and graciousness, as befits all Catholics.

Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks with St. John Paul II in San Francisco, Calif., in 1978.
Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks with St. John Paul II in San Francisco, Calif., in 1978. (photo: Courtesy photo / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

When longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein died on Sept. 29, one of the more remarkable tributes paid to her came from a surprising source: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

Feinstein, of course, was the ardently pro-abortion senator who in 2017 famously remarked to Amy Coney Barrett, then a nominee for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, that the “the dogma lives loudly within you.” She was referring, and none too kindly, to Barrett’s devotion to her Catholic faith and to her adherence to what that faith teaches about the sanctity of human life.

And Archbishop Cordileone, as we know, is the Catholic prelate who cared enough about the immortal soul of one of his flock — U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi — to accept the scorn he knew would come, even from within the Church, by publicly instructing her last year not to present herself for Communion in the San Francisco Archdiocese until she repudiated her advocacy of abortion and confessed and received absolution “of this grave sin” in the sacrament of penance.

Considering this, one would have thought the archbishop simply would have offered his prayers for Feinstein and her family and made a few perfunctory remarks in recognition of Feinstein’s long career in public service.

In fact, his statement, which is posted in full here, begins just this way.

“As our state and nation mourn the passing of Senator Dianne Feinstein,” he writes, “I would like to express the sympathy of the Catholic community of San Francisco and assure her family of our prayers for her and for them.”

He might have ended there. Instead, he continued for another 391 words.

“The senator was an alumna of the Convent of the Sacred Heart,” the archbishop goes on, “and from those formative years she forged deep and abiding friendships with many Catholics. Tragic circumstances placed her at the helm of San Francisco in a time of great turmoil and anger. During her tenure as mayor, she had to face many challenges, and I am told by those who lived here in those days that she met them with courage, compassion, and poise.”

In 1978, Feinstein was 45 years old and stuck in the rather unglamorous role of president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the city-county legislature. She had run for mayor twice, losing both times. And she’d survived an assassination attempt: A bomb, which mercifully didn’t explode, had been planted at her home, allegedly by members of the New World Liberation Front. The New York Times recounts what happened next:

“On Nov. 27, 1978, at the end of her tether, Ms. Feinstein told City Hall reporters that she intended to quit political life. Two hours later, shots exploded down the hall from her office. She ran toward the gunfire and, moments later, knelt beside a dying Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor. Mr. [George] Moscone [the mayor] and Mr. Milk had been killed by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor, who was quickly captured and eventually imprisoned.” 

Feinstein wound up as the city’s next mayor, which put her on a trajectory for higher office.

The archbishop goes on to share a personal story.

“She valued the contribution religious communities could make to the welfare of our city. I discovered that personally myself shortly after my arrival here in San Francisco as the Archbishop,” he writes. “Our Catholic Charities Agency had been running a home for homeless new mothers for which it was struggling to find the resources to keep open. I met with the Senator in her local office, and she immediately took an interest in the project, even going there to visit it personally herself. She helped us, even personally, come up with the funds to keep the program open.”

The anecdote speaks well of Feinstein, of course. But it also serves as a reminder of the importance of civility and mutual respect in public discourse despite critical differences, something that has all but vanished from our ever-coarsening culture today.

The story also illustrates the kind of church-state collaboration that in the past was so fruitful and beneficial to the common good of our country — and still can be today. Outreach to immigrants, education, prison ministry and Catholic health care offer some examples.

Most of all, though, the story tells us something about the heart of its author, a true shepherd.

As children, we probably all heard the maxim that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. Few of us realized at the time how scriptural that advice is (Colossians 4:6). How hard it is to live those words, though, especially when someone has angered or offended us!

Leading by example, Archbishop Cordileone shows us a different way; a very Catholic way: responding with charity and graciousness.

This is powerfully brought home by the ending of his tribute to Feinstein. Please remember, he was under no obligation to say any of this.

“While her politics did not always align with policies we believe best serve the common good, my experience demonstrated a trait she exhibited that we sorely need in our own time: courtesy. And this was demonstrated by her even in small acts of thoughtfulness,” he writes. He goes on to give an account he had heard from an eyewitness. “It was in 1987, when Pope St. John Paul II visited San Francisco and met with people suffering from AIDS at Mission Dolores,” the archbishop recounts. “There were other sick people present as well, and among them was a highly respected priest, Msgr. Donnell Walsh. He could not walk and attended in a wheelchair. After the gathering, Msgr. Walsh was brought out the side entrance of the basilica and was waiting by the curb for his ride. The sun had set and a chilly breeze had come up. Mayor Feinstein emerged from the church, and seeing the priest shivering in his wheelchair, greeted him kindly, removed her overcoat, and placed it on him.”

“Such a simple act of charity and thoughtfulness, and it was unnoticed by nearly everyone!” the archbishop concludes. “From what I have heard from her friends, this was the character of Dianne Feinstein. May she rest in God’s peace.”

I encourage you to reflect on Archbishop Cordileone’s words and say a prayer for the soul of Dianne Feinstein. 

And the next time the opportunity presents itself to respond to an opponent’s misfortune with scorn or sarcasm, remember that they’re a child of God — and that you’re a Catholic — and take the higher road. 

Shannon Mullen is the Register’s editor-in-chief.