S.F. archbishop stands firm in face of pressure on morality clauses

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone's school handbook has prompted protests by students, parents and progressive Catholics who decry the language as divisive.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone is holding firm in the face of controversy that has erupted since he unveiled new morality clauses earlier this month for employees at high schools under his control.

The clauses included in a new handbook call on teachers, staff and administrators to comport themselves publicly and privately with Catholic teaching and ask them to “affirm and believe” that masturbation, pornography and homosexual acts are “gravely evil.”

Same-sex marriage and contraception are similarly described.

Cordileone’s pointed language on sexual teaching has triggered a backlash from parents, students and policymakers who have called it divisive and worry the schools’ culture of tolerance toward all students -- regardless of sexual orientation -- will be compromised.


They also fear that teachers who have made private decisions about intimate relationships or contraception that may not comport to strict church teaching will be fired.

Cordileone has shown some flexibility around his companion proposal to define teachers as “ministers” in a collective bargaining agreement now under negotiation -- a wording shift that would likely deny them recourse under federal civil rights law in the case of dismissal.

At an editorial board meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, Cordileone indicated that the word “ministers” is no longer being considered.

But a statement from the archdiocese later in the evening made it clear that while Cordileone is open to dialogue, deeper compromise is unlikely.


The word “ministry” is now being considered instead, according to the statement from Father John J. Piderit, vicar for administration and moderator of the curia, who was present at the editorial board meeting.

Representatives of the teachers union have said they fear the same legal implications if a substitute word is chosen but the purpose of the language remains the same.

The statement came as a rebuttal to an exclusive Chronicle story about the paper’s editorial board meeting that said Cordileone was “reassessing” and “reexamining” his position. It quoted Cordileone as telling the board: “I was surprised at the degree of consternation over this.”

In his statement, Piderit said: “Even if a substitute for ‘ministry’ is found, the substitute must guarantee that the teachers in the Catholic archdiocesan high schools promote the Catholic mission of the institutions.”


As for the new morality clauses in the handbook -- to be used in the next academic year at four high schools in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties -- Piderit said the archbishop “has not repealed anything. He is adding explanations, clarifications and material on Catholic social teaching, via a committee of religion teachers he is establishing.”

The committee, he added, “is to expand some areas of the material ... and clarify other areas by adding material. Nothing already planned to go in is being removed or retracted or withdrawn.”

Cordileone was a controversial choice for San Francisco. An expert in canon law, he has earned a national reputation as a culture warrior with his strong emphasis on sexual teachings.

He played a key role in backing Proposition 8, the California ballot measure banning same-sex marriage that was ultimately deemed unconstitutional, and he chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Defense of Marriage.


He has also been steadfast in the face of previous opposition from California political leaders, who last summer unsuccessfully pleaded with him to cancel plans to march in Washington, D.C., with defenders of traditional marriage, some of whom had used homophobic speech.

Now, he once again finds himself embattled.

Last week, a group of lawmakers headed by Assemblymen Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco) called on Cordileone in an open letter to withdraw the morality clauses.

Earlier this week, Ting and Mullin asked the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and the Assembly Judiciary Committee to investigate Cordileone’s proposed contract changes and morality clauses.


In a letter to the committees, they said Cordileone’s wording would set “a dangerous precedent for workers’ rights through manipulations of law that deprive employees of civil rights guaranteed to all Californians.”

On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced legislation that urges the archdiocese to respect the “working and individual rights of their teachers and administrators in contract negotiations.”

The morality clauses come as a separate dispute shakes a San Francisco Richmond District parish, where the new priest recently announced he would bar girls from being altar servers.

Farrell called both controversies, as well as pamphlets that were distributed to second-graders asking about masturbation and sodomy, “an affront to the values most of the residents of this city, in good conscience, hold dear.”


“I am a proud Catholic. I am proud to have been born and raised here in San Francisco within our Catholic school system, extremely proud to have been educated and influenced so greatly by the Jesuits, and proud to be part of a practicing Catholic family,” Farrell said.

“However, these past few weeks have been some of the most challenging weeks of my life in the Catholic Church, and I know I am not alone. ... I expect as a legislator, and pray as a practicing Catholic, that the recent controversial events are resolved in a manner that honors the incredible contributions of the teachers in our Catholic schools, recognizes the rights of the Catholic Church, and both respects and embodies the values which define us as San Franciscans.”

Twitter: @leeromney