The other day I wrote about San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone, who has scandalized his city by indicating that he intends to act like a Catholic bishop, and to run his diocese as though he ran the place. I expected the usual lifestyle-liberalism pushback, but one line of argument surprised me, though it shouldn’t have: “Oh, you mean that rotten old drunk, huh? He’s been charged with drunk driving, don’t you know!”
It is true that the archbishop was charged with drunk driving. He does not contest that he was over the legal limit, and his public statement after the fact was about as solid as it gets: “I apologize for my error in judgment and feel shame for the disgrace I have brought upon the Church and myself. I will repay my debt to society and I ask forgiveness from my family and my friends and co-workers at the Diocese of Oakland and the Archdiocese of San Francisco.”
Not exactly “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
The people who have the strongest feelings about Catholic teaching tend to be the people who know the least about it. That the archbishop is a fallen creature, a sinner like the rest of us, is not a challenge to Christian teaching—it is a vindication of Christian teaching. Of course the archbishop is called to a life of greater holiness—just like the rest of us—and of course he is going to fail—just like the rest of us. That’s the weird tough nut at the heart of Christianity: “Here’s an impossibility high standard that you have to try to live up to as part of a faith based on the understanding that you are not going to do that.”
(That is one of the many reasons that I’ve never understood people who say that Christianity is “comforting.” What part of “Take up your cross” do they not understand?)
For people who don’t understand Christian thinking generally or Catholic teaching specifically, that sort of thing causes head-clutching stress migraines, mainly because such people are almost always captive to a juvenile brand of moral primitivism, a white-hats/black-hats view of the world incapable of incorporating the fact that honest-to-God saints are sometimes pretty awful people, so it’s no surprise when a mere archbishop—the district manager of the Catholic world—has one glass of wine too many. Bishops aren’t angels—they’re bureaucrats.
(The Catholic Church has inspired many great paintings and sculptures, but bureaucracy is the art form that it has elevated to sublimity.)
The policies that the archbishop intends to implement in his jurisdiction—the policies that so annoy progressive San Francisco—are not those of the Church of Salvatore Cordileone, and, as the archbishop himself surely would be the first to acknowledge, the authority of those teachings does not derive from the man who presides over archdiocesan committee meetings.
Critics of Catholic moral teaching do not have to accept those views, but they have to understand them if their criticism is to have any meaning.