SAN FRANCISCO – Many Roman Catholics in this city named for humble St. Francis are sparring with each other on social media and in letters to the editor over one figure: Their leader in the faith, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.
Cordileone is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage in one of the country's most gay-friendly cities. He has proposed that staff at archdiocese high schools "affirm and believe" that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual relations outside of marriage are "gravely evil." He was scheduled to attend a March for Marriage rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend, but canceled to address unrest over his proposed morality clauses.
"I was expecting some controversy," said Cordileone in an interview this week, "but not to this degree. And I thought we would be able to sit down and work things out."
Critics of Cordileone placed a full-page ad this month in the San Francisco Chronicle, pleading with Pope Francis for a leader with a more inclusive agenda. Then the archbishop's supporters put out their own press release, arguing the man was only defending the church's teachings.
The archdiocese issued a statement saying that the 100-plus signers "presume to speak for the Catholic Community of San Francisco. They do not."
"I think he is a culture warrior down to this toes," said Brian Cahill, former executive director of Catholic Charities CYO and who signed the letter in the Chronicle ad. "I don't think he would maliciously or deliberately cause anyone pain, but it would be my opinion, and the opinion of many others, that he's just done that."
Eva Muntean, who organized a picnic to support Cordileone, calls complaining Catholics self-absorbed and confused. "Can you imagine he wants them to be Catholic? It's amazing to me this is even an issue," Muntean said.
Cordileone, 58, is the third of four children born to Mary and Leon Cordileone, a commercial fisherman. He grew up in San Diego and played saxophone in his high school band. In 1981, he received an undergraduate degree in sacred theology and was ordained the following year. He is a lifelong fan of jazz, pro football and baseball.
As auxiliary bishop of San Diego, Cordileone helped spearhead passage of the state Proposition 8 gay marriage ban in 2008, which later was struck down in federal court.
In 2009, Cordileone was appointed bishop of Oakland and three years later he was named archbishop of San Francisco, an immigrant-rich archdiocese with about half a million Catholics. He was formally installed days after pleading guilty to a reckless driving charge following a drunken driving arrest in San Diego.
"I know in my life God has always had a way of putting me in my place. I would say, though, that in the latest episode of my life, God has outdone himself," Cordileone said at the time.
Since 2011, he has chaired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops subcommittee that works to oppose same-sex marriage nationwide. Last year, Cordileone attended the second annual March for Marriage, although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, both practicing Catholics, called on him to cancel.
In recent months, Cordileone became a lightning rod for additional criticism. He supported a pastor who declared that girls would no longer be allowed to serve at Mass. Then the archdiocese apologized for installing sprinklers at St. Mary's Cathedral to keep the homeless from sleeping in alcoves.
In February, the archbishop had announced that staff at four Catholic high schools must adhere to morality clauses in handbooks that declare homosexual relations, masturbation and viewing pornography as "gravely evil."
That caused hundreds to rally outside St. Mary's, saying they feared for gay students and teachers. About 80 percent of 440 faculty and staff signed a petition in March asking him to forgo the clauses.
On the other side, more than 40,000 people have signed a petition at Chicago-based CatholicVote.org cheering on Cordileone.
Cordileone said he has scrapped the controversial clauses and is drafting more positive affirmations — but don't expect the basic message to change. "The content won't be changed," he said. "The language and tone will be changed."