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The Archbishop of No

Monica Campbell | January 30, 2013 | Story Profiles

On an overcast morning last October, Salvatore Cordileone took the altar in front of a handpicked crowd of cardinals, bishops, priests, and some 2,500 other invitees packed into St. Mary’s Cathedral. They had assembled here to witness the installation of San Francisco’s new archbishop, whose selection had incited a noisy scrum outside the church, with hymn-singing supporters pushing up against several dozen chanting protesters. Inside, Cordileone draped in a golden cape with red trim and wearing a shimmery miter, nodded at acquaintances with a shy smile. But when he leaned forward to offer his first homily to the city, his confidence and his message were clear.

“‘Francis, rebuild my house,’” he began. “These words, which our Lord spoke to St. Francis from the cross in the church of San Damiano, are certainly well known to us.” Cordileone referred to a time of spiritual weakness among the faithful, when a crucified Jesus appeared in a vision to Francis of Assisi and commanded the future patron saint of San Francisco to repair his crumbling country church. “And repair that little dilapidated structure he did, zealously and within a short time. He did not build a new one, but he repaired an old one; he did not tear out the foundation, but he built upon it.”

The metaphor was an apt one. To Cordileone, along with many other local clergy members, and certainly to Pope Benedict XVI’s Vatican, there is much to repair in the city of St. Francis. The local diocese finds itself further and further removed from the community’s values. In contrast to previous eras, when church leaders would lock arms with civil rights activists and provide voices of comfort and strength during times of national uncertainty, Catholic clergymen in the Bay Area and elsewhere now find themselves on the losing side of a cultural war. Even within the church, there is growing support for same-sex marriage, gay-friendly parishes, gay adoption services, and what Cordileone has lamented as America’s “contraceptive mentality.”

Nowhere are the cracks more visible than in San Francisco, once a stronghold of Catholic life but now a teetering citadel, a 21st-century San Damiano. To bolster and defend the diocese, the Vatican has turned to Cordileone, a choice that represents not a concession to a changing world order, but a doubling down on church orthodoxy. While there are differing opinions about the man whom friends and allies call Bishop Sal, there is no question about his conservative convictions. While a bishop in San Diego five years ago, Cordileone earned the sobriquet “Godfather of Proposition 8” as a leading proponent, strategist, and fundraiser for the 2008 anti-gay marriage amendment that next month will be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. In promoting him last fall from his previous post as the bishop of Oakland, the Vatican has sent its clearest message yet that it won’t bow to reformist pressure. After all, what more symbolic place to install an uncompromising hard-liner than Baghdad-by-the-Bay, a city adrift?

“What were people expecting?” Cordileone asks me when we meet in his chambers just weeks after his installation. We are sitting at a small, polished wood table in his sparsely decorated office on the fourth floor of the archdiocese headquarters, St. Mary’s Cathedral clearly visible across Geary Boulevard. Neat and formal in a black suit and Roman collar, Cordileone is polite and at ease under questioning. On his right hand he wears the church’s equivalent of a Super Bowl ring: the episcopal large gold band, set with an oval amethyst, symbolizing the archbishop’s role as a servant of God. To my left sits George Wesolek, the archdiocese’s director of communications, who will monitor the interview, mindful that his new boss hasn’t always had a warm relationship with the media.

While Catholic moderates and the press may view Cordileone as a hard case, it’s easy to see why conservatives consider him a kindred spirit. He owns his message, and he does not equivocate, occasionally expressing indignation that so many others can’t accept what he sees so clearly. “The teaching authority comes from Christ and the gospel,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we simply go with the latest idea floating through society.” On abortion, he has no question that society is letting women down. The solution to an unwanted pregnancy isn’t to “snuff that life out,” he says, slapping his hand on the table. “It’s not only a violation of that life, it’s also a violation of that woman.” And with gay marriage, there is no gray area, no place for so-called cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing which doctrines suit them. He scoffs at the idea of flexibility. As the Pope stressed in his Christmas message in December, gay marriage is an “attack” on family and the “very notion of...what being human really means.” Cordileone couldn’t agree more.

To Catholic scholars, the archbishop’s rise appears preordained. “He knows canon law, proved himself on the marriage issue, and speaks Spanish, so he can work with Hispanics. He’s a trifecta of the type of qualities the Vatican is looking for now,” says Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. That Cordileone’s new flock inhabits some of the most liberal turf in the country—encompassing San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties, home to some 500,000 Catholics, 96 parishes, and more than 400 priests—is of little concern to him. His appointment follows the trend, which Pope John Paul II started and Pope Benedict XVI continues, of placing conservative clergymen—“the Tea Party of American bishops,” according to Father James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College—in key U.S. cities. And in choosing Cordileone, the Vatican opted for youth as well. At 56, he is the second youngest archbishop in the United States, with nearly two decades left until he reaches the retirement age of 75.

Cordileone’s fundamentals are so strong that thus far even his stumbles are being overlooked. In August, just after being named archbishop, he was arrested in San Diego for drunk driving while taking his 88-year-old mother home after dinner. He alluded to the incident during that first homily in October, saying, “God has always had a way of putting me in my place.... I would say, though, with the latest episode of my life, God has outdone himself.” He chuckled and moved on.

Now that media coverage of the arrest has faded, Cordileone can turn to the fight that will define his era as San Francisco’s Catholic general. He leads the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, making him the church’s go-to guy in battling the cresting gay marriage tide. When I ask Cordileone to explain his opposition to gay marriage, he mentions a touchstone book: Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. In it, John Paul defends traditional marriage, saying that “love between man and woman cannot be built without sacrifices and self-denial.” The book, Cordileone says, sets the “groundwork for theology, for interpreting revelations through the way our bodies are designed.”

Everything connects to this notion that our bodies are the hardware of procreation and that marriage is the mechanic’s shop. Misuse sexuality and “we’re going to suffer the consequences,” Cordileone says. His opposition to gay marriage, he insists, is not about impinging on gay rights—it’s about children’s welfare, a rationale that echoes current Vatican messaging. Moreover, to Cordileone, it’s a matter of plain justice. Same-sex marriage, he says, threatens religious liberty—an individual’s right to shun public policies that violate his or her faith. That includes the pharmacist who refuses to dispense contraception, the Christian student group that prohibits members of other religions from joining, and the Catholic adoption nonprofit that won’t serve gay couples. “I think the church has to be the conscience for society,” he says. “I think we have not just a right but a responsibility to critique policies where they are unjust.” Or, his critics might note, to create policies that are equally unjust when the opportunity arises.

Religion came easily to Cordileone. Born in San Diego to Sicilian-immigrant parents, he moved swiftly through the sacraments as a child. He would curl up with the Bible, keeping it a secret from friends “because little boys aren’t supposed to like that kind of thing.” Still, the priesthood wasn’t his first dream. Inspired by his father, a World War II veteran, he saw himself instead as a navy officer. But Cordileone is color-blind, which would have complicated a military career. Plus, during his first year at San Diego State University, he made a connection with a local parish priest with whom he discussed “the bigger questions in life, what we are really here for.” He remembers, “I wanted my life to make a difference. I didn’t want to make a lot of money and have a lot of fun.”

Intrigued, Cordileone accepted an invitation to attend a seminary retreat in San Diego. “They were a good bunch of guys,” he says. “I fit in.” He transferred to the University of San Diego, studied philosophy, and entered the seminary. Next came a back-and-forth journey, with more than a decade of study and work in Rome and pastoring in Southern California. In Rome, he plunged deep into doctrine, spending seven years as an assistant at the Vatican’s highest court and becoming a protégé of now-cardinal Raymond Burke, who is considered a Holy See kingmaker. After that, Cordileone was called back to San Diego and became the city’s auxiliary bishop. There, he would make his reputation.

The Prop. 8 campaign, started by conservative Catholics in San Diego to protect “traditional” marriage, resonated with Cordileone. Gay marriage represented a grave threat to the theologically conservative worldview he had honed in Rome. “He got why people were getting behind this campaign, why something accepted for hundreds of years—that marriage is unique to a man and a woman—is now suddenly controversial,” says Frank Schubert, who helped mastermind Prop. 8 and is a leading conservative strategist on marriage. “He was even-keeled, loving, and able to reach people at a much deeper level than any of the other political folks.”

Cordileone joined the California bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty and attended numerous Prop. 8 fundraising events at private homes in Orange County. Schubert recalls a moment late in the Prop. 8 campaign when funds ran low and he was forced to email a last-ditch appeal for cash, with “Code Blue for Marriage” in the subject line. Cordileone responded to this call to action with a campaign-saving $1 million donation from a single supporter, one among a cross section of deep-pocketed allies—Protestant pastors, evangelical leaders, Mormon bishops—in Cordileone’s expanding Rolodex. “It’s entirely possible that Prop. 8 wouldn’t have made the ballot without him,” says Schubert.

The Prop. 8 brain trust remains a tight-knit group and continues to dictate the anti–gay marriage agenda. Besides Schubert and Cordileone, it includes Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage (Cordileone is godfather to one of Brown’s sons), and Charles LiMandri, a San Diego County lawyer who heads the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and knows Cordileone from college. In making his and Cordileone’s case against same-sex marriage, LiMandri has referred to studies funded by ultraconservative groups such as New Jersey’s Witherspoon Institute and the Washington, D.C.–based Family Research Council. Their websites feature nonclinical reports that promote grim views on gays, linking them to pedophilia. A more well-known study surfaced last year, “The New Family Structures Study,” by Mark Regnerus, a young, goateed University of Texas sociologist who concluded that children of gay parents live bleaker lives and end up on welfare more often than children of straight couples. After a chorus of academics called the study’s first paper junk science, the journal that published it, Social Science Research, ran an internal audit and also found it bunk. Cordileone, however, has pointed to Regnerus’s paper as reinforcing what is already known: “Children do best with a mother and a father,” he told the Catholic News Agency. “Only one definition of marriage can stand.” In the Bay Area, Cordileone doesn’t represent a radical theological departure from his predecessors. He succeeds retiring George Niederauer, who was also heavily involved with Prop. 8, and William Levada, who retired this year after rising to head Rome’s powerful doctrine office (a post once held by Pope Benedict XVI himself). Like Niederauer, Levada, who served in San Francisco from 1995 to 2005, was a behind-the-scenes operator. But he also earned detractors as accusations swirled that he systematically protected sexually abusive clergy members. Though Levada later campaigned to tighten the guidelines for vetting clergy and preventing abuse, his legacy was tarnished. Cordileone was clerking in Rome during that dark chapter of local church history. He calls the sex abuse a “horrendous betrayal of trust.” But he, like Levada, stresses that the church officials who addressed the revelations of abuse and instituted safeguards were not “given credit for that—and we’re still not.”

Though Cordileone may come off as overly defensive on this and other controversial issues, his supporters admire his impassioned advocacy during times of crisis. “The ship of civilization is sinking,” says LiMandri. “The church will survive, but we’re busy bailing water.” However, many critics say that traditionalists like Cordileone, with their unshakable opposition to gay marriage, are hurting the cause more than helping it. “We’re at a point in the church where bishops want to stick to their guns on this issue. It’s the tenor of the episcopacy,” says Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based gay outreach group for Catholics. “But maybe Cordileone could surprise us. Perhaps he will imitate Jesus Christ, who bore the brunt of being ostracized for associating with people whom the religious institutions of his day didn’t consider desirable.” Maybe. But don’t bet on it.

For their part, Cordileone’s backers say that to see the archbishop as caring only about marriage sells him short. “I suppose [Prop. 8] has given him this firebrand reputation,” says Schubert. “But he’s actually this very brilliant and loving guy. He likes his cigars with friends, hanging out at barbecues. But, sure, he’s formal, too. He doesn’t think you should meet Jesus in jeans.” Indeed, in many other areas of public policy, Cordileone’s views fall in line with those of the vast majority of San Franciscans. He campaigned against the death penalty and supported 2012’s Proposition 34, the (losing) state ballot measure to ban it. He backs living-wage bills and supports proposals such as California’s TRUST Act, which would restrict local police from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Here, one of Cordileone’s strongest allies will be Father Moisés Agudo, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in the Mission district. He considers Cordileone, with whom he speaks in Spanish, a “breath of fresh air in San Francisco.” Like the archbishop, Agudo believes firmly in conservative church teachings and is against no-fault divorce and abortion, including in the case of rape. “We can’t just shift our views with what’s popular on the streets,” he says, echoing Cordileone. “If anything, we need to call out those pastors who are disobedient.” Yet the Latino community is not a shoo-in for the church. Studies find that while first-generation immigrants from Latin America are overwhelmingly Catholic, their children are less likely to identify with the faith. But Agudo, like Cordileone, isn’t concerned about a shrinking flock. “If it comes down to it,” he says, “I’d rather lead a church of one than a sea of lost souls.”

Catholics hoping to see growth rather than retrenchment in the Cordileone era walk a fine line. In Oakland, Cordileone severely tested the allegiance of a Berkeley-based national group called the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry, which “sets the table” for gay Catholics. Cordileone began by questioning whether the group was “authentically Catholic” in its blanket use of the terms gay and lesbian over the Vatican-preferred homosexual. In response, CALGM modified parts of its website. Cordileone then broadened his demands, asking CALGM board members to sign an eight-page loyalty oath that stressed keeping gays and lesbians from communion and holding them to chastity, along with statements supporting “traditional” marriage and condemning cloning. When the board didn’t sign, Cordileone threatened “public action.” But soon after, he headed to San Francisco, and communication with the group stopped.

During our meeting in Cordileone’s office, I bring up the frustrations expressed by some Catholics that the marriage mission clouds the church’s public image and obscures Cordileone’s other work. Earlier, a San Francisco Catholic high school teacher (who requested anonymity for fear of offending her employers or the archbishop) told me that she wished Cordileone would “stop pounding away at issues that, frankly, people care less and less about.” She added, “It sucks up all of the oxygen. We need leadership that connects with how people actually live, that focuses on the church’s good work.” Hearing this objection, Cordileone nods. “I know there are many sharp challenges,” he says. “Maybe this is the contribution God is calling on me to make. Not to be in Calexico [the small border town where he served in the ’90s], but here in San Francisco.”

Indeed, Cordileone and his superiors are betting that it is better to lead the marriage fight from the center of the ring—in fiercely liberal, proudly gay San Francisco—than from the safety of a more conservative precinct. Cordileone knows that here his views aren’t just out of step—they can trigger deep hate. On his first day of work, as Cordileone headed toward the steps of the archdiocese office, a man rushed at him and shouted obscenities in his face. “I didn’t say anything. I didn’t look at him,” Cordileone says. I ask Wesolek, the archdiocese’s spokesperson, about other threats. They mostly come by email, he replies, and then turns to Cordileone. “We don’t even bother you with it. People will write emails and say ‘We hate you’ or ‘The church is the devil.’ That kind of stuff. It’s normal.” Cordileone notes that in San Francisco, he is more aware of his surroundings. In Oakland, he would frequent Yoshi’s (he’s a jazz fan and a saxophone player). Maybe he’ll head to the new SFJazz Center here, he says with a wry laugh, but “in my cap and sunglasses.”

Roz Gallo, a San Francisco Catholic who married her female partner of 20-plus years in 2008, hopes for common ground. When she heard about Cordileone’s appointment, her first thought was to welcome him. “There’s room for dialogue,” says Gallo, an office manager at a Peninsula law firm. “Immigration, social justice, those are my concerns, too. I’m also Sicilian and raised in Southern California. Perhaps I’m Polly-annaish, but I think that if [the archbishop and I] met, if he heard my views, we could change his mind.”

That refrain is not repeated by Father Brian Costello, the new priest at the Castro’s Most Holy Redeemer, one of the country’s leading gay-friendly churches. Upon arriving last July, Costello welcomed everyone at his first mass, from the young, old, and gay to the “traditional, questioning, and fervent.” He went on, however, to institute some less-than-progressive new policies. Groups not affiliated with the church can no longer rent the church’s social hall—and no more drag queens. In recent years, organizations like the Castro Country Club, a sober gathering place near the church, had rented the space for fundraisers. But when videos of drag performers at the parish hall were uploaded to YouTube in June, the archdiocese flipped. “I have to keep triple-X entertainment away from the church,” Costello says.

Though the new policies preceded Cordileone’s installation, some congregants and longtime observers of Most Holy Redeemer say that the new archbishop’s presence and his investigation of CALGM have further sent a chill. “He’s not going to swoop down to the Holy Redeemer and yell, ‘Stop your gay outreach!’” says DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry. “It’s far more nuanced than that. People might censor themselves, modify things a bit.” Costello responds by saying that he needs to draw some reasonable lines. “I walk a tightrope,” he says.

Cordileone might just leave Most Holy Redeemer alone. There are larger national struggles afoot, and with the Prop. 8 win in his back pocket, he has “moved to the top of the pile in the Vatican,” says Georgetown’s Reese. Conventional wisdom among conservatives has it that the church must work against more electoral wins for gay marriage. And yet, cautions DeBernardo, “the polls show that more and more Catholics support marriage equality. It’s a losing battle. At this point, our political campaigns are just speeding up history.” Much depends on the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of Prop. 8 and the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples. A decision is expected by June. In December, within hours after news broke that the court would examine the two gay marriage cases, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on its website. In it, Cordileone called on the justices to protect the institution of marriage, “which is as old as humanity” and protects “the most vulnerable among us, children.”

At the Sunday service after the court’s announcement, Cordileone’s homily referred to winter, “when darkness is at the maximum.” He talked of the violation of things sacred and foresaw “restoration.” After mass, one young parishioner who lives near St. Mary’s spoke to me in the parish café. Like other congregants with whom I spoke, she agreed with the church’s right to protect the sacramental character of marriage. But she would also like to see Cordileone ease up. “I’m hoping to hear something from him that sounds compassionate,” she said. “I hope he doesn’t blow it.”

The scene one Sunday in December at Most Holy Redeemer would seem to inspire Catholics of any theological stripe. The neat, airy church was packed. Pews were arranged in an evangelical-style horseshoe that put parishioners closer to the altar—a contrast to the standard church’s distant pews. There were women and children, but mostly there were men: couples sitting close, taking communion together. And there was singing, clear and loud.

After mass, the regular din erupted at the post-service social held in the hall downstairs. Congregants sipped coffee and munched on pumpkin bread, and newcomers stuck on name tags. “They have to kick us out of here on Sundays; we can just keep gabbing,” said Sister Marilyn Morgan, who has attended the church for 15 years. “It’s a place of refuge. People aren’t going to be made fun of or mocked or judged for who they are.” There are other churches closer to her home in Portola, Morgan said, but she prefers it here, where she has more of a voice and “women are not an add-on.” At her table, there were new copies of the archdiocese’s directory, its cover featuring a large photograph of Cordileone smiling. “I want the new archbishop to experience the love and the community and the prayerfulness here,” said Morgan. “Maybe he’ll be moved by that, because other people see it. So I hope he can, too.”

Other parishioners were less optimistic. It’s simple, said Hugh Mallaney, a 60-year-old openly gay member of Most Holy Redeemer, sitting at a round table crowded with friends. “He does his thing, we do ours.” After a pause, he added, “I mean, the church is for us, too. We’ve built this community, and I feel more at home here than anywhere. Someone can try and come in and change that. But we will outlast them.”

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco Magazine

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