Smaller But More Vibrant

Oakland’s Bishop Salvatore Cordileone on the Church in a time of tumult.

This interview appeared in the June 2010 issue of Catholic World Report

Bishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, 54, was born and raised in San Diego. He was one of four children. His father was a fisherman. His grandparents were from Sicily. Many of his extended family members lived nearby; his paternal grandparents lived next door, and his maternal grandparents lived a few miles away.

Bishop Cordileone attended public schools, and his family belonged to the Blessed Sacrament Parish in San Diego. The family’s religious practice was typical of second-generation Italian immigrants. He attended Mass on Sundays at Blessed Sacrament and took catechism classes at the parish. St. Joseph was a favorite saint to the family, and each year the family participated in a St. Joseph’s Table devotion, which Cordileone describes as similar to the Mexican community’s La Posada devotion.

As a young man, Cordileone’s faith grew and he became interested in the priesthood. He entered St. Francis Seminary and then transferred to the University of San Diego. He graduated, and continued his studies in Rome. He was ordained a priest in 1982.

Cordileone earned a doctorate in canon law from the Gregorian University, and was ordained a bishop in 2002. After serving as an auxiliary bishop inSan Diego, he was installed as bishop of Oakland on May 5, 2009. In recent years, Bishop Cordileone has been outspoken on a variety of issues, including support for California’s Proposition 8 and opposition to the national health care legislation. CWR recently interviewed him.

It’s been a year now since you moved from San Diego to Oakland. Can you tell me how the two dioceses are different?

Bishop Cordileone: The difference is more of degree than kind. Both dioceses have ethnic diversity, including a 40 percent Hispanic population. In San Diego, more than 95 percent of the Hispanics are from Mexico. In Oakland, there are other Latin American countries represented. We also have a significant Asian presence, including Filipinos and Vietnamese, in addition to those whose predecessors are from Europe. There’s a larger African- American presence in Oakland, the presence of which is felt in the life of the Church.

There’s much more inner city in Oakland, with all the challenges that accompany it: poverty, crime and family breakdown. There’s also greater presence of institutions of higher education, not only Catholic but secular institutions like UC Berkeley, which sets a tone of academia.

What problems with orthodoxy have you encountered since arriving?

Cordileone: We’ve had similar problems that the Church has faced all over in properly catechizing our people. We need to do a better job in solidifying our people’s Catholic identity. This means understanding not just what the Church teaches, but why it teaches what it does.

It’s more complicated here in the Western United States because of our ethnic diversity. We need strategies to reach different ethnic communities because of the cultural differences. Some images or analogies work in some cultures that do not work in others.

How has the country’s economic recession affected the mission of the Church in Oakland?

Cordileone: The economy has affected us greatly. Less revenue is coming into the diocesan offices and the parishes, too. We’ve had to let some staff go due to budgetary constraints. We’re trying to combine efforts within offices and departments.

I’m looking at new development opportunities, because we need financial resources as well as human resources to maintain our catechesis, liturgy and schools. We also have a magnificent new cathedral we need to pay off. I’m hopeful things will improve in the long run, but perhaps not in the short haul.

How is Oakland doing with vocations to the priesthood?

Cordileone: We’re doing well, with about 25 seminarians. However, most come from outside the country. We have to do better in encouraging homegrown vocations.

We have different strategies for doing this, including our Operation Andrew, in which our pastors come together at a parish and tell the stories of their vocations to young men in discernment. We also promote Eucharistic Adoration to pray for vocations, and work with youth groups in our schools. I also stay in touch with our seminarians and those men who are open to discerning the call.

You were an active supporter in 2008 of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Why did you choose to become involved?

Cordileone: A civilization stands and falls on marriage. If the family is the foundation of society, marriage is the foundation of the family. Children do best when raised by their mother and father in a loving, committed relationship.

That doesn’t mean that in a less-than-ideal situation the children cannot grow up well. We need to affirm and support those who are in single-parent situations, especially in situations in which parents are making huge sacrifices to give their children the best upbringing possible.

Additionally, if society were to lose marriage as the basic institution of our society and the traditional definition of marriage were no longer upheld in the law, we who hold to this traditional definition will be treated like those who were opposed to interracial marriage a few generations ago, as bigots.

We will be punished in terms of not being able to serve the community, not just Catholics, but anyone in need. We would not be able to do that in accordance with our conscience and moral beliefs, whether it’s providing housing,education, health care and other social services. We would, in practice, have to accept this other idea of marriage. And we see this in practice happening in our country and beyond, where rights of conscience and religious liberty are being removed the more the alternative definition of marriage becomes incorporated into the law.

All of society will be hurt if the faith community that holds to this idea of marriage is not able to do the good that they do in society.

Proposition 8 passed by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent. Does it trouble you that 48 percent of California voters objected to the idea of marriage as being between a man and a woman?

Cordileone: It does. On the other hand, this is California. All of us working on the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign had everything going against us, including hostile reporting in the news media and opinions of the cultural elites in the entertainment industry and politics.

There was a lot of harassment of those who were working on the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. One hundred thousand Yes on Proposition 8 signs either disappeared or were damaged on the campaign. People were physically assaulted. One pro-Proposition 8 worker was beaten so severely he had to be taken to the hospital and given stitches under his eye. A family I know in San Diego had three of the tires on their van parked in front of their house slashed, and big letters written on the windows saying “Bigots live here” with an arrow pointing to the house.

Yes on Proposition 8 supporters lost their jobs and received death threats. Much of this evil and harassment of our people happened without being reported in the news media. Despite all of this going up against the movement to uphold traditional marriage, we were still able to prevail. That tells me that there is something in people’s hearts that makes them realize that supporting marriage is not discriminating against anyone, it’s not something that’s hateful and it’s not something that’s bigoted. Marriage is something that benefits everyone in society, whether you’re married or not.

What are your concerns about the new health care legislation signed into law by President Obama?

Cordileone: The USCCB’s (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) legal counsel has recently released a brief stating that [the legislation] does not sufficiently prohibit federal funds from going toward abortions and does not adequately provide for conscience protection. If that is the intention behind the law, then why not just state it explicitly? Why not include the language of the Hyde Amendment, which specifically prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions? I’m concerned about what the consequences will be.

What do you say about those Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic Health Association, that supported the bill?

Cordileone: It troubles me. There should have been some dialogue before they made the statement that they did. We do have experts in the field that stay on top of health care legislation and analyze it thoroughly. If they came to a different opinion, it’s important that we have a mutual understanding and provide a united front. They should have entered into some sort of a dialogue or discussion before making a statement contrary to the position of the bishops.

Why did you choose to celebrate the Tridentine Mass at St. Margaret Mary Church in Oakland on September 20, 2009?

Cordileone: I was extended an invitation to celebrate that Mass to mark the 20th anniversary of what was formerly the Indult Mass being celebrated in that parish. I was newly arrived in the diocese, and I was accepting as many invitations as I could in our parishes to try to get to know the diocese.

I also wanted people to understand that there is value to this more traditional form of Catholic worship. It is not something that should be relegated to the margins of the Church. It is something that can be helpful to our ongoing renewal of liturgical life in the Church.

I’m hoping I can get the idea across that we’re not turning the clock back, as if we’re going back to before the Second Vatican Council. We need to understand the way that Catholic worship was before the Council. Earlier forms of worship in the life of the Church can help to inform us in guiding our ongoing efforts for liturgical renewal.

What renewal would you like to see in the liturgy?

Cordileone: I would like to see what the Council articulated implemented. We need to preserve our rich patrimony and heritage, in terms of such things as art, music, and architecture, and continue to develop them. Our cathedral in Oakland is a good example of this. It is modern, but has a traditional feel. It is vertical, characteristic of Gothic architecture, and heaven-oriented. It maximizes the use of natural light, and is, in fact, dedicated to Christ the Light. Its contemporary design preserves the tradition we have received.

There is a place for legitimate cultural adaptation in liturgy, especially in a diverse diocese such as ours. We have to recognize, though, that there is such a thing as a Catholic culture. A key element of every culture is its language, literally as well as metaphorically. Latin is the traditional language of our Church.

The liturgy should not turn into an avenue for cultural expression, because that way the Church becomes international, but not universal.

You spent time studying in Europe. How has immigration affected the Church in Europe versus the United States?

Cordileone: Our situation is different. In Europe, the large waves of immigrants are coming from Islamic countries. In the US, most of our immigrants come from countries with many Catholics: Latin American countries, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Here, in the life of the Church, immigration presents a great opportunity. In Europe, it poses great challenges.

This year the Church leadership and the Holy Father himself have been targets of criticism for not doing enough to combat the problem of child abuse by clergy. Is this criticism legitimate?

Cordileone: What is being reported is twisted and distorted from what the reality really is. The statements from the Holy Father’s office, and his former vicar general in Munich, have been quite clear as to how Pope Benedict handled it.

When, as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger realized the extent of the problem, he took decisive action to combat it. He’s really to be commended for his efforts. I would point out that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has reserved to itself the judging of these cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy since 2001. Now 2001 is the year before 2002, when the Boston Globe reported on cases of sexual abuse by clergy. So, the CDF was already aware of what was going on before the feeding frenzy began in the media. It shows that when Cardinal Ratzinger became aware of the extent of the problem, he became more and more decisive in addressing it.

Here in the US, it is important to point out that these cases go back many years, or many decades. The impression was given that it wasn’t until this avalanche of reporting in 2002 that the US bishops got serious about addressing the problem. This problem had been dealt with for decades, and progress had been made. In fact, in the 90s, we saw many fewer cases of abuse reported. And today, there’s no safer place for a child or minor to be than in the presence of Catholic clergy, because we’ve become so aggressive in our safe environment program.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case. Yes, mistakes have been made. By the 80s, bishops would typically send anyone accused to treatment, and not restore him to ministry until a professional in the field gave him an evaluation and declared him ready to return to ministry. So, the bishops were relying on the expertise of those in the field.

I hope everything we’ve suffered because of this—in some cases, legitimately so, in others, not—will be used as an occasion to address this problem [of sexual abuse], which is all throughout society.

Do you foresee a return in vitality to the Church in America?

Cordileone: I think we will become a smaller, but more vibrant Church. I don’t know how we can retain those who are Catholic by routine or occasion in a society that doesn’t even support religious values, let alone Catholic ones. But others will tire of corruption and decadence in our society, and recognize the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching that we have received from Christ.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Jim Graves 238 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.