A few, but not enough, tough questions for Cordileone

I have been out of the country for several days, which means it's time to back up a bit and look at a Los Angeles Times story that inspired varying opinions from GetReligion readers. This story was especially interesting, since it is rare to get email from conservative Catholics who think that a major newspaper may have gone a bit too easy on a conservative bishop. The bishop in question is San Francisco Archbishop-designate Salvatore Cordileone, who has a reputation in the media -- accurate, in this case -- as a strong defender of Catholic doctrines on moral theology, including sexuality. Thus, the Los Angeles Times story starts precisely where you would expect it to start, since Rome has decided to send Cordileone to San Francisco. There are few surprises in these opening paragraphs:

SAN FRANCISCO -- The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI has been dubbed the "Bombshell by the Bay."

Next week, a key player in the passage of Proposition 8 -- a man who has decried the "contraceptive mentality" of modern life -- will become the leader of the Catholic Church here in the city that thrust same-sex marriage onto the national stage, the birthplace of the Summer of Love.

Supporters view Archbishop-designate Salvatore Cordileone, the 56-year-old son of a commercial fisherman, as a charming and brilliant defender of the faith. He is fluent in Spanish and Italian, has been known to sing vintage TV theme songs in Latin and is a deep believer in a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But many gay and lesbian Catholics worry that they will be marginalized after Cordileone's arrival.

Now, a regular GetReligion reader who is on the traditional side of Catholic life found it interesting that the left-coast Times failed -- at any point in the story -- to mention that Cordileone was charged in late August with two misdemeanors on suspicion of driving under the influence. This is an interesting and, for me, valid comment and I'll come back to that issue.

The key, for me, is that this story poised some interesting questions and the archbishop-designate gave some interesting answers. In that sense, the story is somewhat refreshing. However, it's hard not to see some missed opportunities, the kinds of holes that make me -- in Monday Night Football terms -- want to shout, "C'mon, man!" Let's walk through a few of these, with the Times passage first and my comment second.

Let's start with the obvious:

Cordileone's appointment "re-emphasizes the Vatican's concern, and the U.S. bishops' concern, about gay marriage," said Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "Even in a city like San Francisco, they're willing to appoint someone who ... has a high state and national profile on this issue.

"They're serious," Reese said, "and they're not going to back down."


Really? There were no Jesuits available in Los Angeles, no conservative Catholic scholars at Thomas Aquinas College? There was no one in the Golden State to offer insight on this matter? Once again, the call had to go out to the designated spokesperson for Catholics who lunch with reporters? Moving on:

... (In) a recent interview at the headquarters of the Oakland diocese, where he has served as bishop for three years, Cordileone was more direct: Gays and lesbians who are in sexual relationships of any kind, he said, should not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, the central ritual of Catholic life.

"If we misuse the gift of sexuality, we're going to suffer the consequences," he said, "and I firmly believe we are suffering the consequences."

I realize that this is very offensive doctrinal territory for many readers, but what precisely are his alternatives to this statement? He is saying that Catholics who persist in behaviors that the church considers sin should not receive Holy Communion, since that would cause them spiritual harm. He is saying that the Catholic sacraments are for people who are attempting to follow the Catholic faith. Later on, people who are vaguely described as gay and lesbian Catholics worry that he will deny them "their rights" by saying that Catholic priests cannot do services for the Catholic gay-rights group Dignity. What are the new archbishop's alternatives on that matter? Reporters could ask him about that.

Now, can this doctrinal approach also be applied to other activities, other sins? You betcha. And what did Cordileone mean when he said that humanity was "suffering the consequences" for abusing sexuality, in general? It's time for a follow-up question right there, as well. You can tell that he has other issues on his mind, because the very next statement in the story is this:

The prelate's light-filled office overlooks Oakland's Lake Merritt. Just beyond the graceful urban estuary, he said, are "100 blocks of inner-city neighborhoods. Those are fatherless children."

A few lines later, Cordileone takes this matter a step further and, sure enough, the Times misses another follow-up opportunity -- an open door, really -- to tackle a relevant issue linked to sin:

... Though he strives to deliver Catholicism's absolutes in as nuanced a fashion as possible, Cordileone said, people need to understand that "the church is not going to change its teaching. ... The solution isn't to say, 'Well, I'm just going to disagree and continue being a Catholic.' That's not how we arrive at holiness."

OK, how about struggles with alcohol and the path to holiness? This a completely appropriate place to ask how a religious leader has approached these kinds of struggles in his own life. What do you think, Catholic GetReligion readers? Fair game?

Let's look at one other examples, later in the report. The story, as it should, devotes plenty of attention to his role in the Proposition 8 project. At one point, readers are told:

Cordileone attended that first meeting and helped raise more than $1 million for the anti-gay marriage effort. He personally contributed $13,000. But perhaps more important, Cordileone reached out to conservative denominations to bring them into what he has described as the most important battle they would ever face.

LiMandri recalled how the bishop rallied more than 150 pastors at Skyline Church, an evangelical megachurch in La Mesa. "The ship is sinking," he told them. "That ship is Western civilization. We all have to pull together. We have to bail out water and keep that ship afloat."

Here is my question: Did the bishop actually say that the gay-marriage issue was the "most important battle they would ever face"? Or did he say that the battle over gay marriage was an example, a case study, for an even larger issue -- such as the loss of any sense of absolute moral truths in a postmodern society? Maybe I am wrong, but I suspect that the bishop is being quoted out of context here, and second-hand, come to think of it. Once again, Cordileone consented to a major interview. Ask the man what he meant.

So what we have here is an interesting article that could have been a lot more interesting, especially if this conservative Catholic leader to apply his stances on sexual ethics to other issues, to other struggles, including his own.

Meanwhile, here is a link to a New York Times piece on the same topic. I am not sure that it would be proper to discuss this article, since the Gray Lady may or may not be committed, these days, to doing actual hard-news journalism on a serious topic such as this, one directly linked to morality, religion and culture. So imagine, in your mind, the top of this New York Times story. What do you expect the first two paragraphs to say. Now, click here and read.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Another view of the new San Francisco archbishop, coming from the feisty world of the online left.

Please respect our Commenting Policy