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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.

Religion came easily to Cordileone. Born in San Diego to Sicilian-immigrant parents, he moved swiftly through the sacraments as a child. He would curl up with the Bible, keeping it a secret from friends “because little boys aren’t supposed to like that kind of thing.” Still, the priesthood wasn’t his first dream. Inspired by his father, a World War II veteran, he saw himself instead as a navy officer. But Cordileone is color-blind, which would have complicated a military career. Plus, during his first year at San Diego State University, he made a connection with a local parish priest with whom he discussed “the bigger questions in life, what we are really here for.” He remembers, “I wanted my life to make a difference. I didn’t want to make a lot of money and have a lot of fun.”

Intrigued, Cordileone accepted an invitation to attend a seminary retreat in San Diego. “They were a good bunch of guys,” he says. “I fit in.” He transferred to the University of San Diego, studied philosophy, and entered the seminary. Next came a back-and-forth journey, with more than a decade of study and work in Rome and pastoring in Southern California. In Rome, he plunged deep into doctrine, spending seven years as an assistant at the Vatican’s highest court and becoming a protégé of now-cardinal Raymond Burke, who is considered a Holy See kingmaker. After that, Cordileone was called back to San Diego and became the city’s auxiliary bishop. There, he would make his reputation.

The Prop. 8 campaign, started by conservative Catholics in San Diego to protect “traditional” marriage, resonated with Cordileone. Gay marriage represented a grave threat to the theologically conservative worldview he had honed in Rome. “He got why people were getting behind this campaign, why something accepted for hundreds of years—that marriage is unique to a man and a woman—is now suddenly controversial,” says Frank Schubert, who helped mastermind Prop. 8 and is a leading conservative strategist on marriage. “He was even-keeled, loving, and able to reach people at a much deeper level than any of the other political folks.”

Cordileone joined the California bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty and attended numerous Prop. 8 fundraising events at private homes in Orange County. Schubert recalls a moment late in the Prop. 8 campaign when funds ran low and he was forced to email a last-ditch appeal for cash, with “Code Blue for Marriage” in the subject line. Cordileone responded to this call to action with a campaign-saving $1 million donation from a single supporter, one among a cross section of deep-pocketed allies—Protestant pastors, evangelical leaders, Mormon bishops—in Cordileone’s expanding Rolodex. “It’s entirely possible that Prop. 8 wouldn’t have made the ballot without him,” says Schubert.

The Prop. 8 brain trust remains a tight-knit group and continues to dictate the anti–gay marriage agenda. Besides Schubert and Cordileone, it includes Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage (Cordileone is godfather to one of Brown’s sons), and Charles LiMandri, a San Diego County lawyer who heads the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and knows Cordileone from college. In making his and Cordileone’s case against same-sex marriage, LiMandri has referred to studies funded by ultraconservative groups such as New Jersey’s Witherspoon Institute and the Washington, D.C.–based Family Research Council. Their websites feature nonclinical reports that promote grim views on gays, linking them to pedophilia. A more well-known study surfaced last year, “The New Family Structures Study,” by Mark Regnerus, a young, goateed University of Texas sociologist who concluded that children of gay parents live bleaker lives and end up on welfare more often than children of straight couples. After a chorus of academics called the study’s first paper junk science, the journal that published it, Social Science Research, ran an internal audit and also found it bunk. Cordileone, however, has pointed to Regnerus’s paper as reinforcing what is already known: “Children do best with a mother and a father,” he told the Catholic News Agency. “Only one definition of marriage can stand.” In the Bay Area, Cordileone doesn’t represent a radical theological departure from his predecessors. He succeeds retiring George Niederauer, who was also heavily involved with Prop. 8, and William Levada, who retired this year after rising to head Rome’s powerful doctrine office (a post once held by Pope Benedict XVI himself). Like Niederauer, Levada, who served in San Francisco from 1995 to 2005, was a behind-the-scenes operator. But he also earned detractors as accusations swirled that he systematically protected sexually abusive clergy members. Though Levada later campaigned to tighten the guidelines for vetting clergy and preventing abuse, his legacy was tarnished. Cordileone was clerking in Rome during that dark chapter of local church history. He calls the sex abuse a “horrendous betrayal of trust.” But he, like Levada, stresses that the church officials who addressed the revelations of abuse and instituted safeguards were not “given credit for that—and we’re still not.”

Though Cordileone may come off as overly defensive on this and other controversial issues, his supporters admire his impassioned advocacy during times of crisis. “The ship of civilization is sinking,” says LiMandri. “The church will survive, but we’re busy bailing water.” However, many critics say that traditionalists like Cordileone, with their unshakable opposition to gay marriage, are hurting the cause more than helping it. “We’re at a point in the church where bishops want to stick to their guns on this issue. It’s the tenor of the episcopacy,” says Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based gay outreach group for Catholics. “But maybe Cordileone could surprise us. Perhaps he will imitate Jesus Christ, who bore the brunt of being ostracized for associating with people whom the religious institutions of his day didn’t consider desirable.” Maybe. But don’t bet on it.