Tension over high school faculty handbook language and teacher labor contracts has escalated into a complex hardball confrontation between elements of the San Francisco Bay Area and the wider Catholic community.

The sharp polarity was largely launched on February 3 of this year when San Francisco archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone released a statement intended for faculty handbooks of the four high schools directly administered by the archdiocese. The text, he explained then, focused on hot-button issues for young people and the Bay Area.

San Francisco archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

He emphasized that he wished the Catholic identity of the schools to remain crystal clear. Titled “Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church,” the nearly 2,000-word narrative contained 15 “affirm and believe” declarations on church teaching on male-only priesthood, Sunday Mass obligation, homosexuality, marriage, and human reproduction.

Cordileone and others underscored that the document had been developed to counter societal pressures on students and faculty “to conform to a certain agenda at variance with, and often aggressively so, our Christian understanding of the human person and God’s purpose in creation,” in the archbishop’s words.

Intended as a freestanding section within the faculty handbooks, the statement also alerted all faculty to “arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine, or deny” church teaching.

At the same time, the archbishop released the texts of three clauses he would advocate for inclusion in teacher contracts at those four campuses. One of those clauses would classify teachers and staff as “ministers.”

Leaked in advance to the press, the contract language and handbook statement generated immediate pushback—a vigil staged on the steps of San Francisco’s St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, a critical editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, a statement by the California Teachers’ Association, and an online protest petition.

Criticism was also aired in an open letter from eight Bay Area state legislators, testimony at San Francisco Board of Supervisor meetings, commentaries in the National Catholic Reporter, a letter signed by 21 retired priests of the archdiocese, blogs and narratives by local priests, and an unprecedented full-page display ad in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 16, signed by more than100 high-profile Bay Area Catholics, asking Pope Francis to remove the archbishop.

Critics charged that the handbook statement ran roughshod over individual conscience, focused too much on sexual issues, invaded teachers’ private lives, employed inflammatory language, denigrated the gay community, and contradicted Pope Francis’ calls for inclusivity and mercy.

A petition asking the archbishop to withdraw his statement and stick with the existing faculty handbook was signed by 80 percent of the faculty and staff of the four affected schools in March.

The pushback against Cordileone’s initiative generated its own pushback. Editorials and commentaries in several Catholic publications and Web sites have asked in various ways, “How can a Catholic archbishop be faulted for requiring that faculty of Catholic schools teach Catholic doctrine and insist that faculty members and others do not take public stances against the church?”

Online support petitions for the churchman have received thousands of signatures. A May 16 downtown San Francisco park picnic honoring the archbishop drew about 500 participants.

Well-known Catholic columnist George Weigel summarized what many Cordileone supporters argue. Catholics should be “grateful for the courageous leadership shown by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone,” he wrote, “whose San Francisco archdiocese is arguably ground zero of the culture war that cannot be avoided—and that must be fought if Catholic institutions are to remain free to be themselves.

“This is going to be a nasty fight, given that ‘tolerance’ has become the all-purpose bludgeon with which the sexual revolution, in all its manifestations, beats its adversaries into submission or drives them into catacombs,” warned Weigel.

Cordileone’s uncompromising stances place him “squarely in the crosshairs of the increasingly intolerant Tolerance Police. More power to him for understanding that, like it or not, the culture war is interested in you—and responding is an evangelical imperative,” Weigel concluded.

Weigel rightly alluded to a bedrock issue at play in the Bay Area controversy: church doctrine on homosexuality, notably its strong prohibition of same-sex marriage. In short, one camp embraces church teaching on marriage as indissoluble, as possible between only one man and one woman, and as the sole sphere of sexual intercourse. The church teaches settled truth.

The other camp argues that Catholic doctrine on marriage and sexuality needs updating. Whether acknowledged by the Catholic Church or not, they say, marriage equality should be viewed as a civil right. Doctrine can develop over time.

Both sides accuse the other of caricaturing their positions. Any middle ground remains elusive.

Some observers feel that much of the opposition to Cordileone is fueled by lingering resentment over his role in the crafting, campaigning, and passage of Proposition 8 in 2008 while he was auxiliary bishop of San Diego. The law defined marriage in California as between one man and one woman; but was overturned by the courts in 2010.

Cordileone is also the U.S. Catholic bishops’ point man on marriage, serving as the chair of their Subcommittee for the Defense of Marriage. In that role he was a featured speaker at the June 2014 March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., despite requests from several Bay Area religious leaders and politicians—including former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic—not to do so. They claimed the event was defamatory of the LGBT community. Cordileone strongly denied that.

Thus, it was widely asked at the time of his appointment as archbishop in 2012 if Cordileone would be able to effectively lead an archdiocese whose namesake city-county voted 75 percent against Proposition 8 and whose culture is famously gay-friendly.

Supporters point out that the archbishop has been willing to meet with and listen to those who disagree with him. They note that he invited all clergy of the archdiocese to his residence to discuss the faculty handbook uproar; that he addressed more than 350 high school teachers at a February 6 convocation and answered questions from the assembly; that he requested a sit-down with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial staff; that he invited Brian Cahill to breakfast (the retired Catholic Charities director has been an outspoken critic and was one of the signers of the full-page ad asking Cordileone’s removal); that he met with officials of Dignity, an organization that advocates “for respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities . . . in the Catholic Church,” according to its Web site. And, backers underscore, Cordileone publicly conceded that his handbook statement had not been nuanced enough and that he had formed a committee of five high school theology teachers to rewrite and expand it—using a more pastoral approach and adding a social justice element.

The recast document was sent to the administrators of the four high schools over the weekend of May 29-31 for distribution to faculty and staff. In a May 29 accompanying cover letter, Cordileone praised teachers’ work and apologized for “lack of foresight” about the “several unintended consequences” of his initial statement that “created the tensions we have been experiencing.”

Despite the new narrative’s softer tone, it too has been harshly criticized. Much concern centers on what is known as the “ministerial exemption,” which can relieve some religious employers from antidiscrimination laws if an employee is considered part of the church ministerial work.

In a June 1 memo sent to members of the union representing teachers at the four archdiocesan high schools, the union executive council warned that the recast faculty handbook statement too closely “ties all faculty and staff” to the “religious mission of the schools (regardless of what they teach or their particular job).”

“In practical terms,” the union leadership continued, “this means that it could be possible for the archdiocese to terminate the employment of a faculty or staff member who, for example, divorces, utilizes in vitro fertilization or contraception—all connected to one’s personal life, not their duties at school. . . . In short, it could allow the archbishop to act in violation of state and federal employment and discrimination laws and chances are that the faculty or staff member would have no legal recourse—a recourse enjoyed by other teachers and school employees across California and the rest of the country.”

Cordileone and archdiocesan officials, however, have emphasized that they are interested neither in a “witch hunt” nor in prying into employees’ personal lives.

Asked in February, for example, if a teacher could or would be terminated if school officials became aware of his or her same-sex marriage, both the superintendent of schools and director of the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Identity Assessment gave “maybe, maybe not” responses.

“A teacher in a same-sex marriage is problematic only if the teacher goes out of his/her way to publicize it and thereby at least implicitly criticize church doctrine,” wrote OCIA director Melanie Morey in an e-mail. “Family and friends may know about this marriage, but that does not make it public in the sense the word is used in the collective bargaining agreement. In order for it to be a cause for some intervention by the school, the teacher has to go out of his/her way to emphasize that the position of the Catholic Church is wrong,” Morey wrote.

“Another way of saying this,” she added, “is that just because it is ‘no secret’ or ‘publicly known’ that someone is living in a situation that is not in accord with Catholic teaching, that does not mean that it would be a subject of professional discipline. The question is whether the teacher did some intentional action to make it public, such that it represents a public challenge to the church’s teaching itself.”

An explanatory narrative issued at the time of the original faculty handbook statement’s rollout on February 3 stated: “The archdiocese has no intention of ‘rooting out’ those who are not Catholic or those who do not assent completely to Catholic teaching. The archdiocese and the schools stand for the teachings of the Catholic Church in their entirety, and the handbook for each of our high schools will contain a statement affirming certain key facets of these teachings. But these statements are of the school as an institution, not of the individual teachers. On the contrary, the statement specifically acknowledges that not all of our teachers will agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches.”

Only four of the 14 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese come under its direct administration: Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Marin Catholic in Kentfield, and Junipero Serra in San Mateo.

About 470 full- and part-time teachers and staff are employed at those four schools, which enroll about 3,600 students. The union represents “about 400 members,” nearly all of them full-time teachers, union officials said.

None of the other 10 high schools are unionized, and union officials say San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers Local 2240 is the only Catholic high school union west of the Mississippi.

Interestingly, Cordileone friend and supporter Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio says Pope Francis “might have been wittingly or unwittingly responsible” for the Bay Area brouhaha through the media highlighting papal comments on homosexuality, marriage, and other topics that could have “heightened expectations” of those who question areas of church teaching. Papal comments undergirding orthodox Catholic doctrine are underreported, he said.

Article Author: Dan Morris-Young

Dan Morris-Young is the west coast correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and has written extensively on developments surrounding Catholic identity issues in the San fFancisco Bay Area.