How San Francisco Catholics Are Pushing Pope Francis’ Limits

Salvatore Cordileone, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, walks through a gate to Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory school after students, teachers and supporters gathered for a vigil outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. CREDIT: AP
Salvatore Cordileone, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, walks through a gate to Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory school after students, teachers and supporters gathered for a vigil outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. CREDIT: AP

When Gino Gresh, high school senior at Sacred Heart Cathedral Catholic school in San Francisco, California, returned home from a religious retreat in early February, he said he was “shocked” to learn what had happened while he was away: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, head of the San Francisco archdiocese and key organizer behind California’s short-lived same-sex marriage ban known as Proposition 8, had unveiled a new handbook for Catholic high school employees in Gresh’s area, instructing them to refrain from “visibly” contradicting the Church’s teachings on birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.

Worse, Cordileone was vying to designate teachers as “ministers” so the archdiocese could benefit from the so-called “ministerial exception,” a legal category expanded by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that exempts religious groups from non-discrimination laws when hiring for “ministry” positions that can include people who are not clergy.

In other words, teachers could be fired for, among other things, being publicly gay — in San Francisco.

“I remember sitting in class with a couple of students and saying ‘we need to do something,’” Gresh told ThinkProgress.

I remember sitting in class with a couple of students and saying “we need to do something.”

The Archbishop’s move has been widely panned by students, parents, and teachers in the archdiocese, sparking a string of protest vigils led by students such as Gresh, advocacy hashtags such as #TeachAcceptance, and fierce condemnations from local elected officials. In almost all cases, local Catholics argued that Cordileone’s position, which he says is rooted in established Catholic teaching, was a violation of Catholicism as they know it, with the former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities declaring the policy a “Catholic version of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”


“What the archbishop is doing is wrong,” Gresh said. “At its core, Catholicism is built on love and respect, and this clearly violates that.”

Progressive activists, of course, have a long history of protesting positions of the Catholic Church, and the institutional church, in turn, has an equally long history of ignoring them and resisting change. It’s also not the first time a bishop has tried to apply the ministerial exception to diocesan employees, as the trend has become increasingly popular among more conservative Catholic clerics over the past three years — particularly when it comes to Catholic school teachers.

But we live in the age of Pope Francis, who famously struck an unusually pastoral tone on so-called “family issues” last year when he called for a church that is less “obsessed” with fights over abortion and homosexuality and more focused on the poor. As such, the debate raging in San Francisco, a city that takes its name from the same 12th-century saint as the pope himself, is unusual in that it pitches a large population of highly trained and newly-emboldened progressive Catholics — many of whom claim inspiration from Francis — against a hard-line traditionalist Archbishop, setting the stage for a legal and theological battle that is already testing the limits of Francis’ own rhetoric.

Legally Dubious, Theologically Dangerous

In the face of mounting pressure, Cordileone hinted to the San Francisco Chronicle that he planned remove the word “minister” from the handbook, leading to a spurt of positive news coverage that reported he would let teachers reevaluate the provision, sometimes called a “morality clause.” But soon after the news broke, the archdiocese quickly issued a correction clarifying that the word “ministry” — which could still be used to strip teachers of workplace protections — remained in the proposed language.


“[The teachers] make jokes, like, ‘How many ways can you say the word minister? How many parts of speech can it be?’” Sally, a high school teacher in the archdiocese who asked that ThinkProgress not publish her real name out of fear of reprisals, said in an interview.

Legal ambiguities aside, many conservative Catholics have rallied behind Cordileone’s theological stance, arguing that the new student handbook is reflected in existing church teaching and that those who oppose it are simplyconfused.” The conservative Catholic website Catholic Vote posted an online petition last month thanking the Archbishop for his “courageous leadership” that has accrued almost 37,000 signatures; the right-wing advocacy group Family Research Council also published a post on their blog with the headline “This Man Won’t Be Bullied: Bravo Archbishop Cordileone!”; and representatives from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in March arguing that the San Francisco archdiocese was only trying to keep Catholic schools “authentically Catholic.”

“There have been all these pieces saying ‘Oh, it’s the Catholic Church. Of course they’re going to be be ‘Catholic-y’ — meaning hateful,” Sally said.

There have been all these pieces saying ‘Oh, it’s the Catholic Church. Of course they’re going to be be ‘Catholic-y’ — meaning hateful.

But the progressive Catholic protestors in San Francisco don’t see their opposition to the Archbishop — particularly their firm endorsement of LGBT rights — as unCatholic. This includes parents like Jim McGarry, a retired educator who taught Catholic theology for 20 years at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College Preparatory, a Jesuit Catholic high school in San Francisco that his children attend. On the contrary, McGarry, who wrote his own open letter to the students, told ThinkProgress that while the protests are deeply grounded in Catholic theology, the archbishop’s position is not.

“[The archbishop] is not in compliance with Catholic teaching,” McGarry said. “He is very selectively choosing a small number of doctrines and putting them forward in a selective way and, I think, distorting the tradition … in a way that first of all endangers the health and well being of our children.”


McGarry argued that Cordileone’s hardline stance on homosexuality, which would permit the firing of teachers who wed same-sex partners, directly contradicts a line in the Catholic Catechism that reads, “Every sign of unjust discrimination [against homosexuals] should be avoided.” He also noted that Catholic teaching is well-known for guaranteeing freedom of conscience, allowing Catholics to disobey their government — or each other — when they feel that their morals has been violated.

“The first word of Catholic teaching is forgiveness, the second word is conscience,” he said.

McGarry acknowledged that conservative and traditionalist Catholics already explain away some of these arguments, as the exact definition of “unjust discrimination” is up for interpretation. But he also said that the most important theological force driving the activism of he and other parents is the necessity to protect children, especially since the new handbook language, although referencing traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality, condemns homosexual acts as a “gravely evil” in a way that stands to do harm to LGBT youth — many of whom currently attend schools in the archdiocese, according to reports from students.

“[Language like this] is dangerous ground,” he said. “We’re talking high rates of self abuse, drug addiction, runaways — all the way to suicide [in LGBT youth]. These factors are tremendously increased when kids internalize this message. The archbishop needs to understand the deep psychological danger here.”

“The Archbishop is the number one teacher in the Archdiocese, but church teaching is very clear — he is not speaking infallibly. He needs to be in dialogue with his people.”

[The archbishop] is not in compliance with Catholic teaching.

Indeed, while few question the authority of the Archbishop’s position within the Catholic hierarchy, McGarry’s faith-based embrace of homosexuality is a reminder that, despite conservative claims to the immutability of Catholic teaching, huge swaths of Catholic theology are essentially contested spaces, not forgone conclusions. After Pope Francis famously answered a question about gay priests in 2014 with the quip “Who am I to judge?”, the secretary-general of the Italian bishops’ conference praised the pontiff and asked the Italian church to “listen without any taboo to the arguments in favor of … homosexuality.” Francis has also already convened one of two synods to discuss homosexuality and other “family issues,” and closer to home at Santa Clara University, a Catholic liberal arts college in the Bay Area, Jesuit priest Paul Crowley reportedly leads courses exploring more inclusive spiritual understandings of homosexuality. In 2004, he published an academic article in which he concluded that homosexuality shouldn’t be a “problem” for the church, but rather “an invitation to a different way of looking at things, and toward a deeper embrace of the very gospel that threatens to subvert our most cherished notions about the God whose name is Love.”

Vatican officials, of course, eventually asked Crowley to publish a clarification more in line with established church teaching, and Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine on LGBT issues — or anything, really — since assuming the papacy. But the first Argentinian pope has clearly sought to minimize exactly the kind of culture war that Cordileone is waging, and has appointed more moderate bishops to replace retiring clerics famous for crusading against abortion and LGBT rights. Taken together, progressive Catholics in San Francisco and elsewhere see an ally in Francis’ rhetoric, if nothing else, and now that Catholics are more supportive of same-sex marriage than any other major religious group in America (an opinion echoed in several countries with large Catholic populations), San Franciscans are forcing the issue as to whether a bishop can risk ignoring Francis’ rhetorical shift without hemorrhaging parishioners.

Spiritual Damage With Practical Consequences

Francis’ support for LGBT rights, imagined or otherwise, partly explains why a group of “concerned parents” in the Bay Area hired Sam Singer, a prominent media strategist, to take on Cordileone, with Singer telling reporters that “Everyone is praying that the Pope will remove the San Francisco archbishop and these priests.” Sally and others acknowledge that Pope Francis is unlikely to replace Cordileone anytime soon, but say the point is to have unusually impactful, headline-making consequences for the archdiocese if the Archbishop doesn’t budge: Sally claimed “100 percent” of teachers already oppose classification as ministers, and a recent petition rejecting the new handbook language outright was signed by around 80 percent of teachers.

Yes, my resume is already out there.

Asked what she would do if instructed to sign a contract designating her as a minister or embracing the new handbook language, Sally said any institution framed by the morality clause “just wouldn’t be the same school.”

“I go back and forth daily, because I know that my classroom is such an important place for my students,” she said. “But I would never sign a contract that has ministerial language of any kind. Ethically, I oppose the idea of any employer being able to discriminate at will …Yes, my resume is already out there.”

Parents have also threatened to pull their children out of school if either the contract or language go into effect. McGarry, for his part, said he would prefer escalated protest action over enrolling his children in another school.

“That would be an inferior response, and I hope it’s something we don’t have to do,” McGarry said. “I would rather not cede to the Archbishop that power to destroy these schools, and to destroy my kids’ participation in it.”

Even if a portion of the teachers strike or parents remove their children from the schools, it could inspire Catholic employees locked in ongoing debates over morality clauses in other parts of the country. It’s a long time before August, however, when the morality clause and the teacher contract have to be finalized, and the question remains as to whether Archbishop Cordileone and other like-minded bishops will care either way. In their first protest action in early February after the new handbook language was unveiled, Gresh said he and dozens of other students lined up along the pathway from a cathedral to the school, knowing that Cordileone would have to walk past them on his way to speak to teachers. The young demonstrators braved the rain for the event, holding signs emblazoned with phrases such as “Who am I to judge?”

But Sally said Cordileone, when speaking to the teachers about the morality clause in the cathedral, derided “those protestors” outside. Teachers were furious, and Sally said that, more than anything, she wanted to tell the archbishop, “‘Those protestors’ are your children, and you are an educator, and you are trying to create an environment of mistrust, fear, and harm for these children.”

Yet Catholic students like Gresh mostly shrugged off the insult, responding by organizing more protests. Raised and taught by instructors such as McGarry and Sally and formed by Francis’ inclusive rhetoric, their activism — and their concept of Catholic teaching — already seems very different than that of Cordileone. Gresh said the core inspiration driving the students, like most Catholics, comes from a higher authority than the archbishop, or even the pope himself.

“We all model the faith after Jesus Christ,” he said.

ThinkProgress reached out to Archbishop Cordileone’s office for this report, but did not receive a reply.