Frame Game

Judgment Day

San Francisco Catholics want a church that doesn’t judge. That’s not possible. 

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone.
Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013, in Vatican City.

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, liberal Catholics in San Francisco announced a vigil to protest new sexual-conduct rules for teachers in the city’s Catholic schools. “We stand with teachers,” they declared, “in rejecting morality clauses that impede their freedom, including the right to choose who to love and marry and how to plan a family.”

The following night the dissidents held their vigil and scolded the local archbishop for issuing the rules. On Facebook, they noted that it was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, “when we reflect on our lives [and] atone for our sins.” On Twitter, one dissident pleaded: “Tell the Archbishop of SF he’s got it wrong.” Another wrote, “I’m ashamed of the church I love.”

The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop’s behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn’t forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can’t explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It’s clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society’s mistakes—and their own.

The fight in San Francisco centers on rules proposed by the archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone, two weeks ago. The rules instruct teachers in Catholic schools “not to visibly contradict, undermine, or deny” church teachings. These teachings include “the inviolability of human life,” “the sinfulness of contraception,” “the grave evil of artificial reproductive technology,” and the evil of “all extra-marital sexual relationships,” including “adultery, masturbation, fornication, the viewing of pornography, and homosexual relations.”

The rules are foolish. The problem isn’t their content, which, though I disagree with much of it, comes straight out of the Catechism. The problem is the clumsiness of announcing and applying the rules. By spelling them out in detail, putting them in teachers’ contracts, and defining every school employee as a minister unprotected by secular employment laws, Cordileone has alarmed teachers, students, and parents. He has provoked a panic over inquisitions or purges—exactly what he says he didn’t intend.

But the response from the left has been just as clumsy. It’s a mess of new-age babble. It starts with denials of morality. The protesters’ Facebook page, Support SF Teachers, declares: “A morality clause has no place in our schools. We want teachers to be able to be themselves.” Christine Haider-Winnett, the coordinator of Equally Blessed, a Catholic pro-LGBT coalition, says lay Catholics will “make our own decisions about what is right and wrong.” A tweet posted as part of the social media campaign against Cordileone advises: “Be who you are and don’t care who says what.”

The dictionary says churches are supposed to teach doctrines. But the campaign against Cordileone says they shouldn’t. Students at one Catholic school “are very upset” by the new policy, says a teacher. “They’re afraid it’ll lead to indoctrination.” A statement signed by more than 200 opponents of the policy says Catholic leaders should follow their flocks: “Most U.S. Catholics believe very little of what is in the Archdiocesan document and actively reject much of it. The role of the bishop is to articulate the faith of the people.”

In place of morality or doctrine, the archbishop’s critics preach acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity. An online petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, says his proposed rules violate “Catholic values of inclusion and diversity.” “By forcing morality clauses, you’re taking away all inclusivity and diversity in these schools,” adds a supporter on Twitter. Haider-Winnett says students need “affirming environments.” The campaign’s hashtag is “#teachacceptance.”

The new taboo isn’t sex or blasphemy: It’s judgment. “Students need a safe space free of judgment,” says the petition. An op-ed by two parents in the archdiocese says its schools must “be a place where our children are supported, honored, and free from judgment.” The former head of San Francisco Catholic Charities accuses Cordileone of violating the “spirit of nonjudgmental inclusiveness.”

The archbishop’s opponents don’t just believe, as most Americans do, that gay monogamy is as moral as straight monogamy. They advance a more radical idea: free love. The Human Rights Campaign’s director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives says the church should embrace all believers, “no matter who they are [or] who they love.” In a letter issued Tuesday, eight California legislators chastised Cordileone for challenging “the freedom to choose who to love.” On Twitter, the campaign’s supporters preach, “Love is love,” and “Let people love who they want to love.” The sentiment is sweet, but the ideology is soft-headed. It can’t explain, logically, why Rick Santorum’s parade of horribles—polygamy, adultery, incest, pedophilia—doesn’t follow.

The archbishop’s critics also fail to distinguish among the practices his policy condemns. They protest his imposition of “sexual limitations,” including those on “extramarital sex” and “erotic materials,” as though adultery or pornography were on the same plane as same-sex marriage. On Facebook, Support SF Teachers features this testimonial:

Fifteen years ago I was a single woman who very much wanted to have a child. I decided to have a child through donor insemination, the result was my wonderful son. He is now a proud freshman at Sacred Heart Cathedral. … He and I are both deeply saddened by the language in Archbishop Cordileone’s directive.

I don’t want to stigmatize this woman or her son, and I don’t agree with the rigid Catholic position against IVF. But if anyone’s going to speak out against single parenthood by choice, isn’t the archbishop an obvious candidate?

And what about abortion? The statement signed by hundreds of Cordileone’s opponents condemns him for imposing “restrictions on women’s healthcare and marriage.” The California Federation of Teachers protests that his rules apply to “political views, reproductive rights, and sexual orientation.” The San Francisco Chronicle accuses him of silencing anyone who disagrees with him about “the right to marry” or “to prevent or terminate pregnancy.” Was the archbishop wrong to lump abortion together with contraception and same-sex marriage? Probably. If so, should liberals mirror that mistake? Most Catholics who attend weekly mass disagree with the church’s position on same-sex marriage but agree with its position on abortion. Are they wrong? And even if they are: Is it necessary, in this debate, to pick a fight with them?

The archbishop is wrong. His policy against contraception is disastrous. His understanding of homosexuality is shallow. His injunction against masturbation is ridiculous. Liberal Catholics are right to reject their leaders’ pronouncements on these issues. But you can’t beat something with nothing, and you can’t replace wrongheaded conservatism with empty-headed liberalism. Acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity don’t tell you how to live your life. They don’t tell you which beliefs to affirm, which traditions to accept, which differences to applaud, and which threats to tolerate. They can’t run a society. They sure as hell can’t run a church.

The fight in San Francisco isn’t just a clash of ideologies. It’s a clash of hang-ups. For conservatives, the hang-up is about sex. No matter how hard they work to suppress it, it keeps popping up, most embarrassingly in themselves. For liberals, the hang-up is about judgment. They struggle to purge and deny it. But in the end, like the rest of us, they can’t resist it.

Judgment, like sex, is part of being human. It guides our lives. It sustains our communities. It’s natural and healthy. Give in.