Making a Mess in San Francisco

Pope Francis memorably called upon people to "make a mess" in the Catholic Church.  If you would like to see what a "mess" looks like, San Francisco would be a good place to start.

As most people know, San Francisco is maybe the most progressive city in the United States.  What few know is that San Francisco has a strong and diverse Catholic presence and Catholic identity.  Now, because of the first part the Catholic identity tends to be on the progressive side, but nevertheless the Catholic Church is a significant, visible presence in the city.  The current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, is a serious culture warrior--in fact, he is the point man for the efforts of the U.S. bishops to oppose gay marriage.  His selection by then Pope Benedict was seen, and it is hard to argue with this, as a bit of stick in the eye of the city that has always been at the forefront of gay rights issues since the 1970s.  It was basically inevitable that there would be clashes.

Toward the end of Pope Benedict's pontificate, I detected a certain fatalism growing among moderate and progressive Catholics.  One would have to be oblivious not to notice that the institution of the Church was inexorably drifting in a more conservative direction.  Protesting and fighting back against this tide was seen as spitting into the wind.  Instead, the name of the game was trying to carve out "safe spaces"--a parish here, a group there--where you could avoid or minimize the effects of the conservative drift.  You kept your head down, tried to maintain a low profile, and went on with your life.  And, by the way, that did not just apply to lay people--it applied with even more force to the significant number of priests that could be described as moderate or progressive.

Well, Benedict is not the Pope anymore, and Pope Francis wants a messy Church.  The fatalism among progressives in the Church seems to lifting, and they--both clergy and laity--are starting to push back.  And, not surprisingly, the push back has been the most forceful in San Francisco.

Cordileone is dealing with three major push-backs right now.  First, the Archdiocese is involved in "Sprinkler-gate," which involves criticism of the fact that there is a sprinkler system set up at the Cathedral of St. Mary which douses the homeless people who have taken refuge on the grounds around the Cathedral.  To be fair, this is really a story of institutional inertia (the sprinklers have been there for two years) and tone-deaf PR, not really a philosophical dispute.  Nevertheless, it is not a good look for the Archdiocese and Cordileone, particularly as it seems so contrary to the spirit and emphasis of Pope Francis and his pontificate.  The second push-back involves an attempt to institute a new faculty handbook for teachers at Archdiocesan high schools that would (at least, in one reading) require teachers to publicly affirm the package of Catholic teachings on birth control, gay marriage, etc.  This issue has come up in other dioceses, but the backlash in San Francisco has been the most vehement, including public protests.

But the most interesting push-back, and the one that I think is perhaps the most significant, is the brouhaha at Star of the Sea Parish in the Richmond.
 I've mentioned this before--basically the new pastor announced that no more altar girls may serve at Star of Sea.  Parents complained, but as the story spiraled more and more complaints have come out.  It all came to a head on Wednesday, when a group of 400 parents got together to air their grievances about the pastor.  Highlights include asking elementary school kids about their parents' Mass attendance, distributing an age-inappropriate pamphlet to kids prior to Confession, and segregating non-Catholics during school-wide events.  For these parents, the solution to this problem is clear--the pastor has to go.

I don't think you would have seen this kind of vocal response under Pope Benedict.  Not because people wouldn't have felt this way, but because it would not have been seen as worthwhile.  If you know that the institution is going to back the conservative position, why bother going to the trouble of showing up for a meeting like this?  All you can do is find a new safe space.  But if you think there is a chance that the institution may not reflexively back this guy, then people are motivated to speak out.  In that sense, this meeting is attributable to Francis, in the sense that people would not have seen the point of going to the trouble prior to his arrival, and so it never would have happened in the first place.

But there is something else that never would have happened prior to Francis, and it can be seen in this story in the National Catholic Reporter.  Some priest in the Archdiocese leaked to NCR the meeting minutes of the February meeting of the Council of Priests, which discussed the Star of the Sea situation.  It shows that many of the priests in the Archdiocese agree with the angry parishoners at Star of the Sea, and are not afraid to say it.  Keep in mind that Archbishop Cordileone was at this meeting, and nevertheless these guys felt free to state in no uncertain terms their positions.

The first thing to note is that some priest was ballsy enough to leak the notes to the NCR, a publication with a clear progressive orientation.  NCR has been at the forefront of criticizing Cordileone, and so the leaker had to know it would be splashed around.  That's an aggressive thing to do to your boss.  If nothing else, this tears down any potential facade of a unified front among the San Francisco clergy.  You might view this as a petty move, unworthy of a priest, and I am not sure I disagree.  But it reveals the state of play in the Archdiocese.

According to the reporting, the clearest voice opposing the ban on altar girls was Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, who called the policy "invidious discrimination" which has "no justification" in "this in this day and age in our culture."  Strong language, language that at least leads one to wonder how committed Bishop McElroy is to the notion of an all-male priesthood (after all, the justification for going with an all-male corps of altar services is that it encourages vocations to an all-male priesthood).  Moreover, he called upon Cordileone to state publicly that such a ban is improper, as the Star of the Sea pastor was/is operating under the assumption he has the Archbishop's blessing.

Why is that significant?  Because Auxiliary Bishop McElroy is not going to be an Auxiliary Bishop for long--he is on his way to San Diego to become the Archbishop.  A job which, by the way, Cordileone held before coming to San Francisco.  It's clear that McElroy and Cordileone are on opposite sides of this question (and likely many others), and it is hard to imagine this is a secret to knowledgeable observers.  Knowledgeable observers such as, for example, Pope Francis and those he has selected to assist him in making episcopal appointments.  And McElroy is on to a prominent diocese in California.  You don't have to be a Machiavellian conspiracy theorist to see this as a bit of a statement from Pope Francis endorsing, at least tacitly, the McElroy point of view, while providing a bit of a rebuke to Cordileone.  The McElroy view appears to be in the ascendency, and the Cordileone view is not.

The last thing that struck me about this article was the quote from Fr. O'Sullivan, demanding recognition of "where we are in our Church today; if [the Star of the Sea pastor] wants to be pre-Vatican II he needs to be told, 'We're not Vatican I, we are Vatican II.'"  I thought that kind of rhetoric, once very common in the 80s, was gone forever.  I thought, and I am not alone on this, that the definitive interpretation, as a practical matter, of Vatican II had been provided by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and enforced more or less by fiat.  The message was that Vatican II needed to be understood through the lens of a "hermaneutic of continuity," and thus appeals to Vatican II changing this or that, or being opposed to some prior vision of the Church, were out of line.

I thought, and I think many thought, that this debate was over, forever.  But reports of the death of the "Spirit of Vatican II" appear to be greatly exaggerated.  Fr. O'Sullivan seems to think that Vatican II stands for a particular vision of the Catholic Church, one that is at least in tension with that articulated by the previous pontificate.  The whole question about the meaning of Vatican II, one that dominated the life of the Catholic Church in the 70s and 80s, seems to be back on the table.  And if it is back on the table, then one of the key projects of the last two Popes has been jettisoned.

All of this goes back to the core point Andrew Sullivan made in that talk that I highlighted a couple of weeks ago.  Pope Francis is going to say various things, and those things are going to matter--witness the decision, with Papal approval, to make worldwide abolition of the death penalty a theme of the Good Friday Stations of the Cross in Rome.  I think one would have to be willfully blind not to accept the idea that Pope Francis is, carefully and with subtlety, undoing some of the work of his two predecessors.

But more important than the specific areas that Pope Francis is emphasizing is this general cultural change which is encouraging everyone, laity and clergy alike, to speak their minds.  Pope Francis has to know that such a culture is going to create discussions around issues that are beyond his particular places of emphasis.  Indeed, he has to know this culture of discussion is going to encourage some people to advocate for positions that he doesn't agree with it.  Once you give people the license to "make a mess," you have to know they are going to make a mess in every way, not just in the ways that you would prefer.  Francis knows this--he's a smart guy--and apparently he doesn't care.

So, San Francisco is a mess.  And, it would seem, this kind of a mess is not limited to the City by the Bay.  This mess might be on its way to your town, too.


Comments

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