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Some labels don’t stick

NCR Staff
San Francisco

Archbishop William Levada deftly handled a question about the reputation he has acquired in many church circles for being a staunch conservative.

“I think that labels ... are a plague,” he said. “They immediately set the agenda on the basis of an already too polarized and unproductive liberal/conservative secular model. The church is not an easy fit for American society.”

These could easily be lines to hide behind, spoken by a man with a talent for media relations. Or they could mean Levada, like an increasing number of his contemporaries, has been forced to crisscross some ideological borders when confronting the reality of urban church life in the late 20th Century.

Trying to find a straight line to describe the church in San Francisco these days is like looking for a level ride on a cable car. What is clear is that Levada, who took over a deeply troubled archdiocese, has certainly defied, in some high-profile controversies, the conservative label he wore when he arrived in this city in December 1995.

On the other hand, Levada’s predecessor, Archbishop John R. Quinn, had the reputation of being a scholar and leading theological liberal among U.S. bishops but managed to anger large segments of the largely liberal archdiocese. In a highly publicized speech at Oxford University in England in 1996, the former archbishop challenged Pope John Paul II, among other things, to practice greater collegiality in his exercise of papal authority.

Quinn, however, had upset large numbers of Catholics here with his management style, particularly when he closed a number of churches, gaining, in the process, a reputation as an aloof and authoritarian administrator.

As put by a priest who worked under Quinn and who asked not to be identified: “I adore Quinn. He was a brilliant leader, a visionary, a man of prayer, holy, intelligent. Quinn asked the big questions, he provided a spirit, an energy.” But, the priest added, “He was not a manager. He didn’t like or enjoy or do administration well. He had all these committees, delegations and his heart wasn’t in it.”

Meanwhile, Levada, who came into San Francisco with a reputation for being an unyielding theological and social conservative, has managed to draw praise from some unlikely quarters for his evenhanded approach to church and social problems and for pastoral sensibilities and willingness to listen and compromise. He was also able to find creative ways to reopen some of the church buildings closed by Quinn.

By no means has Levada turned a liberal corner doctrinally. He said he would entertain invitations to dialogue, but the possible effects of any dialogue are apparent in his comments on the issue of women’s ordination. “If I could help people understand why the church has the teaching it does about ordination of women, I would be happy to sit down and talk with people for hours. But that’s a dialogue of the deaf oftentimes.”

Organizational skills

According to the Portland, Ore., archdiocesan newspaper, Levada was chosen for San Francisco in part because of his “organizational skills, strong leadership and orthodox intelligence.” In Portland, an archdiocese known for its conservatism, Levada did the expected by campaigning vehemently against euthanasia and bolstering antiabortion efforts.

But he also appointed the first laywoman chancellor in a U.S. archdiocese and countered business leaders who criticized the U.S. bishops’ economic pastoral. He reminded the faithful in Portland to keep individual sin on par with social sin, then advocated for a higher minimum wage, worker and immigrant rights and public housing for the poor.

Three years after taking the helm in San Francisco, Levada has been criticized by some progressives for “cutting off the agendas of gay men and lesbians” and vilified by some conservatives for “betraying the church.” Levada is showing himself to be a complex leader working in a complicated environment for a demanding institution.

He said one of the biggest challenges he faced from the start was the media’s focus in 1995 on embezzlement scandals that involved two priests and the church closings. “The two of those things kept the caldron boiling in a way that was challenging. San Francisco is a very high energy town, whereas Portland is very laid back. And I’m a very high energy person, so for me it was OK. I didn’t mind stepping into this mix, seeing what we could do,” Levada told NCR in July.

Levada the pragmatist was open to finding non-parish uses for four churches, avoiding their closing and sale: One became a shrine, another a homeless shelter, a third houses a Chinese Catholic school, a fourth serves as a Newman Center.

“I thought I’d show you the church that started all of the problems in San Francisco,” Patricia Cady told a visitor, approaching Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.

Cady and other area residents, politicians and business leaders played instrumental roles in preventing the destruction of Our Lady of Guadalupe and in facilitating the reopening of the Shrine of St. Francis.

“No landmark has ever been demolished in San Francisco,” Cady said. “And with the shrine and Guadalupe, we knew we didn’t have viable parishes, but we had important buildings.”

A winning strategy

With this strategy in mind, members of the North Beach community -- Catholics and others -- worked to have both buildings declared historic landmarks. After a long struggle that Cady said involved “elderly Catholic Mexican ladies marching downtown to the cathedral on their grandsons’ arms,” Guadalupe was declared a historic site in 1994 and later renovated. It now serves as a temporary home for a Chinese Catholic school, accommodating the demographic changes of the 1990s.

“There is a huge demographic shift occurring in terms of the Asian population. They are a vital, wonderful part of our city, but most are not Catholic, even though they attend our schools, because it is a great education, and they have similar values,” said George Wesolek, head of the Archdiocesan Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns/Respect Life-Justice and Peace. Wesolek also said that in the 1960s, 150,000 worshipers attended Mass in 53 San Francisco parishes. Today, the same number of parishes serves 40,000 worshipers.

Cady said the shrine episode shaped her opinion of Levada: “We like Levada because he reopened our church, to be scrupulously honest. He didn’t come to destroy churches.”

Reopening another church has provided a model program for caring for homeless people. Shut for four years, the buildings and grounds of St. Joseph’s Village -- formerly St. Joseph’s Church -- are under conversion to serve as a shelter and resource site for homeless families and single pregnant women. Managed by Catholic Charities and propped up in part by city funding, the site now provides a home and a second chance for 36 residents, according to Director Jose Ruiz.

Services here include job training, psychological counseling, child care, medical care and even temporary employment within the complex.

Catholic Charities San Francisco leases the structure from the archdiocese for a dollar a year, which is contrary to standard policy under which church agencies pay each other market prices.

“With the stroke of a pen, [Levada] did that. He’s pragmatic. And it’s a national model,” said Catholic Charities CEO Frank Burns. “It’s worth $200,000, so in 10 years, that’s $2 million given to Catholic Charities for the homeless.”

One archdiocesan official said with that pen stroke, Levada also went against the will of some of the chancery planners.

Levada, meanwhile, carefully avoids any criticism of Quinn and insists that archdiocesan finances were in the black when he took over. Levada told NCR that the public scandal surrounding the embezzlements provided a “catalyst” for him to improve financial management and oversight in the archdiocese. As resources replenished, offices that had been forced to merge -- such as ethnic ministry and evangelization or liturgy, religious education and family life -- were re-established as separate entities.

Improving communications

Levada plans to improve communications through the establishment of an archdiocesan pastoral council and the 1999 launching of a weekly archdiocesan newspaper.

As some internal church caldrons began cooling, relations with the larger San Francisco community were heating up. In 1997, Levada’s skills as a negotiator were severely tested when he took the church through the thicket of civil rights and sexual politics in a city with a politically powerful gay population.

In late 1996, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring entities contracting with the city -- profit and nonprofit alike -- to extend health insurance and other spousal benefits to registered lesbian, gay or unmarried “domestic partners,” a category created under a 1990 referendum. Levada requested that Catholic agencies be exempted from the requirement, claiming it created a “problem of conscience” regarding Catholic teachings on homosexual activity.

“This requirement,” Levada argued, “amounted to government coercion of a church to compromise its own beliefs about the sacredness of marriage and seemed to violate the First Amendment protection guaranteed to religion by our Constitution.”

Levada threatened to take the city to court if an exemption or “means of compliance that does not violate our moral principles” was not found. Levada’s position brought accusations from city officials that the church, by requesting the exemption, was discriminating against access for homosexuals to health benefits. Levada countered, claiming the city’s plan discriminated against blood relatives supported by and living in an employee’s household.

At the center of the debate was San Francisco Catholic Charities, with a work force that, according to CEO Frank Hudson, is approximately 30 percent gay. Catholic Charities of San Francisco is the largest provider of HIV housing services of any city west of the Mississippi, and it depends on $10 million in city contracts to keep its array of programs running.

At risk -- if the dispute led to cancellation of contracts -- were services not only for thousands of people with HIV and AIDS, but help for homeless, elderly and poor people.

Toward universal health care

What ensued was a compromise that perhaps provides a model for working toward universal health care. In short, Mayor Willie Brown, Levada and four city supervisors negotiated terms that avoided sexual politics by raising the issue of health care to “a higher platform,” in the words of Catholic Charities’ Hudson. Any “legally domiciled member” of an employee’s household -- an elderly aunt, a child under extended family care, a gay partner, for example -- would be eligible for spousal equivalent benefits.

Under this strategy, the church did not have to recognize gay partnerships or same-sex marriages; Catholic Charities held on to city funding; gay and lesbian partners as well as other people previously denied health care benefits got them.

It was a middle-of-the-road compromise that did little to satisfy the most ardent at either end of the spectrum. In the words of one newspaper opinion piece, Levada allowed the church and other “opponents of domestic partnerships to avoid recognizing such unions altogether, leaving same-sex couples back where they started -- in a society that does not give their relationship the same standing that married heterosexuals have.”

Those on the right, however, reprimanded him for “blurring the definition of spousal benefits,” for recognizing “a morally deviant relationship” and for “legitimizing domestic partnership by silently funding it,” according to other news coverage.

Hudson said the solution “really upset” conservative members of the church: “They don’t believe in universal health care. It was a double whammy. But now I’m in the position of heading an organization with perhaps the most progressive health care benefits in the USA.”

Salvation Army officers, meanwhile, made a decision at the national level to cancel $3.5 million in city contracts because of conflicts with the organization’s “traditional interpretation of scripture.”

Sunshine Ordinance: next challenge

A year later, the political waters between church and city officials were roiled again when another law, known as the Sunshine Ordinance, was proposed. The original draft of the ordinance stipulated that nonprofit organizations receiving city funds would have to hold two open public meetings a year, open their books -- funding sources included -- to public scrutiny and allow open nominations to their boards of directors. Church officials decried the measure as “an invasion of the city and the secular into nonprofit religious matters.” Catholic Charities CEO Burns described the original requirements as “draconian.”

City Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is Catholic and gay, accused Catholic Charities of playing two sets of cards -- a religious set when the organization wanted privacy and a nonprofit set when it wanted city money. “They can’t have it both ways,” Ammiano told the San Francisco Chronicle. “When it comes to city regulations, they are a religion. What the city is asking is very minimal. But if it violates their religious creed, they don’t have to take the money.”

Levada asked Mayor Brown to veto the bill -- a request that was denied -- and once again threatened to take legal action against the city on the grounds of discrimination against religious freedom. Burns, meanwhile, met with leaders from several other major religious charities to find a way to modify the requirements. “We never thought we could kill [the ordinance] outright. But we tried to water it down. The final version is bad public policy, but it’s something that can be lived with,” Burns said.

The way things stand now, he said, nonprofits will still have to hold two open board meetings, but their organizations will determine the protocol. He said he did not share fears that such meetings could become forums for issues like abortion or gay rights. “Someone can always walk into the cathedral and scream in the middle of Mass, if they want to,” he said.

Open nominations to boards of directors must be allowed, and a city committee will monitor whether those nominated by the public receive a fair chance at appointments. Financial disclosure is required, but it is limited to details no more extensive than requested by the Internal Revenue Service, Burns said.

“If this becomes intrusive, we’ll go back to the city to amend it again or we’ll litigate,” Burns said. “But clearly, that is not going to happen. We have a strong partnership with the city. Besides, when you’re getting that kind of funding, you should be asked to put up with some grief.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998