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San Francisco archbishop under attack: critics of Catholic school reforms hire high-profile PR guru

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Public relations specialist Sam Singer

SAN FRANCISCO, March 3, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) -- Critics of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone have raised the stakes in their opposition to improving the Catholic identity of the city’s Catholic high schools by hiring a high-profile PR strategist.

“Concerned parents are footing the bill” to hire “media relations heavyweight” Sam Singer, reports SF Weekly.

Singer specializes in crisis communication for high-profile figures and describes himself as The Fixer and Top Gun for Hire on his website. He’s also been called The Master of Disaster for his public relations work, which includes representing the San Francisco Zoo in the 2007 killing of a young man by the zoo’s Siberian tiger, and where, according to the news outlet, Singer “shaped hearts and minds to sympathize with the tiger.”

While media reports are not clear about who specifically is behind hiring Singer, the move shows the broad nature and depth of the battle against the archbishop’s efforts to uphold Church teaching.

At the same time Singer told SF Weekly, “he hopes the archbishop sees that the ‘loyalty oath’ he's asking of teachers does 'not keep with Catholic values'," he also said he didn’t accept the job of countering the archbishop’s efforts to maintain Catholic identity because “he himself is religious, necessarily.”

"I'm half Catholic, half Jewish," Singer said. "I like to say I'm the most guilty, most worried man alive." 

The archdiocese announced February 3 that they would add statements on morality to faculty handbooks, as well as three new clauses to teacher contracts, all derived from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Cordileone explained at the outset that the intent was not to target anyone, but rather to clarify Church teaching and the long-established expectation of Catholic school employees to not publicly contradict the faith.

It is something he has continued to emphasize, along with the need for Catholic schools to be clear in imparting Catholic principles.

“We’re not on a witch hunt; we’re not looking to terminate teachers,” Archbishop Cordileone told the New York Times this week.

He said he was introducing the new language because “young people are under intense pressure today to conform to certain standards that are contrary to what we believe,” and he had focused on “hot-button issues” to clear up “the confusion.”

The archbishop also told the newspaper that he knew that not all teachers at the schools were Catholic, and he affirmed again that a teacher’s private life would remain private. He said his concern was that in their public lives faculty “don’t do anything to compromise the mission of our schools.”

Eight Democrat California lawmakers wrote a letter February 17 pressuring the archbishop to back down on the efforts. But the archbishop responded, “Would you hire a campaign manager who advocates policies contrary to those that you stand for, and who shows disrespect toward you and the Democratic Party in general?” 

“My point is: I respect your right to employ or not employ whomever you wish to advance your mission,” he said. “I simply ask the same respect from you.”

Two of the lawmakers then called for an investigation of working conditions at high schools administered by the archdiocese by the state’s Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and Assembly Judiciary Committee.

“California cannot become a laboratory for discrimination under the guise of religion,” the two Democrats told CBS San Francisco.

They said the archbishop’s measures to uphold Church teaching “set a dangerous precedent for workers’ rights through manipulations of law that deprive employees of civil rights guaranteed to all Californians.”

After a meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board on February 24, the paper reported that Cordileone was backtracking, but the archdiocese denied it in a follow-up statement.

The archbishop did agree, however, that they would not classify teachers as “ministers,” which teachers feared would remove them from federally-recognized civil rights protection.

“The Archbishop has not repealed anything,” Father John Piderit SJ, Vicar for Administration for the archdiocese and Moderator of the Curia said in the statement. “He is adding explanations, clarifications, and material on Catholic social teaching, via a committee of religion teachers he is establishing.” 

“The committee is to expand some areas of the material to be included in the faculty handbook, and clarify other areas by adding material,” said Father Piderit, who was also present at the meeting. “Nothing already planned to go in is being removed or retracted or withdrawn.”

The archdiocese stated the word “ministers” is no longer being considered to classify faculty, however the word “ministry” remained part of the language, and the archbishop was working to identify language that satisfies two needs, one to protect teachers’ rights and the other the right of the archdiocese to run Catholic schools that are faithful to its mission.

“Even if a substitute for ‘ministry’ is found,” Father Piderit said, “the substitute must guarantee that the teachers in the Catholic archdiocesan high schools promote the Catholic mission of the institutions."

Singer persisted in the apparent push for the archbishop to back down after the meeting.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Singer told the online magazine Crux. “So we’ll have to take a look at what the archbishop comes back with. But this is certainly a step in the right direction, and is welcomed by many of the parents, teachers and alumni. But there is still much work to be done.”

The Chronicle subsequently made a video of the meeting available, which was published by the archdiocese.

“The point I want to emphasize most of all though, is that everything that we do is for our students,” Archbishop Cordileone said in the meeting with the newspaper. “My primary concern and the most important thing, and that of everyone involved in the educational ministry of our archdiocese, is for the good of our students.”

Media reports also continue to highlight resistance to the archbishop’s efforts, and misunderstanding of Church doctrine in the moral issues the Church statements concern, such as homosexuality.

The Church teaches that while all people are deserving of respect as children of God, homosexual acts are immoral and can never be accepted.

“We pray for the archbishop that his heart is changed,” Gus O’Sullivan told the New York Times. The openly gay senior at one of the schools spoke at a candlelight protest, reportedly part of the Singer campaign.

Michael Vezzali, a teacher at one of the schools and a union official, said the archbishop was “a very wise man,” but “we feel our schools are places where we’re supposed to share the gospel of Jesus and love, no matter what.”

“Our community is in pain; our teachers are scared,” said Jessica Hyman, another senior at one of the archdiocesan high schools.

“We sent our kids to these schools because they uphold the fundamental principles of our faith of love, acceptance and respect,” said Kathy Curran, a mother of freshman. “This language says some people are not O.K. — and that’s not O.K.”

Archbishop Cordileone’s language “is very, very hurtful,” but “he is representing exactly the Roman Catholic sexual doctrine,” Santa Clara University Associate Professor of Moral Theology Lisa Fullam told the New York Times. “Bishops do have a lot of authority in their own diocese.”

Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, and co-author of the book American Catholics in Transition, which chronicled changes in Catholics’ attitudes and behavior from 1987-2011, said what’s happening in San Francisco reflects the attitudinal wavering among Catholics.

“The church wants people to be aware of official church teachings because they think there is confusion in the culture,” Dillon told the New York Times. “A lot of Catholics aren’t confused. They simply ignore the church’s teachings.”

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