Controversy over homosexuality roiling San Francisco archdiocese

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Joni B. Hannigan/Houston

SAN FRANCISCO (Christian Examiner) – On April 24, five nuns at Marin Catholic School in Kentfield, a suburb of San Francisco, walked out of their classes after students there began handing out stickers promoting a day of silent protest for the rights of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

Sister Clare Marie, one of the five sisters of the Dominican Order of Mary who left the school, told her students in an email the incident left the nuns feeling "compromised, offended and uncomfortable."

The clash of worldviews at the school was not an isolated incident. It was the latest skirmish in an already tense battle between progressive gay rights activists and traditional Catholics in the archdiocese. It will likely not be the last.

Battle lines between progressives and traditional Catholics were drawn in February when Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, one of the church's leading advocates of traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexuality, asked teachers at four Catholic schools in the archdiocese to include in their contracts and handbooks a statement affirming the church's traditional teachings.

Cordileone, defending the statement, told the teachers sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior are "gravely evil." That comment prompted protests from the union representing the teachers at the four schools, as well as vocal opposition from the sizeable gay community in the city.

A group of prominent Catholics in San Francisco, claiming to be "inspired" by the church's more inclusive tone since Vatican II in 1967, published an open letter to Pope Francis April 14, calling on the pontiff to replace the archbishop with a "leader true to our values and your namesake."

The signatories, which included Tom Brady Sr., father of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and Brian Cahill, retired executive director of Catholic Charities, claimed the archbishop "coerces educators and staff in our Catholic schools to accept a morality code which violates individual consciences as well as California labor laws."

"Students, families and teachers have been deeply wounded by this language, yet the archbishop refuses to withdraw his demands. Instead of your famous words "Who am I to Judge," Archbishop Cordileone repeatedly labels the behavior of our fellow brothers and sisters (and their children) as 'gravely evil.'"

The archdiocese responded to the letter quickly. In its response, the church said the advertisement was a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, the nature of the contract teachers were asked to sign, and the spirit of the archbishop.

"The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for 'the Catholic Community of San Francisco.' They do not," the response from the archdiocese said.

Public opinion appears to be on the side of the archdiocese. Three days after the open letter was published, a poll at SFGate, the online site of the San Francisco Chronicle, showed that 79 percent of Catholics in San Francisco believe the archbishop is upholding traditional Catholic values and should remain in his position.

But there are also signs that the controversy may be taking its toll on the archbishop. Three days before the March for Marriage was to take place in Washington, D.C., April 25, Cordileone's office announced he would not attend the event as a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Instead, other bishops attended so the archbishop could "remain home and attend to the pastoral needs of the Church here at this time."

Cordileone was instrumental in the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, banning gay marriage in the state. That constitutional amendment was overturned by a federal court. He also served as bishop of Oakland.

He has chaired the subcommittee on traditional marriage for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and last year attended the March for Marriage. He was publicly criticized for doing so by Rep. Nancy Pelosi and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, once the mayor of San Francisco. While mayor, Newsom defied state law and ordered the city of San Francisco to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Supporters of Archbishop Cordileone have planned a picnic and rally for May 16.