World

Is The Pope Catholic? Yes, But You Wouldn't Know It From His Press Clips

09_03_Archbishop_01
09/18/15
COVER STORY
Sign painters move their scaffolding into position to continue painting a portrait of Pope Francis on the side of a New York City office building, August 28. The Pope visits the U.S. beginning September 22 with stops in Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Mark Lennihan/AP

Popes don’t have batting averages, their work resisting easy quantification: Souls Saved Per Mass, Doctrinal Clarifications Per Encyclical, that sort of thing. But one measure does seem especially telling about the tenure of Pope Francis, and it is the frequency with which his face and words appear on T-shirts. You can announce that Francis is your homeboy or ask, What would Francis do (i.e., WWFD)? Francis-themed T-shirts sport his thrilling response to a question about gays: “Who am I to judge?” There’s one depicting Francis in the style of Shepard Fairey’s famous poster for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, with “pope” replacing “hope.” There’s even an “Atheists for Pope Francis” T-shirt. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus Christ, but Pope Francis is bigger than the Beatles.

09_03_Archbishop_01 Sign painters move their scaffolding into position to continue painting a portrait of Pope Francis on the side of a New York City office building, August 28. The Pope visits the U.S. beginning September 22 with stops in Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Mark Lennihan/AP

The near-universal adulation Francis enjoys today was anything but instantaneous. To some observers, the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy in the late winter of 2013 was a signal that the Vatican would continue on the conservative course set by John Paul II (who does surprisingly well on the T-shirt front) and Benedict XVI (very few T-shirts). “A conventional choice,” The New York Times branded the 76-year-old Jesuit,” a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues.” Others worried that the newly elected pope had been far too timid during the “dirty war” of his native Argentina, questioning his role in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests. The New Yorker called him “an Argentine with a cloudy past.”

Francis has not offered a counterargument but, rather, a dazzling show of faith that obviates the need for arguments over what, precisely, he believes. He has washed the feet of prisoners, caressing the soles of Muslims and women. He has shunned the resplendent vestments of his office, selecting a five-year-old Ford Focus for his vehicle and a modest guesthouse for his quarters; he has made entreaties to divorced Catholics and even suggested that it was not his place to judge gay ones; he has lamented global warming and income inequality, at times sounding like Bernie Sanders’s running mate.

Lately, another Catholic prelate has been making news in the United States, for different reasons. His name is Salvatore J. Cordileone, and he presides over the archdiocese of San Francisco, home to 432,163 Catholics. Nobody in the Bay Area is wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his face. In February, an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle deemed “unnecessary and offensive” his attempt to subject teachers at archdiocesan high schools to an antediluvian morality code that reached into their private lives. Cordileone’s insistence on sexual traditionalism, the paper cautioned, runs counter to “the tone of tolerance that Pope Francis has been trying to advance.”

Related: A Brief History of Pope Francis in the Headlines

Cordileone came to San Francisco ready for war. In 2008, he led the successful push to make gay marriage illegal in California. Four years later, he was appointed to the San Franciscan archdiocese, in what one blogger called “the most courageously bold—or stunningly brazen—American appointment” by Pope Benedict. "This was done as a real insult to San Francisco,” a gay Catholic told me when I visited the city, which had been accustomed to archbishops who tempered their views on homosexuality with an awareness of the city’s history as a gay refuge.

Cordileone has little use for such moderation, and he has paid a price. Whether marching against gay marriage in Washington, D.C., or telling Catholic schoolteachers in San Francisco that gay sex and masturbation are “gravely evil,” Cordileone has been as thoroughly demonized as Francis has been exalted. To hear some tell it, the two barely belong to the same church.

09_03_Archbishop_03 San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, center, leads a prayer across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court during the second annual March for Marriage, in Washington, D.C., June 19, 2014. Cordileone outraged many with his vociferous (and financial) support of California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in California. Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times/Landov

In the first week of June, for example, the pope paid for dozens of indigent souls to travel from Rome to Northern Italy, to stand personal witness before the Shroud of Turin. Cordileone, meanwhile, was in Manhattan, making a transparent attack on Caitlyn Jenner, whose Vanity Fair cover had made news just days before. "The clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female," he said, adding that the erosion of traditional marriage would result in “a reversion to the paganism of old, but with unique, postmodern variations on its themes, such as the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities or the cult of priestesses.”

This commentary came during a conference supporting the restoration of the Tridentine Mass, an issue seemingly unrelated to the Jenner affair. But the incident is indicative: While Francis wants to attract new members to the church, doctrinal conservatives want a return to the Latin Mass and a more strident condemnation of non-procreative sexual behaviors.

Francis will make his first trip to the United States this fall, in what will surely prove a voyage rife with adulation; he will no doubt make many Catholics in the Bay Area wish their archbishop was the cuddly Jesuit, not the grim canon lawyer. The two men serve as irresistible foils. A columnist for the Chronicle, for example, recently opined that Cordileone “is out of step—with San Francisco, this country and the faithful members of this church.”

But is he really? “Absolutely nothing the archbishop has said is inconsistent with what Pope Francis says and teaches,” says prominent Catholic observer George Weigel, “although it may be inconsistent with media fictions about the pope.”

 

The pope customarily celebrates Holy Thursday Mass at one of two Vatican basilicas: St. Peter’s or St. John Lateran. But in keeping with his iconoclastic spirit, Francis (the first modern pope to take that name) went on his first Holy Thursday as pope to the Casal del Marmo youth prison, where he kissed and washed the feet of a dozen inmates. Not only were two of the prisoners women but one of these women was a Muslim. “Washing your feet means I am at your service,” the pope told the young convicts.

09_03_Archbishop_04 Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome, March 28, 2013. Two young women were among 12 people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed at a traditional ceremony in the youth prison on Holy Thursday. It was the first time a pontiff has included females in the rite. Osservatore Romano/Reuters

Cordileone recently bathed the poor too. This past spring, a local CBS affiliate reported that the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, the seat of the San Franciscan archdiocese, had “installed a watering system to keep the homeless from sleeping in the cathedral’s doorways.” All through the night, the report found, a sprinkler system would spray water intermittently on the homeless people trying to sleep in the alcoves along the cathedral’s walls. The story went viral, and the night showers stopped.

Saint Mary’s is where San Francisco met Salvatore Cordileone on October 4, 2012, during his installation Mass. A thin man with a high forehead, Cordileone spoke of his grandfather, “who first settled in this city a century ago seeking to escape the poverty and misery of his homeland” of Italy. He also referenced the “authentic joy” of Benedict, the conservative prelate who appointed him to his prominent position.

Related: Ahead of Pope Francis's Visit to U.S., Catholics More Liberal on Same-Sex Couples, Contraception

Joy is not exactly what gay Catholics experienced upon learning that Cordileone would be their archbishop. They knew he was the “Father of Prop 8,” the California ballot initiative that outlawed gay marriage. They must have known, too, that he was the disciple of Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, the culture warrior who had great influence in the Vatican of the previous pope. “In a sense, I am glad that the church is sending the top guy that they have—the top anti-gay—because it means that we, as a community of Catholics, have done something good to deserve attention,” one defiant Catholic told The New York Times.

Two years later, the “top anti-gay” is the top target of liberal Catholics in the Bay Area. In late April, opponents of Cordileone took an extraordinary measure, placing a full-page advertisement in the Chronicle that called on Francis to remove Cordileone for “having fostered an atmosphere of division and intolerance.” Signatories included Louis J. Giraudo, owner of the famous Boudin Bakery, and Tom Brady Sr., father of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

The Vatican has not responded to this call. Nor is Cordileone contrite. In a statement several pages in length responding both directly and not to questions I sent him, Cordileone told me that “the current situation is not an excuse for Christians to run and hide. Christians are called to be ‘salt and light’ and the church is required to be engaged in society. She may not withdraw.”

 

Salvatore Joseph Cordileone was born June 5, 1956, the same day that Elvis Presley performed “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show in a nascent display of the overt sexuality that, in the ensuing decades, would draw the increasing ire of Catholic traditionalists. Cordileone’s father, Leon, was a fisherman from San Francisco. His mother, Mary, was from Buffalo. All four grandparents were from Sicily. His last name means “lionheart.”

Cordileone grew up in San Diego and was drawn to Catholicism while a student at San Diego State University and then the University of San Diego, a religious school from which he graduated in 1978. That fall, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy, becoming Pope John Paul II and ushering in a conservative period for the Church.

09_03_Archbishop_02 Archbishop Cordileone and outgoing Archbishop Niederauer share a laugh before the start of the press conference at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, July 27, 2012. Cordileone, center, is defiant in the face of critics, insisting that he is doing God’s work. Michael Short

In 1962, Pope John XXIII had convened the Second Vatican Council, the most liberalizing force in the Church for decades, striking down the prevalence of the Latin Mass and mandating that priests face their congregations while worshipping. Vatican II was the church of Peter and Paul preparing to enter the world of John, Paul, George and Ringo. “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in,” John XXIII said. Not everyone welcomed the sunlight, though. Some shun it still.

The subsequent reign of Paul VI saw the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, which has long been understood as forbidding contraception, such as condoms, and the use of abortifacients, stressing the “procreative significance” of marriage.

Related: Pope Francis Set to Announce New Catholic Annulment Procedures

Paul VI was followed eventually by John Paul II, who throughout his lengthy reign was lauded for his rapprochement with Jews and Muslims. Regularly mobbed in his “popemobile,” he was the first pope to fully understand his papacy in a postmodern culture of rapidly circulating images divorced of context. At the same time, John Paul II hewed closely to the conservative sexual doctrine of Humanae Vitae, even as evidence grew that condoms could forfend the spread of HIV and AIDS. In 1995, the Vatican railed against safe sex, “a dangerous and immoral policy.”

Salvatore Cordileone’s Catholicism matured in the church of John Paul II. He studied canon law in Rome but eventually returned to his native Southern California. During the 1990s, he was pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Calexico, on the Mexican border. He was known as Father Sam, wore a beard and appears to have been widely liked. In a 2009 interview, Cordileone recalled how he would jog along the Mexican border, watching day laborers waiting for a bus to take them into the United States. He spoke about holding an annual Mass “for the undocumented migrants living in the canyons north of San Diego and working in the flower fields.”

But then “Father Sam” became the “Father of Prop 8,” the anti-gay marriage measure that made him a hero and villain. Gavin C. Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, started marrying same-sex couples in 2004; the state’s Supreme Court stripped him of that power but, in 2008, proclaimed that gay marriage was legal. “The ultimate attack of the Evil One is the attack on marriage," Cordileone thundered on a radio show. "If you take marriage apart, everything comes unraveled.” He helped mobilize clergy, Catholic and otherwise, raising some $1.5 million for the Prop 8 initiative and donating at least $6,000 of his own. Frank Schubert, a national crusader against same-sex marriage, called Cordileone “as instrumental as anybody” in helping the measure pass, and, in 2009, the East Bay Express declared, “Without Bishop Sal, gay men and lesbians would almost surely still be able to get married today.”

Prop 8 elevated Cordileone’s stature in the Holy See of Benedict XVI, who had once called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.” Cordileone would use similar language—“gravely evil”—in a draft of the handbook for Catholic high schools that caused much rancor this past spring.

09_03_Archbishop_05 Protesters tear a "Yes on Prop. 8" banner from a pickup truck as hundreds demonstrated against the Mormon Church's support of Proposition 8, that opposed gay marriage, in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, November 6, 2008. Reed Saxon/AP

Francis’s most famous pronouncement on homosexuality is the rhetorical question he posed in 2013: “Who am I to judge?” But Francis has judged. In a 2010 letter to nuns discussing gay marriage in Argentina, he called the push for marriage equality “a destructive pretension against the plan of God” and “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

“Pope Francis isn’t asking us to change the timeless teachings of the Gospel,” Cordileone told me. “On the contrary, he wants us to be bold in proclaiming them.” This is a diplomatic way of pointing to the disconnect between how some in the secular world see Francis and how the clergy itself has absorbed his bifurcated papal persona. To nonbelievers, he is a renegade who will soon ordain female priests and fly a rainbow flag from Vatican spires. To more perspicacious observers, he is a skilled custodian of Catholicism’s image who is acutely aware of how his words and deeds will play beyond the Vatican’s ramparts. If he is vastly superior to Cordileone in any single regard, it is that of public relations.

 

Cordileone’s first year in San Francisco passed without incident. In January 2013, he appeared at an anti-abortion march, which didn’t surprise anyone. But the following year, he announced he would attend a rally in Washington, D.C., in support of traditional marriage. Nancy Pelosi, the liberal congresswoman from San Francisco, warned Cordileone in a letter that the March for Marriage would be “venom disguised as virtue.” He went anyway.

“That is our very nature,” Cordileone said at the march, “and no law can change it.”

This past winter, the archbishop took on the allegedly lax morality plaguing Catholic schools, introducing new language into the faculty and staff handbook for the four archdiocesan high schools in San Francisco and Marin County under his direct control. The first draft of the new handbook included more than a dozen “affirm and believe” statements, many of which focused on sex:

[We] reject direct, intentional abortion and recognize that any well-formed conscience always rejects direct, intentional abortion; we are not “pro-choice”

[We] affirm that chaste living necessarily requires abstinence from all sexual intimacy outside of marriage

We accept the Church’s teaching that all extra-marital sexual relationships are gravely evil and that these include adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography and homosexual relations.

Everyone within the Catholic schools would be “expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny these truths.” The new handbook counseled its subjects to “refrain from public support of any cause or issue that is explicitly or implicitly contrary to that which the Catholic Church holds to be true.”

This raised obvious, troubling questions. Would a teacher at a Catholic high school who posted on Facebook about his wife’s successful fertility treatments be subject to discipline? What about a female teacher who tweeted about the blissed-out weekend she spent with her girlfriend in Point Reyes?

“Our schools are not seminaries,” complains Sal Curcio, who was raised in the Catholic Church in the Bronx and now teaches religion at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. “Teachers are starting to feel like they have to decide between conscience and paycheck.”

Others were troubled by Cordileone’s tactics in contract negotiations with the high school teachers, who are represented by a union. In seeking to make all school employees “ministers,” he appeared to want to deprive them of federal workplace protections, from which religious institutions are at least partly exempt.

Related: What Pope Francis Has Missed on TV Since He Stopped Watching in 1990

The day I met with some of Cordileone’s opponents in the Catholic schools, he had released a revised handbook that doesn’t mention “gravely evil” acts. The overt reference to school employees as ministers in the contract negotiations was gone too. And yet they were not mollified, convinced that Cordileone had only hidden his sword behind his back. “He is a cultural warrior in the extreme,” said a retired religion teacher, Jim McGarry. He added that Cordileone “doesn't represent the tradition; the tradition is much richer than that.”

 

Star of the Sea is the kind of church Cordileone has been tasked with saving. Located on an unglamorous stretch of Geary Boulevard, in the Inner Richmond neighborhood, it had seen drops in membership in recent years. Long gone are the days when Irish immigrants filled the pews. Cordileone’s solution was to bring in the Reverend Joseph Illo, a tall man with exceedingly white hair and a plangent smile. There is something ungainly about him, and that somehow makes the priest likable, a quality he desperately needs these days in San Francisco.

Illo has never been shy about his intentions in San Francisco. Last year, as he prepared to leave his parish in Modesto, in California’s Central Valley, he turned to his blog to raise money: “We need your daily prayers as we prepare to enter the beautiful but savagely distorted cultural maelstrom that is the ‘Baghdad by the Bay.’”

In another post, he said: “In a few weeks I will begin priestly ministry at a parish in the City of San Francisco. This beautiful city has been a war zone between the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and the angelic and the demonic for many years.”

He quickly got to work. In late January, Illo banned altar girls from Star of the Sea. As the Chronicle explained, Illo “believes there is an ‘intrinsic connection’ between the priesthood and serving at the altar—and because women can’t be priests, it makes sense to have only altar boys.”

Weeks later, controversy visited Star of the Sea again, this time at its school: Some students had received a sexually explicit pamphlet that asked them if they dressed immodestly, entertained “impure desires” or committed sodomy. Supporters of Illo claim that the distribution of the pamphlet was inadvertent, and that Illo was unaware of its contents.

Things only got worse with a revelation in the Chronicle in April that Illo had emotionally abused an 11-year-old girl back in Modesto who had come to him in 2001 with accusations of sexual molestation against a fellow parish priest.

“Rather than protect, and minister to the 11-year-old who was confused and in pain,” read a plaintiffs’ statement, “Fr. Illo breach[ed] the child’s confidences by forcing the child to confront the offending priest. The pastor and the offending priest then called the child a ‘liar,’ yelled at her and then defamed her mother, by insinuating to the 11-year-old that her mother was ‘fabricating’ the allegations against the offending priest because ‘all she wanted to do was have sex’ with the pastor.”

The church paid damages of $20,000 related to the emotional distress caused to the girl by the two men (no criminal charges were filed). A canonical investigation chided Illo, reminding him “to be aware that he is an attractive man, physically, spiritually and socially,” and said he should seek “improvement of his pastoral management skills.”

09_03_Archbishop_06 Greg Caput carries a representation of Jesus Christ' crucifixion during his 7th "Walk for Life" rally and march, January 24, in San Francisco. Thousands of abortion opponents gathered at Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall before marching down Market Street to Justin Herman Plaza while chanting and carrying signs that called to end abortion. Alex Washburn/AP

Cordileone did not respond directly to my question about whether he knew of Illo’s questionable behavior in Modesto before hiring him. “In his zeal Father Illo made some mistakes,” he said, noting that he has removed him from administration of the Star of the Sea school. He also pointed out that “the parish has found new life and is now thriving.”

Illo has other supporters. Among them is the Reverend Joseph D. Fessio, an avuncular Jesuit who vociferously defends Catholic doctrine against liberal encroachments. Throughout our conversation, he nervously checked his phone, hidden in the folds of his priestly garb: The Golden State Warriors were playing the Houston Rockets in the NBA playoffs. At one point, he exhaled and smiled, having learned of the Warriors’ victory. It was a moment of small but universal grace.

About the faith, Fessio is less upbeat. “Don't ask us to change our church,” he said.

Another supporter, Eva Muntean, who had organized a picnic in support of Cordileone that was reportedly attended by several hundred people, was indignant about what she perceived as a smear campaign by the gay community. She wanted the archbishop’s critics to remember that during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, it was the Catholic Church that cared for the sick. Mother Teresa, whom Fessio knew, opened a hospice in San Francisco at a time when some hospitals refused to see AIDS patients. To be accused of homophobia now that the plague has receded enrages Muntean.

“Nobody would touch the dying except for the Catholic Church,” she says.

 

Liberal Catholics have two options: They can rationalize away some of the church’s sexual morality codes while tuning out others, finding some scrappy foothold on the rock of faith. Or they can leave.

Vincent A. Pizzuto has done just that. He was raised Catholic in northern New Jersey and studied at a Franciscan college in upstate New York. He earned a doctoral degree in New Testament studies in Leuven, Belgium, and now teaches theology at the University of San Francisco (USF). Pizzuto is gay, and despite a nearly palpable devotion to the Christian faith, he left the church that, to his chagrin, would not abandon its sexual fixation. Though he continues to teach and write empathetically about Catholic theology, Pizzuto, who lives with his partner in Marin County, is a priest in the Episcopal Church, which is far more welcoming to gays than is Catholicism.

“If you want to hate the church, you've got your straw man,” he complained over coffee. He fears that Cordileone plays all too readily into the hands of those predisposed against the very notion of the church. Nevertheless, he explained that Francis and Cordileone are “not as far apart as they might seem doctrinally.” The difference is mostly in tone. Though Cordileone may seem like an aberration, “all he is doing is upholding or highlighting” church doctrine, which Francis has sometimes chosen to downplay.

Related: What to Expect From Pope Francis's Tour of the U.S.

Not that Francis has seduced everyone with his public shows of progressivism and humility. A lengthy Salon essay argued that Francis is an “old-school conservative who, despite his great PR, maintains nearly all of the social policies of his predecessors and keeps up a hard-line Vatican ‘cabinet.’ He has done virtually nothing to change the policies of the church to match his more compassionate rhetoric.”

Francis has maybe promised too much to doctrinal (and political) liberals impatient with the pace of progress while frightening traditionalists who argue that faith should be immune to political pressures, whether from gays or greenies. Francis's popularity with American Catholics has fallen from 89 percent to 71 percent in the past year, according to a Gallup poll conducted over the summer. And he is decidedly unpopular with American political conservatives, only 45 percent of whom see the pope favorably. That's a drop of 27 percentage points from a year ago.  

Apostasy, though, is not quite as easy as switching your gym membership. Some will remain with the church of their youth, even if its doctrine sometimes feels like a personal affront. I met with the group Dignity SF, an organization of LGBT Catholics, and asked how they could remain part of a faith that seems to loathe them. In response, one of the four men gathered (he asked me not to use his name) read from the writings of a Catholic scholar: “Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.”

Those words were written in 1968 by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict and gay-marriage opponent; the “primacy of conscience” argument, as it is known, is often used by gay Catholics to reconcile their faith with the explicit homophobia of the Vatican. Critics, however, charge that the words are being taken out of context.

Appeals to conscience have also been deployed by doctrinal conservatives who fear Francis is a renegade straying from his flock. Cardinal Burke, often regarded as the most vociferous conservative prelate in the American church, has said he would “resist” any attempts by Francis to liberalize Catholic doctrine on social issues. “The pope does not have the power to change teaching, doctrine,” Burke said.

Pizzuto, the USF scholar, agrees with the fundamental premise of gay Catholics like those in Dignity SF, who argue that Catholic teaching has become all but irrelevant to modern understandings of human sexuality. “The Bible is completely silent on the issue of homosexuality as we have come to understand it in the modern world,” he told me. That view is supported by many scholars, including the late Yale theologian John E. Boswell, whose landmark 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, argues that Catholic enmity against gays developed in the late Middle Ages. Even so, the Catholic Church of 2015 is deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality, regardless of how many scholars argue that the Genesis narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about Israel’s ancient code of hospitality.

As Pizzuto and I continued to talk, it became clear that he left the Catholic Church not only because of his sexuality but because he had come to feel the church was excessively occupied with sex. “I just want to follow the Gospel,” he said. “I’m tired of fighting over these ridiculous issues.”

 

The Most Holy Redeemer Church is in the middle of the Castro, the most celebrated “gayborhood” in the world. The church has been here for just about a century, catering at first to Italian immigrants with blisters on their hands, and then, much later, to gay men with lesions empurpling their bodies. During the worst of the AIDS crisis, MHR ran a hospice in what had been a convent. The chapel still contains a scroll inscribed with the names of those claimed by the virus, a graceful record of tragic length that tumbles to the floor.

 

09_03_Archbishop_08 Hundreds of same-sex marriage supporters stand in the middle of Castro Street while celebrating the U.S Supreme Court ruling regarding same-sex marriage on June 26, in San Francisco, California. The high court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states and dealt a major blow against Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, one of the chief architects of Proposition 8 in the state. Justin Sullivan/Getty

 

Recently, MHR has become known for its Wednesday night suppers for the homeless. Several dozen bedraggled men and women crowd into an auditorium, where they are served meals restaurant-style by volunteers. There is no waiting line to have food slopped onto a plate; instead, a kind of scruffy formality pervades. A doctor is sometimes at hand, as is a barber. Free clothes are routinely distributed.

Archbishop Cordileone has served food at the Wednesday night dinners. He knows the church is home to gay Catholics, yet everyone I spoke to said he takes great pleasure in the event. His presence there shows “a softer, more pastoral side” of the otherwise severe archbishop, noted the National Catholic Reporter, which insisted that his appearance there was no media ploy: “He waited on tables without fanfare, requesting no photographs be taken.”

His visits to MHR are hints of a persona more complex than that of the self-righteous homophobe. Another hint was his willingness to meet with gay Catholic groups while in Washington for the March for Marriage last year. “May more bishops follow his lead in personally learning more about Catholic LGBT people and advocates,” wrote New Ways Executive Director Francis DeBernardo. He was not talking about Pope Francis.

Cordileone told me he has learned about the power of “personal encounter.… When you get to know someone on a human level, see that they are human just like you and have similar struggles and the same deepest yearnings, you cannot hate them.” He added, “Most people benefit from hindsight, and I’m certainly one of them.”

Related: Pope Francis Calls on Catholic Institutions to Take in Refugees

Yet the fighter still remains. Just days after writing those seemingly conciliatory words, he was in Manhattan, declaiming against gender transition and (presumably) Caitlyn Jenner. He must have known that would make news. Sure enough, by the following afternoon, various news outlets were denouncing Cordileone’s views as “sad” and the archbishop himself as a “nightmare.” But then, weeks later, Cordileone was in front of Congress, urging immigration reform. There was no sign of the firebrand. The battle with the Catholic schoolteachers is over too. In August, they signed a contract free of the fire-and-brimstone language that Cordileone introduced in the spring.   

“To be very frank with you, it's somewhat of an enigma to me why he would have been appointed to this diocese by Benedict,” Pizzuto says, a statement less of malice than of befuddlement. As we sat in the clear afternoon light, he quoted Thomas Merton, the great mid-20th century theologian: “The living tradition of Catholicism is like the breath of a physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet, peaceful revolution against death.”

When I asked him about an ideal archbishop for San Francisco, Pizzuto answered with a single word: “Francis.” He reiterated that point when we spoke in early September, right after Francis announced that any priest could forgive a woman the sin of abortion during the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy. It was “a profound and beautiful pastoral move on the part of Francis,” Pizzuto wrote to me. “This is typical Francis: put the gospel into action rather than just preach about it.” He suggested that, in time, Francis would be canonized a saint.

09_03_Archbishop_07 Pope Francis touches his ear as he leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Others, though, were less impressed by the decree of clemency. “The supposedly radical change in the Vatican’s approach to abortion is being dramatically overblown in the press,” wrote the traditionalist Notre Dame theology professor John C. Cavidini in the New York Daily News. Cavidini argued that “the change proposed here is pastoral in nature, not doctrinal. It is intended to emphasize that the Church is an agent of mercy, primarily, and not an agent of condemnation.” Abortion remains a sin, it is just that sinners will have a slightly easier time achieving absolution.

Certainly, the liberal Catholics of San Francisco would welcome an archbishop in the mold of the current pope. But how serious, really, is Francis about discarding the more hidebound elements of Catholic doctrine? Will he ordain female priests? Will he welcome gays? Is his gentle touch merely a personal affect, or does it portend a more significant shift within the Vatican?

Probably not, history says—the history of the Church, as well as the personal history of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

This pope is a superb communicator. He winks at his two disparate constituencies, like a politician hoping to win votes in the liberal cities with one message and the conservative hinterlands with another. Both sides are made to feel that they are getting the real Francis.

Cordileone, conversely, can be grating, offensive, flat-footed and righteous in the most elemental sense. He knows what God wants from him, and it isn’t flattering headlines.

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