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Archbishop Cordileone responds: the debate continued

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 23, 2020

In an essay on the First Things site, ( “The Battle to Free the Mass”) Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone fleshes out the argument that he made in response to my challenge of two months ago (”Two cheers for Archbishop Cordileone”; see also my later account of my conversation with the archbishop.) His argument is subtle, thoughtful, winsome—but, at least in my view, still not quite persuasive.

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The question that I posed was why the archbishop accepted the government’s authority to close down public celebration of the Mass. His simple answer is that he did not: “I made these decisions. I am responsible for them.” He explains that he was worried—as we all were, in the early days of the pandemic—about the rapid spread of a disease about which we knew very little. Like most Americans he accepted the need to “flatten the curve.”

But as the lockdown that was initially expected to last a few weeks dragged on for months, the archbishop recalls, he began to remonstrate with public officials, asking for an easing of restrictions on public worship. He did not want to ask for special favors: “The right to infect others is not a right I wanted to stand behind.” So he painstakingly explained the measures that his archdiocese was taking to ensure that Mass could be celebrated safely. Unfortunately, city officials showed no inclination to listen to him. So he “began to realize that patient, silent invisible pleas while my people suffered were no longer enough.”

At that point, Archbishop Cordileone began a campaign of public pressure, generating petitions and phone calls to city officials. “It worked,” he now writes. “The city raised the limit on public worship indoors to 100 people—the maximum allowed by the state of California.” Thus the archdiocese has been freed from the absurd restrictions imposed by the city of San Francisco—but is still bound by the absurd restrictions imposed by the state of California.

Archbishop Cordileone believes that his public-pressure campaign was the proper, prudent approach. “If I had marched into battle to Free the Mass in June,” he reasons, “I would have appeared reckless to most of San Francisco and much of my own Church.” I have no doubt that he is right. He won a political victory in October; he would have lost that same battle if he fought it out in June.

But there will be another battle sometime soon: another confrontation between secular and ecclesiastical authority. And the political trends are adverse. There is no indication that California’s Governor Newsom is inclined to carve out protections for religious liberty in his draconian lockdown rules. A Biden administration will not rein in over-aggressive local officials. The archbishop was able to rally public opinion sufficiently to win a partial victory this year, but can he count on the same sort of public support in the future?

Archbishop Cordileone chose to fight this case in the court of public opinion, and in this case he won. On this occasion—in October, in San Francisco—public opinion supported the Catholic cause. But public opinion shifts constantly, and responds most readily to influences that are not at all friendly to the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile a precedent has been set. When the next confrontation comes (and does anyone doubt that it is coming?), government officials can say to Church leaders: “You accepted the state restrictions; why can’t you accept these few new rules?” Eventually the issue must be tested: not in the court of public opinion, but in a court of law, where constitutional principles have stronger roots. Better to test the case now, I suggest, than to allow further erosion to endanger those principles as well.


Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me repeat that I do not mean to single out Archbishop Cordileone for criticism here. On the contrary I am grateful to him, not only for his leadership on this issue, but also for his willingness to engage in what I think is a useful and necessary debate.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Nov. 27, 2020 2:41 PM ET USA

    That camel has had a nose in the tent for decades. It took an inch for tax exemption. It took an inch to allow access to government funds for charitable activities. It took an inch when the government regulated whom Catholic schools could refuse to hire and whom they could fire. But don't worry. I'm sure Pope Francis will negotiate a deal with the Biden administration that protects Catholics, just like he did in China.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Nov. 25, 2020 3:23 PM ET USA

    Amen, Eden Johnson!

  • Posted by: edenjohnson364256 - Nov. 24, 2020 8:15 PM ET USA

    I say fight the issue in both the court of public opinion and in court of law. I applaud Archbishop Cordileone and his tribe; may they increase! WE HAVE TO BE VIGILANT AND MILITANT NOW, WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN MANY YEARS AGO. NO MORE COWARDLY APPEASEMENT, NO MORE!