Educational Renewal

EDITORIAL: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has challenged the status quo — in this case, the curriculum and hiring practices of the Catholic schools in his archdiocese

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This spring, after Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco sparked protests by proposing that all teachers contractually agree to adhere to Catholic teaching on faith and morals, a local columnist accused him of purposely “courting controversy.”

“He attended rallies against same-sex marriage unapologetically [and] imposed ‘morality classes’ on teachers at local Catholic schools,” noted C.W. Nevius in an April 16 San Francisco Chronicle column, which further asserted that the archbishop had already lost a fight he had started for no good reason.

The columnist was wrong on two counts: First, the archbishop has repeatedly stated that he had no intention of needlessly stirring up trouble that could weaken the four Catholic high schools under his jurisdiction. Rather, he sought to strengthen the religious character of the schools, in part, by asking teachers to embrace the countercultural truths of the faith and avoid public statements or actions that could undermine their role in the classroom. Second, the archbishop certainly has not lost the battle to make the high schools strongly Catholic. On Aug. 19, as noted in our story on page 3, teachers at the high schools ratified the contract after Archbishop Cordileone agreed to a number of concessions, including the removal of language that designated teachers as “ministers.” However, the contract preamble clearly states, “Teachers are expected to support the purpose of our Catholic schools in such a way that their personal conduct will not adversely impact their ability to teach in our Catholic high schools.” Teachers who might face disciplinary action or termination will be “subject to the grievance procedure.”

The 90-80 vote to approve the contract was close, and some of the archbishop’s allies fear there could be trouble ahead, with some partisan groups seeking to make an example of a Church leader who has directed high-school teachers to clearly present the unfashionable precepts of Catholic sexual ethics at a time when sexual rights are on a collision course with religious-liberty protections.

During an Aug. 17 interview with the Register, Archbishop Cordileone acknowledged that it would have been better to get more feedback from school leaders before launching his initiative. However, it is also worth noting that what the archbishop viewed as a straightforward effort to clarify doctrine and set basic guidelines for teachers’ off-campus behavior actually produced a case study on the confused state of 21st-century Catholic education.

Critics who also attacked a new faculty handbook asserted that children and teachers could be damaged or marginalized by an articulation of Church teaching that considers masturbation, in vitro fertilization, pornography, contraception and homosexual relations objectively disordered.

Local media coverage echoed these allegations and generally presented the archbishop as an outlier who belonged in the Dark Ages. But in a city that celebrates the necessary “disruption” wrought by tech companies, like Uber — the popular ride-sharing company that has swept aside once-dominant taxi services and improved price and accessibility to the public, while stirring up controversy along the way — the archbishop’s critics failed to grasp the bigger picture.

Archbishop Cordileone has challenged the status quo — in this case, the curriculum and hiring practices of the Catholic schools in his archdiocese. Judging by the protests led by teachers, parents and students, his actions appear to threaten those who embrace a different model of Catholic education. In this model, social justice and service to the needy are emphasized. But religious teachings that conflict with the cultural values of a politically progressive city are ignored or even attacked. In more diplomatic language, the archbishop referenced this discrepancy in his communications to teachers that introduced the controversial documents.

Archbishop Cordileone likely had a number of reasons for wanting to bolster the Catholic identity of the four high schools. As our story notes, dioceses emphasize the religious mission of Catholic education in teacher contracts and job descriptions to protect Church-affiliated schools from litigation. The original language that Archbishop Cordileone proposed for the teacher contracts offered a strong affirmation of the schools’ religious mission. “[The] Archdiocese and its high-school system affirm and proclaim and exist for no purpose other than to affirm and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as held and taught by the Catholic Church,” read the initial iteration of proposed contract language that was removed from the final version approved by the teachers’ union. Additional language that cited Pope Francis’ 2013 address to teachers at Jesuit schools in Italy and Albania was also taken out. In that speech, the Pope reminded faculty assembled before him that they “pass on knowledge by their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, by their consistent way of life. Without consistency, it is impossible to educate!”

But in San Francisco, the attempt to strengthen the religious character of the four schools antagonized, rather than reassured, a significant portion of the school communities. The Archdiocese of San Francisco, of course, is not the only local Church to struggle with dueling visions of Catholic education. Across the country, diocesan school systems and independent Catholic schools offer a mix of approaches, with varying outcomes.

But national trends offer worrying signs that many young Catholics have a weak understanding of their faith that quickly crumbles when it is tested in college and adulthood. One measure of the declining state of Catholic education is the shrinking number of couples marrying in the Church. This year, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported the lowest number of sacramental marriages since 1965. The World Meeting of Families and the upcoming ordinary synod will address a range of issues that contribute to the declining level of religious affiliation among younger Catholics and fuel confusion about the primary mission of Catholic education.

For now, it is simply worth noting that, far from representing hidebound institutional values that resist necessary change, Archbishop Cordileone is a reformist who wants to revitalize his high schools. After a tough start, we hope his critics in the four Catholic high schools will rethink their reflexive opposition to change.