San Francisco Catholic archbishop selection riles gay rights advocates

Friday, October 5, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- The installation of a new Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco -- a backer of California's same-sex marriage ban -- drew support and concern Thursday as the 56-year-old priest assumed the ceremonial seat at St. Mary's Cathedral.

Such inductions have not historically been cause for much interest or angst in San Francisco, where the population of church faithful is smaller than in many major U.S. cities. But attention has been intense this time.

On Thursday, it drew about three dozen gay rights advocates, who protested outside the cathedral opposite a group singing hymns as they celebrated the new archbishop. Salvatore Joseph Cordileone took the seat before a crowd of some 2,000 people and an appointment letter from the pope was read during the three-hour Mass.

Cordileone, a native Californian who served as bishop of neighboring Oakland for the last three-and-a-half years, has a nationwide reputation as a fierce defender of the Catholic Church's positions on homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular. He was installed amid heavy security and the splendor of his religion's celebratory rites, wearing red and gold robes.

His stance, a key factor in his rapid, decade-long ascension from auxiliary bishop to archbishop, has endeared him to fellow Catholic conservatives who have long regarded the San Francisco Bay area's gay-friendly parishes as wayward sheep in the flock.

More liberal Catholics and other faith communities that welcome gay, lesbian and transgender members, however, are worried about that part of Cordileone's resume, reflected in his experience as one of the early engineers of California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in 2008, and since 2011 as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' subcommittee charged with opposing efforts to legalize gay unions.

Those concerns prompted Marc Andrus, the Episcopal bishop of California, this week to write an open letter to his parishioners stating that while he planned to attend Thursday's ceremony and to work with the new archbishop on issues such as immigration reform, he would also welcome into the Episcopal fold Catholics who "may find themselves less at home with Salvatore Cordileone's installation."

Andrus wrote, "It is our Christian duty to take stands in public or from our pulpits when others -- especially those of our own faith -- are in error and trying to suppress the rights of others who, too, have been created in God's image."

Pope Benedict XVI's selection of Cordileone on July 27 to replace retiring Archbishop George Niederauer also has raised eyebrows outside of California, despite Benedict's track record of elevating U.S. prelates who are unafraid to clash with politicians on issues such as contraception, said Rocco Palmo, a respected church commentator and blogger based in Philadelphia.

"The most salient thing I can tell you is that the American bishops and archbishops I spoke with in the wake of the appointment, not seen widely as a progressive group, were stunned," Palmo said. "It was seen as a provocative gesture by Rome" to name a "combative" traditionalist like Cordileone to oversee the nation's gay capital.

Opposition to same sex marriage has emerged as a principal theme of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy. In March, he urged visiting U.S. bishops to beef up their teaching about the evils of premarital sex and cohabitation, and denounced what he called the "powerful" gay marriage lobby in America.

The pope acknowledged his comments might sound anachronistic or "countercultural," particularly to the young. But he told bishops to not back down in the face of "powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage."

"Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage," he said.

For his part, Cordileone has said he wants to be seen as more than a one-issue man and looks forward to getting to know the 91 parishes in an archdiocese that also includes the two counties to the north and south of San Francisco. He has not backpedaled, though, on previous statements calling efforts to extend marriage beyond one man and one woman "the ultimate attack of the Evil One" and declaring that Catholics who support same-sex marriage should refrain from taking communion.

Father Dan Danielson, who served as interim administrator of the Oakland Diocese in the months before Cordileone landed there from San Diego, recalled that the new bishop earned high marks for making a point of visiting the diocese's parishes and parochial schools and "not just sitting in a chancery getting reports."

"I'm sure there were things going on in all the parishes he would not do if he was the pastor, but he basically respects the role of the pastor and his staff," Danielson said.

After taking the archbishop's seat at Thursday's three-hour afternoon induction Mass, Cordileone was set to give a homily that was to include the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. and other high-ranking church officials.

Cordileone was arrested in San Diego in late August on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence. He has said he was drinking wine with friends and apologized for the lapse in judgment. He is scheduled to appear in court on the charge on Tuesday.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: