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The Archbishop of No

Regardless of what San Francisco’s Catholics may want, anti–gay marriage crusader Salvatore Cordileone won’t let the flock push him around.

While Catholic moderates and the press may view Cordileone as a hard case, it’s easy to see why conservatives consider him a kindred spirit. He owns his message, and he does not equivocate, occasionally expressing indignation that so many others can’t accept what he sees so clearly. “The teaching authority comes from Christ and the gospel,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we simply go with the latest idea floating through society.” On abortion, he has no question that society is letting women down. The solution to an unwanted pregnancy isn’t to “snuff that life out,” he says, slapping his hand on the table. “It’s not only a violation of that life, it’s also a violation of that woman.” And with gay marriage, there is no gray area, no place for so-called cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing which doctrines suit them. He scoffs at the idea of flexibility. As the Pope stressed in his Christmas message in December, gay marriage is an “attack” on family and the “very notion of...what being human really means.” Cordileone couldn’t agree more.

To Catholic scholars, the archbishop’s rise appears preordained. “He knows canon law, proved himself on the marriage issue, and speaks Spanish, so he can work with Hispanics. He’s a trifecta of the type of qualities the Vatican is looking for now,” says Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. That Cordileone’s new flock inhabits some of the most liberal turf in the country—encompassing San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties, home to some 500,000 Catholics, 96 parishes, and more than 400 priests—is of little concern to him. His appointment follows the trend, which Pope John Paul II started and Pope Benedict XVI continues, of placing conservative clergymen—“the Tea Party of American bishops,” according to Father James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College—in key U.S. cities. And in choosing Cordileone, the Vatican opted for youth as well. At 56, he is the second youngest archbishop in the United States, with nearly two decades left until he reaches the retirement age of 75.

Cordileone’s fundamentals are so strong that thus far even his stumbles are being overlooked. In August, just after being named archbishop, he was arrested in San Diego for drunk driving while taking his 88-year-old mother home after dinner. He alluded to the incident during that first homily in October, saying, “God has always had a way of putting me in my place.... I would say, though, with the latest episode of my life, God has outdone himself.” He chuckled and moved on.

Now that media coverage of the arrest has faded, Cordileone can turn to the fight that will define his era as San Francisco’s Catholic general. He leads the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, making him the church’s go-to guy in battling the cresting gay marriage tide. When I ask Cordileone to explain his opposition to gay marriage, he mentions a touchstone book: Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. In it, John Paul defends traditional marriage, saying that “love between man and woman cannot be built without sacrifices and self-denial.” The book, Cordileone says, sets the “groundwork for theology, for interpreting revelations through the way our bodies are designed.”

Everything connects to this notion that our bodies are the hardware of procreation and that marriage is the mechanic’s shop. Misuse sexuality and “we’re going to suffer the consequences,” Cordileone says. His opposition to gay marriage, he insists, is not about impinging on gay rights—it’s about children’s welfare, a rationale that echoes current Vatican messaging. Moreover, to Cordileone, it’s a matter of plain justice. Same-sex marriage, he says, threatens religious liberty—an individual’s right to shun public policies that violate his or her faith. That includes the pharmacist who refuses to dispense contraception, the Christian student group that prohibits members of other religions from joining, and the Catholic adoption nonprofit that won’t serve gay couples. “I think the church has to be the conscience for society,” he says. “I think we have not just a right but a responsibility to critique policies where they are unjust.” Or, his critics might note, to create policies that are equally unjust when the opportunity arises.