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‘All our detractors can do is call us names’

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone tells Mary O’Regan we can achieve ‘spiritual greatness’ in the fight for marriage

By on Monday, 28 January 2013

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco (Photo: CNS)

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco (Photo: CNS)

If you had no idea that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is an Italian-American who had four Sicilian grandparents, his hands would give the game away. From the minute we start talking in the parlour of the London Oratory, he gestures with his fingers and swirls his hands for emphasis. I even wonder whether, if his hands were tied, he would be able to speak. 

But speak up he must. Now, as Archbishop of San Francisco, he is one of the most vocal members of the US bishops’ conference in objecting to the re-definition of marriage.

Promoting marriage is not a new mission for the shepherd. As a newly ordained diocesan priest in California, he confronted the situation of preparing young couples for marriage who were not always fully practising their Catholic faith. Then, as a veteran canon lawyer of the Apostolic Signatura, his speciality was the legal points of marriage. This month he was invited to London in his capacity as a member of the working group on the liturgy for the Anglican ordinariates. Archbishop Cordileone’s contribution is to bring the perspective of a canon lawyer and a pastor. This was especially helpful in preparing the rite for marriage that will be used by former Anglicans who are coming into the Catholic Church, so that their traditions are incorporated into the marriage ceremony, while it remains an entirely Catholic and canonically correct rite.

The 56-year-old is a native of San Diego and grew up in a strong, inter-dependent Italian-American family, with his paternal grandparents living next door and his maternal grandparents a few miles away. During his childhood he was in constant contact with his grandparents, who spoke the old Sicilian dialect with his parents, as well as with his entire extended family on both sides. They didn’t keep every feature of life from the old country; as he says, “our generation lost the old Sicilian language”. But the family remained loyal to the traditional pieties of Sicilian Catholicism. St Joseph was the focal point of their devotions.

On the feast day of Jesus’s foster father they set up an altar in their home with his statue and three loaves of bread to represent the Holy Family, which included a braided loaf of bread for Our Lady. They would stage a drama of the Holy Family coming into the home, with a young girl as Mary, an older man as Joseph and, on several occasions, the young Salvatore was in role as Jesus.

The archbishop says there was never a time when he struggled with his faith or did not believe in God. He did, however, feel the stirrings of a vocation, while also feeling drawn to being a husband and father.

“My main challenge in seminary was interior, in discerning if this was really my call,” he explains. “When I entered the seminary at the age of 19, in 1975, I felt strongly inclined in that direction but was not yet absolutely convinced that God was calling me to be a priest. It was when I gave my life totally to God, I felt a burden was lifted from my shoulders, and had the confirmation of my vocation to the priesthood.”

At seminary he developed a keen attachment to St Peter Claver, a favourite saint whose courageous ministry to African-Americans and radical holiness has inspired him throughout his 30 years of priesthood. Now, as a member of the Church hierarchy, he continues to pray to the patron saint of slaves, for “commitment to the Church’s mission and for graces to help the poor and marginalised”.

As Archbishop Cordileone was a seminarian in the 1970s, the obvious question is whether he inclined more to the spirit of rebellion of that time or if he held true to the Church’s time-honoured teachings.

“I’m quite a law-abiding type who doesn’t have a problem with authority,” he says, “but more than that, the Church’s teachings are completely rational and made sense to me.”

It was the time of the Humanae Vitae wars: did he have any problems with any of the details in the most resisted encyclical of the age? No, in fact, in 1978 he and some fellow seminarians travelled from San Diego to San Francisco so that they could attend a symposium held by the archdiocese in honour of the 10th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.

After he was ordained in 1982, he was assigned to St Martin de Tours church, near where he had grown up, which was a very friendly parish. This was, however, the era immediately after the sexual revolution and as a young priest starting out he found it difficult to know what to do when couples who were living together wanted to be married in the Church.

“To begin with, I was naïve enough to think that people would follow reason, and I would say to couples that, if they wanted a Catholic wedding, were they not aware that they were violating Catholic teaching by cohabiting? They would respond that it was ‘special’ to get married in the Church. But I learned that you can’t make a blanket policy; you have to look at each case separately. You have to know the couple well first, and pick your moment for asking that they live separately before the wedding. One couple had coped with a lot of addiction problems and had come very far in their journey of faith very quickly, and they didn’t have family close by. So I was concerned that asking them to live apart would jeopardise the progress they had made so far. But instead I asked them to sleep apart before their wedding, and I believe them when they told me they did.”

After he finished his stint at St Martin of Tours, he was sent to Rome in 1985 to study canon law. The 1983 code had been promulgated, and he was one of the priests selected to go to Rome. It was while studying at the Gregorian University that he got to know the future cardinal Mgr Raymond Burke, when the Wisconsin-born prelate taught a course on jurisprudence. Archbishop Cordileone says that Cardinal Burke was the same then as now, “very gentle and gracious, wise and holy”.

It is often said that Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone were colleagues, collaborating on projects together for years at the Apostolic Signatura, but in reality this was not the case. Fr Cordileone started at the Vatican’s canonical court in early 1995, just as Mgr Burke was leaving to return to America. At the Apostolic Signatura, Fr Cordileone’s main duty was to advise bishops on their tribunals, especially regarding annulments of marriage on grounds such as “psychic incapacity”, which refers to an instance where a person may not be capable of understanding what they are committing themselves to in marriage. It was no mean feat that he had responsibility for all the English-speaking countries and select Spanish-speaking countries.

Having earned his stripes at the Apostolic Signatura, he returned to California and became an Auxiliary Bishop of San Diego in 2002. A new chapter in his priestly ministry began when he was asked by a group of lay people to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form. An elderly Augustinian priest, Fr Neely, taught him how to offer it. Archbishop Cordileone is quick to add that the task was made easier because “I only had to learn the rubrics. When I worked at the Apostolic Signatura, I would go to a Benedictine convent to celebrate the Triduum. There I learned to sing the Mass in Latin and the chants are the same in both forms of the Mass.”

For nearly 10 years Archbishop Cordileone has accepted invitations to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. In the middle of our interview, the Oratorian priest Fr Rupert pops in and asks the archbishop if he will offer the 8am Tridentine Mass the next day, and he enthusiastically agrees to do so. Commenting on what he feels distinguishes the Extraordinary Form, Archbishop Cordileone says: “With that form of Mass you can feel the Church breathing through the centuries.”

He has strong opinions about Latin. “It is the common language of the Catholic world and it’s especially advantageous when people of different language backgrounds come together,” he says. “The irony is that the Church made the move to the vernacular just at the point in history when, because of migration and tourism, people began travelling all over the world. Thus, it would be convenient to have a shared language that we can all worship in. But it does make sense to have parts in the vernacular, such as the Propers and especially the readings.”

We get on to discussing why there is a relatively high number of young men pursuing vocations in seminaries dedicated to the Extraordinary Form. “The Old Rite corresponds more to a masculine spirituality in that the masculine psyche is one that protects, defends and provides, and during the Mass the priest is the one who dares to approach God to reconcile His people to him. In the Old Rite there is a greater sense of the priest as intercessor, offering a sacrifice for the people and bringing God’s gift to the people.”

While women may not become priests, Archbishop Cordileone clarifies that women do not in any way occupy second place. Instead, he pinpoints why women should be shown the highest respect and says that chivalrous practices such as holding a door open for a woman ought to be the norm. “A woman should walk out, ahead of the man, because she is the life-giver and, in holding a door for a woman, the man is recognising her special place as the one who gives life.” He says that mantillas, or chapel veils, are a way for a woman to veil their sacredness: “In Christian worship what is sacred is veiled, women are sacred because they are the life-givers.”

Why are the youth associated more and more with the Old Rite? “It follows the phenomenon of young people being more traditional in their religion,” he says. “In the years after the Council there were social revolutions in religious groups and the thinking was that the Church should be more like modern culture. Prayerfully minded young people of this generation want something different or opposed to secular culture. But they perceive the failures of western civilisation. They want something seriously Catholic and meaty.”

He does say, however, that being drawn to the external beautiful trappings of Catholicism is not enough. “We won’t deepen their faith by window dressing. They might be attracted to externals and there’s nothing wrong there, but we also have to bring them to a deeper faith.”  

People are quick to say there is something staunchly “traditional” about Archbishop Cordileone. He says the rosary every morning. He traces many modern-day problems back to the secular doctrine that discounts the differences between men and women (the specific confusion, he explains, is that men and women are conditioned to think of themselves as the same and not complementary). And he loves the Tridentine Mass. But he sees a potentially dangerous trend in the traditionalist movement, if it simply wants to revert to a distant time in the past and stay there. Here, Archbishop Cordileone refers to Ronald Knox, who called this blinkered outlook “an impoverishment of our heritage”. But where does one find a happy medium between the old and the new? He hails the London Oratory, with its Ordinary Form in Latin and frequent Benediction, as “the ideal model of the hermeneutic of continuity, which has been so consistently promoted by Pope Benedict”.

Other than being a leader in liturgical renewal, Archbishop Cordileone is best known as the chairman of the US bishops’ subcommittee for the promotion and defence of marriage. He was appointed to this position in 2011. Since then, he has earned the ire of many gay marriage campaigners and his appointment to San Francisco was met with sharp words from some outspoken progressive locals. From our point of view in Britain, we may think the gay marriage lobby is surrounding Archbishop Cordileone on all sides, but support for him often outnumbers the opposition. On his installation day, October 4 2012, there were reportedly a maximum number of three dozen protesters outside. But many more people came to show support, chief among them being members of the Neocatechumenal Way, who held banners proclaiming: “Teaching the Truth about the Family.”

If people of Italian blood sometimes have a reputation for being hot-tempered, Archbishop Cordileone defies this image by being unflappable. He consistently uses level-headed logic in arguing against same-sex marriage.

He says: “Truth is clear. Wanting children to be connected to a mother and father discriminates against no one. Every child has a father and a mother, and either you support the only institution that connects a child with their father and mother or you don’t. Adoption, by a mother and father, mirrors the natural union of a mother and father and provides a balanced, happy alternative for when a child may not be reared by their biological parents.”

I tell him that I’m searching for good theological answers against gay marriage, but he corrects this notion by saying: “If you use theology, you will play into their hands and they will say you use religion to control people. Marriage isn’t primarily in theology; marriage is in nature. Theology builds on the natural institution, giving us a deeper mystical and supernatural sense of its meaning.”

I admit that I didn’t step up to the plate when Channel 4 invited me on live television to debate gay marriage, because I didn’t want to become a hate figure. I feared my career would suffer and I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. The archbishop sighs and responds: “You say that you can’t debate it without suffering for your beliefs, so who is being discriminated against? Who is being intolerant? It is the secular orthodoxy that allows no dissent and will punish those who do.”

When I concede that I feel like a coward for passing up the opportunity to argue the case for marriage on television, Archbishop Cordileone says: “It’s a lot easier for us priests to speak out. Fellow clergy are not going to marginalise us. And we’re not going to be passed up for a promotion or lose our jobs!”

While speaking out may be less daunting for priests, he encourages lay people to embrace the challenge, which
for us in Britain means actively opposing the forthcoming gay marriage Bill. Archbishop Cordileone urges us to see it as a way of winning grace. “Fighting for marriage is our way of loving God, and the struggle is the particular gift that God has given our generation. This is our particular trial, and by overcoming it we may achieve spiritual greatness. It will entail suffering if we are to oppose gay marriage, something which poses such destruction to the understanding of natural marriage, which is a child-oriented institution.”

Archbishop Cordileone cautions against over-using the term “gay marriage”, advising that it should be used “only sparingly” because it is a natural impossibility and if we keep talking about gay marriage we might fool ourselves into thinking it is an authentic reality, which only needs government approval to make it legitimate. He compares it with another impossibility: “Legislating for the right for people of the same sex to marry is like legalising male breastfeeding.”   

One could get the impression that Archbishop Cordileone is an uncompromisingly serious person. It’s true that his face can be set in deep contemplation and his compelling blue eyes can seem still and sombre, but his face lights up when he laughs and his eyes shine with mirth. When I lose my train of thought, mess up a question and excuse myself as not being Mensa but Densa, he curls up in a spontaneous fit of boyish giggles. He finds the idea of going on Twitter hilarious, and says: “I don’t know where I’ll find the time for a Twitter account. But if I can find a way to go on Twitter, then I will!”

Even if opponents do not agree with his stance on same-sex marriage, he commands respect for his persistence in arguing for marriage between a man and a woman, in the face of being called homophobic and charged with the erroneous idea that he discriminates against gay people and lesbians. All the same, it must be unnerving at times to be on the receiving end of such hostility in San Francisco. But he doesn’t let it get to him. “All our detractors can do is call us names,” he says. He throws his hands up in the air, and adds: “Big deal if they shout at us or throw insults!”

When I say that people in Britain who oppose gay marriage have been slammed as “bigots”, by people who won’t allow any opinion but their own, he says: “How ironic!”

It’s not that Archbishop Cordileone is so indifferent and hard that he does not feel the sting of slurs. Rather, he knows that winning the battle is more important, even if it will mean personal suffering. Courage is writ large on his determined face, and he is living up to the demands of his Italian surname, which means “heart of a lion”.

  • mollysdad

    Our detractors can call us names all right. They can call us bigots. We can call them sodomites. Now, there’s an offer they can’t refuse!

  • AndreaGregorio

    Another example of a self-hating homosexual punishing in other people what he hates in himself!  When will the Faithful realise that the most vociferous opponents of homosexuality are those who have the biggest problem with their own sexual nature?!  Oh well, let me tell you, it’ll take more than this self-hater to change things in SF!  But let him try…. As his precessors, he will fail….. Like Canute he imagines he can turn the tide back against a completely unstoppable Movement for Justice and Liberty. 

  • John_Seven

    “…he commands respect for his persistence in arguing for marriage between a man and a woman…” Please be honest, nobody is arguing against men and women getting married, you are arguing against certain people being allowed to use the word marriage!

  • drj81

    The argument is against the re-definition of marriage and includes many, many issues. The issues have not been addressed and yet the re-definition is to be imposed.

  • Nick

    It is not to be imposed – it will be democratically voted for or against by our elected MP’s in a free vote – that’s about as far away from ‘imposed’ as you can get.

  • Nick

    Another Catholic fixated with sex and forgetting about love!

  • Nick

    “Promoting marriage is not a new mission for the shepherd.”
    Good for him – promoting marriage is all anyone is trying to do.

  • Parasum

    ## Rather than mis-describing as a group those who favour gay marriage, why not reply to the objections made by those who point out the flaws in the positions put forward by those who object to gay marriage ?  If  Mgr. Cordileone has an answer to the objections people make against his arguments – let’s hear them. But no-one is going to be persuaded by arguments against gay marriage that are full of holes in logic, history, theology, doctrine, or in other ways; nor should arguments in favour, when vitiated by such flaws, be any more persuasive. Is the CC so afraid of losing, that it can’t have an honest discussion ? If so – let it say so. Then we will all know where we stand.

  • rightactions

     Heh.  Perhaps your real gripe, Nick, is that you’d love for Mollysdad to forget that you’re fixated on sex.  But it’s not Mollysdad you must confess to.

  • rightactions

     Don’t know what ‘imposed’ means, eh?

    Suppose you were an MP.  And suppose you voted to require everyone to pretend pi equals 3, a same-sex sham marriage is a real marriage, and counterfeit bills must be accepted as money.  And suppose you were an idiot.  Ahh, but I repeat myself thrice over.

  • rightactions

    False.  You’re promoting false marriage as if it were a real marriage.

  • rightactions

    “Gay” is a politics.  “Gay marriage” is a nonsenical sham as a special “Labour Party marriage” would also be.  Except “gay marriage” would be worse.  Labour doesn’t yet require the practitioners of its politics to be perverts.  QED.

  • AlanMacD

    It will be imposed because those who do not believe it is right will be forced to support this change or face ruin. This is already happening around the world. Wedding planners being sued for not accepting gays as clients, for example. Adoption agencies have closed because of the requirement to allow adoptions by gay couples. Merely allowing gays to call themselves married is not the end game. The end game is complete subservience and the power to force compliance. You will likely support this. 

  • AlanMacD

    Why don’t you list those supposed holes in logic, history, theology rather than just claiming them?

    The argument above is simply that nature and reality are clear on the matter.  Marriage is a name for what society recognizes is natural and good in familial relationships. Homosexuality is abnormal and though homosexuals should be treated compassionately, homosexual coupling is different and of less value to society and children. To call both couplings equal is to say that they are interchangeable, which is patently false. 

  • Jonathan

    We’re not forced to support it.  Only accommodate it.  We accommodate the reality of divorce, sex outside marriage, sin in all its forms… We even accommodate living alongside people of other faiths and none.  We can accommodate this too.

  • Jonathan

    Homosexuality is not abnormal.  The Church hierarchy’s attitude towards it is abnormal.

  • JabbaPapa

    Normality is defined as being the typical traits that are found in individual specimens ; 98.5% of humanity is heterosexual.

    Ergo, the 1.5% tiny minority that are not cannot be defined as “normal” — but rather by such words as “different” or “abnormal” or “atypical”.

  • Jonathan

    In a given population, it’s normal for around 1.5% to be homosexual.  Got it – thanks!

  • wister

    I am married. I am not Roman Catholic. While the Archbishop is entitled to his religiously dictated belief he has no right to try to impose those beliefs on me. All anyone is talking about is civil marriage. By pretending otherwise the Archbishop makes himself look like a liar. I’m sure that’s not the intention but it is the result.

    The Archbishop works to deny my husband and I the ciivl protections that civil marriage confers. He has a long history of defaming gay people, even though some of them are part of his congregation, then casts himself as being the victim of discrimination and slurs. As if his meddling in the lives of others made of him a hero. Perhaps he’s a hero to some but it should be remembered that he thrust himself, by his own choice, into this debate so he must take responsibility for his own actions. My ability to file joint tax returns with my husband in no way interferes with his ability to pray to whatever saint he chooses. 

  • MarkSF94117

    This is the same Archbishop who was arrested for drunk driving: http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/DUI-charge-for-future-SF-archbishop-3818655.php

  • diakonon

    Well no, your detractors can do a lot more than call you names (though you deserve every one of them). Notice how 3 states legalized same sex marriage with popular votes a few months back? Would say it took a lot more than calling you guys names to get to that point.

  • MarkSF94117

    And from the LA Times, his plea bargain and conviction on reckless driving: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/10/san-francisco-archbishop-dui-reckless-driving.html

  • David_in_Houston

    I’m confused. Which one of Newt Gingrich’s (U.S. politician, anti-gay bigot) adulterous marriages were the “real” marriage? I’m guessing Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage was also “real”?

  • David_in_Houston

    “Expanding” the right to marry to more citizens does not “redefine” marriage for those that already have that right. In other words, straight men will continue to marry straight women if gay couples can ALSO get married.

  • FoxIsForRetards

    Cordileone = DRUNK DRIVER!

  • MarkSF94117

    Adoption agencies in California were required to treat same-sex couples equally before marriage equality, when marriage equality was in effect and during this period of Prop 8.  They will still have to treat same-sex couple equally after prop 8 is struck down by the Supreme Court.  If you want to run an adoption agency, you must abide by the law.

  • David_in_Houston

    Non-discrimination laws pertain to businesses that provide services in the public sphere. Marriage equality doesn’t change that. Adoption agencies have closed because of existing non-discrimination laws AND the fact that they are being subsidized by the government. You cannot take taxpayer monies (which partially come from gay people) and discriminate against those same people. Catholic Charities in Colorado said they would leave the state if civil unions were legal, even if they were given an exemption from the state. Does the word “martyr” ring a bell?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Homer-Thiel/1407870055 Homer Thiel

    It amazes me that people actually believe this man is straight. 

  • The Professor

    It is interesting that the person who posed a REAL danger to children (ie. driving under the influence of alcohol) is making a straw man out of gay couples. People killed by drunk drivers = 10,228 in 2010. People killed by marriage equality = 0. Is that name calling? OK.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/salvatore-cordileone-dui_n_1834213.html

  • David_in_Houston

    The actual percentage is probably closer to 10%. Six percent of those under the age of 30 identify as gay. It’s not unreasonable to assume that 4% might be concealing their sexual orientation, or aren’t cognizant of it.

    Only 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish. So we should assume that denying them civil equality and equal treatment under the law is justified since they are “abnormal” compared to the rest of society.