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The Archbishop of No

Regardless of what San Francisco’s Catholics may want, anti–gay marriage crusader Salvatore Cordileone won’t let the flock push him around.

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.”