Ads and judgments in the City by the Bay

How will Pope Francis respond to judgmental claims against Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone?

On his return from Rio in 2013, Pope Francis was asked a “delicate question” about how he might “confront the whole question of the gay lobby”. In response, he noted that “not all lobbies are good” and then stated, “ If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”—which was quickly and famously shortened in many quarters to “Who am I to judge?” 

At the time, I wrote a CWR column on the coverage of his words in the San Francisco and San Jose papers. While neither paper specifically judged that the Pope had changed anything, the general impression was that everything had changed, especially in those issues that seem to matter most “to the City by the Bay”. If things had not technically changed, they soon would; the Catholic Church was about to join what is piously called “the modern world”.

Since that time, Pope Francis has been made aware of how his off-the-cuff remarks are taken in various parts of the world. But, as he said in a recent interview on Mexican television, that is the way he is; he is not likely to change (Televisa, March 6, 2015). The Pope in fact makes some pretty hard judgments—on the priest who would not baptize a child, on the lady with the seven caesarian operations, on businessmen who do not pay just wages, on members of his own Curia, on cardinals who do not hear confessions.

In a full-page ad addressed to him recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, Pope Francis is asked by some “concerned Catholics”—quoting “Who am I to judge?”, of course—to remove the local Archbishop. They have “judged” Archbishop Cordileone unworthy. While this open-letter approach may not be the best way to get their message across, it generated much local publicity.

If the Pope were to respond to this pleading, no doubt, we could expect that soon half the newspapers in the world would have similar ads requesting, even demanding, a change of any Ordinary who crosses the interests of some vocal group. This is probably not the best way to run a 7/11, let alone a Church. But I have no objection to anyone running an ad, provided everyone else is free to have the same privilege. What is interesting about our times is the increasing number of things we can no longer freely talk about without offending someone. Catholicism itself is becoming one of these forbidden topics.

As far as I can judge, the Archbishop’s sin was to request that employees in Catholic institutions respect and teach, if that is their job, what actual Catholic positions are. As many commentators have pointed out, no one would raise an eyelash if Jewish leaders insisted on a similar rule in Jewish schools, or Muslims in Muslim schools. Suppose I worked for Toyota but told my customers that I drove a Mercedes myself and would not be caught dead in a Toyota. My job would be terminated and justly so. Toyota probably would not mind if I drove a Model-A or a Lexus if I only shut up about it while making a sale of Toyota.

The Archbishop similarly did not ask anyone to change how he actually lived. People are employed in Catholic (or any other) institutions to promote the purpose for which they are hired. This is common practice in any hiring. It is a question of simple common-sense justice and respect. Someone has to see that this purpose is being carried out.

But this case is not just a minor spat in the City by the Bay. Seen in a larger context, it is something every bishop in the United States—if not in much of the world—has to face. Must all institutions, private or public, now be licensed in such a manner that they are required to teach or practice only what is set down by the state? While this issue is, unfortunately, framed as if it were a religious freedom issue, which in part it is, it is not a “Catholic” issue as such.

The Catholic Church finds itself to be the defender of reasonable discourse in a relativist world that prefers the will of the state to what really makes sense. If every institution must conform in thought and action to what the state demands—if there is to be no escape in any corner of society—we are dealing with imposed ideology, whatever else we might call it. Such claims begin in little corners of the world, even by the Bay. They are made in the name of democracy, freedom, and rights. But behind them is that iron glove that insists that no dissent, however reasonable or from whatever source, is to be tolerated. At bottom, as far as I can see, this ad is essentially asking the Pope to approve the iron glove.

What should the Pope do? The Holy Father often says that he welcomes questions and opinions from any place. In the same recent Mexican interview, Pope Francis mentioned the bishop of Moreles in Mexico. He is a brave man caught in the midst of the drug wars. The Pontiff judged that the best way to help him, when he is pressed and harassed even by threats of his life, was to make him a Cardinal.

If there is any area in which the Church and the Pope himself are more hard-pressed to take a stand than issues concerning family, education, and how we ought to live, I do not know what it is. I give no advice and cannot afford to take out advertisements. But I am grateful for the San Francisco Chronicle ad because it serves to clear the mind about what is really at stake.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.