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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.

On an overcast morning last October, Salvatore Cordileone took the altar in front of a handpicked crowd of cardinals, bishops, priests, and some 2,500 other invitees packed into St. Mary’s Cathedral. They had assembled here to witness the installation of San Francisco’s new archbishop, whose selection had incited a noisy scrum outside the church, with hymn-singing supporters pushing up against several dozen chanting protesters. Inside, Cordileone draped in a golden cape with red trim and wearing a shimmery miter, nodded at acquaintances with a shy smile. But when he leaned forward to offer his first homily to the city, his confidence and his message were clear.

“‘Francis, rebuild my house,’” he began. “These words, which our Lord spoke to St. Francis from the cross in the church of San Damiano, are certainly well known to us.” Cordileone referred to a time of spiritual weakness among the faithful, when a crucified Jesus appeared in a vision to Francis of Assisi and commanded the future patron saint of San Francisco to repair his crumbling country church. “And repair that little dilapidated structure he did, zealously and within a short time. He did not build a new one, but he repaired an old one; he did not tear out the foundation, but he built upon it.”

The metaphor was an apt one. To Cordileone, along with many other local clergy members, and certainly to Pope Benedict XVI’s Vatican, there is much to repair in the city of St. Francis. The local diocese finds itself further and further removed from the community’s values. In contrast to previous eras, when church leaders would lock arms with civil rights activists and provide voices of comfort and strength during times of national uncertainty, Catholic clergymen in the Bay Area and elsewhere now find themselves on the losing side of a cultural war. Even within the church, there is growing support for same-sex marriage, gay-friendly parishes, gay adoption services, and what Cordileone has lamented as America’s “contraceptive mentality.”

Nowhere are the cracks more visible than in San Francisco, once a stronghold of Catholic life but now a teetering citadel, a 21st-century San Damiano. To bolster and defend the diocese, the Vatican has turned to Cordileone, a choice that represents not a concession to a changing world order, but a doubling down on church orthodoxy. While there are differing opinions about the man whom friends and allies call Bishop Sal, there is no question about his conservative convictions. While a bishop in San Diego five years ago, Cordileone earned the sobriquet “Godfather of Proposition 8” as a leading proponent, strategist, and fundraiser for the 2008 anti-gay marriage amendment that next month will be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. In promoting him last fall from his previous post as the bishop of Oakland, the Vatican has sent its clearest message yet that it won’t bow to reformist pressure. After all, what more symbolic place to install an uncompromising hard-liner than Baghdad-by-the-Bay, a city adrift?

“What were people expecting?” Cordileone asks me when we meet in his chambers just weeks after his installation. We are sitting at a small, polished wood table in his sparsely decorated office on the fourth floor of the archdiocese headquarters, St. Mary’s Cathedral clearly visible across Geary Boulevard. Neat and formal in a black suit and Roman collar, Cordileone is polite and at ease under questioning. On his right hand he wears the church’s equivalent of a Super Bowl ring: the episcopal large gold band, set with an oval amethyst, symbolizing the archbishop’s role as a servant of God. To my left sits George Wesolek, the archdiocese’s director of communications, who will monitor the interview, mindful that his new boss hasn’t always had a warm relationship with the media.