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Abp. Salvatore Cordileone's recent letter should serve as a template for all those engaged in evangelizing our ever-increasingly hostile culture
Left: San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (CNS photo). Right: Gavin Newsom speaks against Proposition 8 at UC Berkeley in 2008 (Charlie Nguyen/Wikipedia Commons).

Perhaps more often than we notice, our bishops actually model for us the gentle strength and love of Our Lord in delivering the Gospel of Christ to the world in a manner most befitting to their call. Such is the case in the response offered by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco to a letter penned by a group of progressive politicians and gay-rights activists led by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom demanding the Archbishop cancel a speech to be given at the “March for Marriage” sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage on June 19th. [1] The Archbishop’s letter, when juxtaposed against the letter from Newsom et al., permeated with cynicism, should serve as a template for all those engaged in evangelizing our ever-increasingly hostile culture.

It is easy, when reading the exchange of letters, to focus on the glaringly cynical nature of the points raised by Newsom and company. For example, they twice level the charge against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) that NOM regularly accuses its critics of trying to silence opposition to same-sex marriage, specifically, and homosexual practice, more generally—this, in a letter with the clear intent of, well, silencing opposition to same-sex marriage, specifically, and homosexual practice, more generally!

Yet, Abp. Cordileone doesn’t succumb to the temptation to answer his critics point-by-point, which would have been an exercise in futility. Rather than get into an argument he seeks to evangelize. Reading the Archbishop’s letter, it seems evident that His Excellency was looking to Our Lord and His exchanges with the Pharisees as a template in formulating his response. He doesn’t allow himself to be hemmed in by his critics’ cramped definitions and world views. Instead, his response, while addressing and refuting the main criticisms against NOM, goes deeper and reaches out to his critics in an attempt to free them from their cynicism and anger in a way exemplary of the best of Christian apologetics and witness.

Abp. Cordileone begins his letter with an apology for not responding sooner, noting he was “attending meetings out of town.” And, then, in the second and third sentences, by way of saying, “thank you,” he flips a table rhetorically just as assuredly as Our Lord flipped tables physically:

I appreciate your affirmation of my Church’s teaching—not unique to our religion, but a truth accessible to anyone of good will—on the intrinsic human dignity of all people, irrespective of their stage and condition in life. That principle requires us to respect and protect each and every member of the human family, from the precious child in the womb to the frail elderly person nearing death.

Throughout the letter sent by Newsom et al., the authors continually stress Church doctrine regarding the human dignity of each person, yet they delimit their remarks and present the doctrine virtually solely as pertaining to those practicing alternative lifestyles. Indeed, the entire thrust of the letter is to lecture the archbishop on Church doctrine regarding the human dignity of each person—including homosexuals—so as to force his cancellation. [2]

Abp. Cordileone takes the opportunity to kindly and gently remind his accusers that Church doctrine asserting the dignity of each human person extends beyond just the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to include all persons, including the unborn, the handicapped, the elderly. Frankly, if this were just a matter of debate technique—a sort of verbal tennis match—then at this point its game, set, match. What began as an attempt by some few gay-rights advocates to use Church doctrine against an Archbishop has quickly turned into a call by that same Archbishop to extend the principle of the dignity of each person to areas (i.e., abortion and euthanasia) about which his accusers may at best and most charitably be described as silent or, at worst, hostile.

Except. In both tone and substance, it is evident the Archbishop isn’t just trying to win a debate. Instead, he seems genuinely hopeful that his accusers, moved by the beauty of the Gospel message in one facet, may be further moved to break out of their cramped application of that message and embrace more fully the Gospel of Life. Thus, a cynical and rather cheap ploy to use the Christian faith as a debate prop by Newsom and friends becomes a hopeful opportunity to evangelize on the part of the archbishop. It puts one in mind of Our Lord’s words and actions offered in response to the woman caught in adultery, when the Pharisees' attempt to use the law to trap Jesus was artfully turned into a call to self-examination and authentic conversion.

His Excellency then offers four tightly-reasoned points in response to the rather thin evidence offered in support of the contention the March for Marriage would be an occasion of “hate.” In the first three points he asserts the great good which obtains in the Sacrament of Marriage, bringing about a loving bond between “the two halves of humanity” and the children which result; rebuts charges that NOM links homosexuality to pedophilia by citing a statement from NOM which specifically noted their expectation that gay-rights activists would join them in their opposition to a conference called for the purpose of “regularizing” pedophilia; and reminds his interlocutors that people on the pro-traditional-marriage side are regularly losing their jobs and even facing physical violence for the position they hold.

Along the way, Abp. Cordileone recaptures Pope Francis for the traditional marriage side. Newsom and company had tried, inclumsy and cynical fashion, to use His Holiness’ ripped-out-of-context “Who am I to judge?” comment to support their demand that the archbishop cancel his appearance. In response, Abp. Cordileone cites Francis' demand for the faithful to “reaffirm the right of children to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.” Again, his hope seems to be that having accepted the moral authority of Pope Francis (even if only for political suasion), Newsom et al., might be led to a deeper consideration, to a broader perspective, of the traditional marriage viewpoint by citing the same authoritative voice.

Yet, it is in his fourth point that the difference between a cynical and political ploy by the gay-rights activists and the evangelical response offered by the archbishop may be most clearly seen. Newsom and company close their letter with loaded request: “(W)e ask that you will reconsider your participation and join us in seeking to promote reconciliation rather than division and hatred.” To “promote reconciliation” the Archbishop must divide himself from the National Organization for Marriage. He must abide by their conditions. Otherwise, he is joining the forces of “division and hatred” and will be labeled accordingly. In contrast, the archbishop closes his letter with an appeal so heart-felt in its call for true reconciliation as to demand quotation in full:

4. Please do not make judgments based on stereotypes, media images and comments taken out of context. Rather, get to know us first as fellow human beings. I myself am willing to meet personally with any of you not only to dialogue, but simply so that we can get to know each other. It is the personal encounter that changes the vision of the other and softens the heart. In the end, love is the answer, and this can happen even between people with such deep disagreements. That may sound fanciful and far-fetched, but it is true, it is possible. I know it is possible, I know this from personal experience. When we come together seeking to understand the other with good will, miracles can happen.

When all is said and done, then, there is only one thing that I would ask of you more than anything else: Before you judge us, get to know us.

The difference between the two closings is startling. In the first a raw exercise of power demanding compliance; in the second a call for a true reconciliation based on “softened” hearts and love which might “sound fanciful and far-fetched” but “is possible.”

Cynicism is met with Hope. And only those who have “eyes but cannot see” and “ears but cannot hear” can fail to see the difference (Mk 8:18).

ENDNOTES:

[1] Leaked news reports hold that former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D. Ca.) sent a similar missive to His Excellency making many of the same points made by Newsom, et. al. However, since such a communication was purportedly meant to be private, His Excellency in his public response deals only with the Newsom letter. So, too, will this essay.

[2] In the second paragraph of their letter Newsom, et. al., state, “…we appreciate the many statements from Catholic leaders defending the human dignity of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people….” They reiterate this principle again in the third paragraph citing the Catechism’s demand that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” They continue the theme in the fourth paragraph accusing NOM of “actions and rhetoric” which “fundamentally contradict Christian belief in the fundamental dignity of all people,” and in the third-to-last paragraph they bluntly state that should the Archbishop appear at said March, he would “appear to be endorsing their troubling words and deeds, which directly contradict the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral teaching….”

 
About the Author
Alan L. Anderson 

Alan L. Anderson is a Regional Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria and Director of Religious Education for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Metamora, Illinois.
 
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