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KC Bishop Resigns Under Fire, and SF Archbishop is Nervous

St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco (with its very nice basement)

Friends from San Francisco eagerly sent me links last week to stories like this about an ad taken out by a group of influential Roman Catholic laypeople, calling for Pope Francis to remove SF Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. The reasons are many, but center on his efforts to insert a strongly conservative morality clause into the faculty handbooks of RC high schools and his general attitude of highhandedness and authoritarianism. Installing and using sprinklers to force the homeless away from the Cathedral at night probably didn’t help either.

I laughed when I got these links, and told my friends that while they, I, and others might like Cordileone gone, Francis is not likely to remove him any time soon. Looking at the broad context of Francis and his papacy, Francis is trying to be strategic in picking his battles, and forcing Cordileone out would come at a large cost as Francis tries to reform the Curia – the governing structures of the Vatican – as it would give Francis’ conservative critics a cause around which to gather. Looking more narrowly, I told my friends, there are at least two other bishops with major problems, including Bishop Robert Finn here in KC who was convicted of failing to report a priest for suspicions of child abuse in 2012. Despite this conviction, Finn has remained in office as bishop here, though a formal Vatican investigation was under way. As long as a convicted criminal is allowed to remain the bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, I said, an unconvicted and unpopular bishop like Cordileone has nothing to worry about.

Then on Tuesday, the Vatican announced Bishop Finn’s resignation.

And on Wednesday, Archbishop Cordileone made a stunning announcement of his own via twitter: “After much consideration, I won’t attend March for Marriage this year.   Will be there in spirit, but priority is dialogue w teachers in SF.”

On the surface, this looks like a bishop concerned about a pressing local issue, declining to take part in a larger national event out of pastoral concern for what is happening at home. But underneath, it’s clear that its about much more than that.

When it comes to the Catholic Church’s battle against marriage equality, Cordileone isn’t just any bishop. He worked hard to get Prop 8 passed in California, snubbed the anti-Prop 8 Episcopal bishop at Cordileone’s installation service, and is the current head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on the promotion and defense of marriage. Last year, he spoke at the March for Marriage, despite the opposition to his participation. For him to stay home from a march tied to the pending is a sign about how concerned he is about matters closer to home — and I’m not talking about the teachers’ contracts.

Here’s what I mean . . .

Francis has already signaled his frustrations with bishops who are more concerned with their own comfort than the lives of their people, or who are more concerned with fighting the culture wars than caring for the poor and needy. He demanded and got the resignation of the German “Bishop of Bling” for his ostentatious renovations to the bishop’s home, and now has apparently done the same with Finn over not just protecting a priest engaged in child pornography but also over the divisions he fostered in his diocese. That has to make Cordileone a bit nervous, especially if he reflects on the two recent plumbing projects in the news — one in St. Peter’s Square and the other at his own SF Cathedral.

Last November, Francis ordered that showers be installed for the homeless in St. Peter’s Square, and the work was finished in February. When it was opened, Francis also prevailed on barbers in Rome to provide their services as well, and he also invited the homeless for tours of St. Peters, greeting them personally:

“Welcome,” the pope said. “This is everyone’s house, this is your home. The doors are always open for all.”

At the same time, Cordileone was installing a sprinkler system to keep the homeless away from the doors of his cathedral.

The cathedral, at Geary and Gough, is the home church of the Archbishop. There are four tall side doors, with sheltered alcoves, that attract homeless people at night.

“They actually have signs in there that say, ‘No Trespassing,’” said a homeless man named Robert.

But there are no signs warning the homeless about what happens in these doorways, at various times, all through the night. Water pours from a hole in the ceiling, about 30 feet above, drenching the alcove and anyone in it.

The shower ran for about 75 seconds, every 30 to 60 minutes while we were there, starting before sunset, simultaneously in all four doorways. KCBS witnessed it soak homeless people, and their belongings.

[Video at the link.]

Does anyone know the latin word for “facepalm”?

Two things probably got Cordileone’s attention with Finn’s resignation. One is what was said by the Vatican, and the other is what was not said.

What was said was the section of canon law under which Finn resigned. Section 401.2 of canon law that says a bishop should resign when he “has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” That “other grave cause” is the part that made it impossible for Finn to continue serving KC as its bishop, and the more the local clamor continues in SF, those calling for Cordileone’s departure will point to the same clause with respect to him.

What wasn’t said, though, is the part that perhaps frightened Cordileone the most.

In the past, when a local bishop finds himself in trouble of some kind, the Vatican will promote that bishop out of trouble, often into a Vatican post of some kind. St. Louis’ then-archbishop Raymond Burke, for instance, created a huge mess during his tenure in St. Louis, and was promoted to Rome to head up the Vatican’s supreme court. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law was transferred out of Boston at the height of their child abuse scandal to serve in a ceremonial post in Rome, as a comfortable place to ease into retirement.

The announcement about Finn, on the other hand, simply said that he had resigned. It didn’t announce that he had been given a new position — though that may yet happen — but said in essence that the situation was so bad in KC right now because of Finn’s presence, it was best that he depart. Now. Not when something new can be arranged, to allow him to save face, but now.

That, my friends, is not the way things used to be done, and Cordileone knows it. Given that within 24 hours he pulled out of the marriage march next week as the Supreme Court takes up his big personal battle, I’d say Cordileone got the message.

I’ve written before in this space about Father Thomas P. Doyle, OP, who for decades tried and failed to get the Roman Catholic bishops to recognize the problem they were facing with predatory priests. Instead of shuttling them around, urged Doyle, you better start holding them accountable yourselves, because the civil courts are about to do that for you. The bishops didn’t listen, instead choosing to marginalize Doyle within the American church, but events since then have only proven Doyle right.

Doyle recently reviewed a book on the use of canon law in addressing the child abuse scandal. According to Doyle, the book, Potiphar’s Wife, “clearly demonstrates that the church’s legal system has not only been a hindrance to justice for the victims, but an enabler to the perpetrators.” Speaking more fully, Doyle notes

I have been a canonist long enough to know that canon law never had a chance. My belief is based on the fact that canon law is a legal system in service to a monarchy. By its very nature, the primary goal is to protect the monarchs. There is no separation of powers in the Catholic church, hence no checks and balances.

It doesn’t take a seer with a crystal ball to know what happens in a society when there are no restraints on the sources of power. The short history of the contemporary chapter of the church’s problem with destructive sexual behavior has proven beyond a doubt that the institution’s main concern is the protection of the hierarchy and not the victims.

Cordileone’s defenders specifically and conservatives generally are quick to say “the Catholic church is not a democracy.” They are, as Doyle notes, right. But there’s a new monarch in town, with some very different ideas about how the hierarchy ought to behave — and Cordileone knows it.

Just to make sure the message is clear, however, Francis might want to make a powerful signal with the person he selects to replace Finn. I’ve got a suggestion that might just do the trick . . .


h/t to Amanda Walker for the photograph of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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