SAN FRANCISCO — The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI has been dubbed the “Bombshell by the Bay.”
Next week, a key player in the passage of Proposition 8 — a man who has decried the “contraceptive mentality” of modern life — will become the leader of the Catholic Church here in the city that thrust same-sex marriage onto the national stage, the birthplace of the Summer of Love.
Supporters view Archbishop-designate Salvatore Cordileone, the 56-year-old son of a commercial fisherman, as a charming and brilliant defender of the faith. He is fluent in Spanish and Italian, has been known to sing vintage TV theme songs in Latin and is a deep believer in a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But many gay and lesbian Catholics worry that they will be marginalized after Cordileone’s arrival. Oasis California, the Episcopal Church’s gay ministry, convened a meeting recently at a Castro District bar to discuss how spiritual people should respond to the “architect of Prop. 8" coming to town.
Cordileone’s appointment “re-emphasizes the Vatican’s concern, and the U.S. bishops’ concern, about gay marriage,” said Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “Even in a city like San Francisco, they’re willing to appoint someone who … has a high state and national profile on this issue.
“They’re serious,” Reese said, “and they’re not going to back down.”
During a July news conference, Cordileone was circumspect when discussing the “cultural challenges” his new diocese would present — which he said revolved around “issues of family life and, essentially, come down to our understanding of the human person, the purpose of our human sexuality, what God calls us to do and how he calls us to live and how he calls us to love.”
But in a recent interview at the headquarters of the Oakland diocese, where he has served as bishop for three years, Cordileone was more direct: Gays and lesbians who are in sexual relationships of any kind, he said, should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, the central ritual of Catholic life.
“If we misuse the gift of sexuality, we’re going to suffer the consequences,” he said, “and I firmly believe we are suffering the consequences.”
The prelate’s light-filled office overlooks Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Just beyond the graceful urban estuary, he said, are “100 blocks of inner-city neighborhoods. Those are fatherless children.”
Cordileone will lead a flock of more than 500,000 Catholics spread over 91 parishes in three counties — San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin. Although it is not as influential as the country’s largest dioceses, New York and Los Angeles among them, it is a high-profile destination for a fast-rising archbishop.
And though he strives to deliver Catholicism’s absolutes in as nuanced a fashion as possible, Cordileone said, people need to understand that “the church is not going to change its teaching. ... The solution isn’t to say, ‘Well, I’m just going to disagree and continue being a Catholic.’ That’s not how we arrive at holiness.”
Unlike secular organizations, however, the church cannot just slam the door on dissenters, he said. Instead, the Catholic Church must reach out, support people, “move them along to understand.”
Cordileone, who heads up the subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, came early to the Proposition 8 battle.
In 2007, the California Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of a voter initiative that changed the state family code to say that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
That September, the San Diego City Council was poised to join a friend-of-the-court brief in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in California. Cordileone — who grew up in San Diego and was its auxiliary bishop at the time — wrote a heartfelt letter to the lawmakers:
“We believe that marriage, by its very definition, can exist only between a man and a woman,” Cordileone wrote. “Moreover, study after study — not to mention common sense — show that children fare better in life when raised in a home with a loving father and mother in a stable, committed relationship.”
Society and its governing bodies should do everything in their power to “encourage healthy and stable marriages,” he added, while treating “persons with same-sex attraction” with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
The council voted to act in support of gay marriage. But Mayor Jerry Sanders, who had been expected to veto the measure, called a last-minute news conference. Facing reporters, he choked up. One of his daughters is gay, he said. He could not tell her that she did not have the right to wed.
A few weeks later, a small group of traditional-marriage backers gathered in a San Diego living room to strategize about how to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in case the state Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22, which ultimately it did.
Charles LiMandri, president and counsel of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, said that at the time, the Catholic Church “was not plugged in. Cordileone was the first to step up to the plate. That’s why his career has skyrocketed.”
Cordileone attended that first meeting and helped raise more than $1 million for the anti-gay marriage effort. He personally contributed $13,000. But perhaps more important, Cordileone reached out to conservative denominations to bring them into what he has described as the most important battle they would ever face.
LiMandri recalled how the bishop rallied more than 150 pastors at Skyline Church, an evangelical megachurch in La Mesa. “The ship is sinking,” he told them. “That ship is Western civilization. We all have to pull together. We have to bail out water and keep that ship afloat.”
In October 2008, just weeks before election day, polls showed Proposition 8 was in trouble. Campaign manager Frank Schubert sent out a panicked email to the measure’s inner circle. Subject line: Code Blue for Marriage.
“I felt that marriage was in cardiac arrest, and this was the moment it needed to be saved,” said Schubert, who believes Proposition 8 would have lost without Cordileone. “He called the next day, he had a donor … prepared to give a million dollars. He helped arrange that. That gift was pivotal in winning the campaign.”
Cordileone was appointed to head the high-profile Diocese of San Francisco by Benedict — who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drafted a key 1986 letter that outlined Catholic doctrine about homosexuality.
“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin,” Ratzinger wrote, “it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
That teaching, Cordileone said, still holds.
Asked whether it was possible to be a gay man or a lesbian and a practicing Catholic embraced by the church, his answer was adamant: “Certainly.” The key, he said, is chastity, the same challenge faced by any single Catholic.
“Maybe it’s the particular way God is calling them to holiness,” Cordileone said. “It takes a lot of hard work and spiritual discipline. Certainly our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters need to be supported in living out their call to holiness.”
Ernest Camisa is spokesman for Dignity/San Francisco, a group of LGBT Catholics who used to hold Mass in Catholic churches. Not long after the Ratzinger letter, the group was forced to move off church property. Today, Dignity holds services once a week at Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church.
Mass is still celebrated by ordained priests, but Camisa said he feared the new archbishop “will deny us Roman Catholic celebrants. …I think Cordileone is being placed here to influence City Hall to pass legislation to deny gay people their rights. I think the pope and the pending archbishop want to turn back the clock.”
For his part, Cordileone said he does not know if the Vatican was sending a particular message by placing him at the helm of the San Francisco diocese. What he does know is that “there is a need for clear teaching.”
“I want to focus on the importance of supporting marriage,” Cordileone said. “I always speak about the need to respect everyone’s human dignity — regardless of their sexual orientation. I think strengthening marriage is something that benefits everyone.”