California may be the bluest state in the nation, but it now finds itself home to two of the most powerful and disruptive voices on the right.
Those disruptors are a pair of conservative Catholic archbishops from distinctly liberal San Francisco and Los Angeles: Salvatore Cordileone and Jose Gomez. They may be out-of-step with the people in their pews, but that hasn’t prevented them from making headlines by diving into politics and the culture wars.
The latest disturbance came when San Francisco’s Cordileone banned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from receiving communion because of her pro-choice stance on abortion. In his announcement, the archbishop accused Pelosi of perpetrating “a grave evil” and placing her own soul in “danger.”
Pelosi responded this past week, telling MSNBC she respects all views on the subject, “but I don’t respect us foisting it onto others.”
The action against Pelosi follows a months-long attempt led by Los Angeles Archbishop Gomez to prevent President Biden from receiving communion over the same abortion issue. Gomez is head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); he’s allied himself with the group’s right-wing and its view of Biden’s pro-choice position.
In fact, on Inauguration Day 2021 — two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — Gomez published a letter that insisted “Catholic bishops are not partisan players” but claimed the new president would “advance moral evils… in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.”
The Vatican strongly advised against any move to deny communion. Gomez eventually backed down but didn’t soften his tactics. Later that year, he gave a speech in Madrid attacking “an elite leadership class” in the West that coerces citizens to rely on “woke” movements over established religion.
All of this is a shift in how the Catholic Church in California has typically dealt with contentious issues. Church leaders here have spoken out before, but were careful to appear inclusive and rarely opposed specific politicians. While the bishops supported a ballot initiative in 2008 that would ban gay marriage in the state, they also fought against a 1994 proposition that was seen as anti-immigrant.
As with so much else in the current culture wars, that style of caution and balance has been tossed out — and that plainly puts these archbishops at odds with the congregants they supposedly lead. (Note: I am a practicing Catholic.)
Research from 2015 shows that the 11 million Catholics in California, like many Americans everywhere, are split down the middle when it comes to abortion rights. On other issues, they lean decidedly left: 44 percent of California Catholics say they count on “common sense” to guide their decisions in life; only 32 percent told researchers they depend on religion, and 73 percent say homosexuals should be accepted for who they are — 61 percent support gay marriage.
But in San Francisco that same year, Cordileone caused a fierce outcry when he informed local Catholic high schools that they could not challenge church teachings that homosexuality was “contrary to natural law” and that contraception was “intrinsically evil.”
At the same time, the two archbishops rarely emphasize progressive Catholic social justice issues that would likely draw strong support from church-goers in Los Angeles and San Francisco — such as opposition to the death penalty.
Both Cordileone and Gomez were appointed to their positions by then-Pope Benedict, who was more conservative than his successor, Pope Francis. The current pontiff has said he’s never denied communion to anyone, and cautioned bishops that wading into politics always turns into “a problem.”
In an editorial, the San Francisco Examiner called on Francis to fire Cordileone, asserting that “the City of St. Francis deserves an archbishop true to our values and your teachings.” The pope does have that power, but it is used only rarely among those in the upper echelons of church authority.
This is a difficult time for many California Catholics. Just as much as anyone else here, they follow the state’s well-known non-judgemental outlook. The most famous evangelicals to come out of California include decidedly upbeat and positive pastors like Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” and the late Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, who wrote a best seller called “Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do.”
Clearly, the Catholic Church has never claimed to be a democratic institution. The congregation doesn’t choose its pastor or bishop. The church doesn’t survey constituents to figure out where people stand on spiritual and moral issues. For Catholics, that can be part of the appeal — a strength stretching back more than 2,000 years.
But, if bishops and archbishops are going to start acting like party politicians, then maybe they should go all the way. Poll the people in the pews. Try to create responsive proposals and programs around the results. Campaign door-to-door. And then put it all up for a vote.
That probably wouldn’t work out well for them, not in this state. But, as Pelosi and Biden might say: Welcome to politics.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.