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Public pressure or civil disobedience: a conversation with Archbishop Cordileone

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2020

Back in September, when Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone began a campaign of public pressure to loosen government restrictions on the Church, I wrote ( “Two Cheers for Archbishop Cordileone”) to pose a question:

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If the archbishop thinks that the city’s restrictions are unreasonable—if he thinks that it would be safe to celebrate Mass for a larger congregation in the city’s cathedral—why doesn’t he take the obvious action? Why doesn’t he go into his own cathedral, invite the public, and celebrate Mass?

In a phone conversation a month later, the archbishop answered my question, and his answer forced me to rethink my own position. Although I am still inclined to favor outright defiance of government restrictions on worship, he introduced some important complications in what I had considered a fairly simple argument.

My argument, as outlined in that September column, was threefold:

  1. Administrative restrictions on public worship are probably invalid; they lack the force of legislation;
  2. Even if the restrictions are legally wrought, they violate the First Amendment prohibition against restrictions on religious worship; and
  3. A law barring access to the Mass is an unjust law, and need not be obeyed.

Therefore, I suggested, defy the restrictions and face the consequences.

But what would the consequences actually be? Ah, there’s the rub.

Toward the end of our conversation, I acknowledged to Archbishop Cordileone that I was urging him to take an action that might get him arrested. He responded immediately: “Oh, if I thought that’s what I thought would happen, I’d do it.” The complication, he explained, is that he probably would not be arrested for an act of civil disobedience. An arrest would create an uproar, energizing apathetic Catholics and religious-freedom advocates. Government officials would find other, more damaging ways to punish the Church.

Civil disobedience, the archbishop reasons, must be “used very strategically.” If he had defied the city restrictions in September, he believed, it “would have been seen as reckless.” Instead he launched a publicity campaign, hoping for a victory in the court of public opinion.

At the time, the archbishop recalled, the city’s regulations were welcomed by many residents— including many Catholics— who were fearful about the spread of the Covid virus. If he defied the restrictions, political leaders would have condemned him for endangering the public, thus strengthened public opinion in their favor, and made it even harder to win a political campaign against the restrictions.

Fortunately, at about the same time, studies by the Thomistic Institute demonstrated that there had been no Covid infections— none— traced to Catholic churches. The archdiocese had adopted its own guidelines, demonstrating a determination to minimize any risk. Armed with these facts, which alleviated fears about contagion in churches, he “began agitating” for the city to lift restrictions.

The archbishop also sought to make the religious-freedom argument in a manner that would appeal to the undecided. The archdiocese recognizes the government’s authority to ensure public safety, he said; but the Church could not accept restrictions on worship that would “effectively ban it.”

The city did ease restrictions— a bit— with the new rules taking effect just before the feast of Corpus Christi. Archbishop Cordileone instructed his pastors to anticipate the new rules on the feast day: technically violating the rules that had not yet been superseded. But some parishes were cited for violations, and some received cease-and-desist orders. Reports of those alleged violations quickly found their way into the media. “This is how they hurt us,” the archbishop observed.

In September the city ruled that churches could allow no more than 50 people inside for Mass. That rule was absurd, the archbishop pointed out, for a building like the cathedral, which could easily absorb a few hundred people and still allow for ample social distancing. Moreover, the rules allowed that only one person at a time could enter a church for private prayer. There were no such restrictions on tattoo parlors. The anti-religious effect of these regulations was evident.

San Francisco’s political leaders “overplayed their hand” at this point, the archbishop believes. From Washington, the Department of Justice rebuked San Francisco for anti-religious discrimination. Archbishop Cordileone published an op-ed column in the Washington Post, setting forth his case to a national audience. In that battle for public opinion, he said, “we won that initial battle, but there’s more to go.”

Archbishop Cordileone continues to wage the battle, and today, as I write, he is celebrating the news that a Marin County prosecutor plans to bring felony charges against vandals who destroyed a statue of St. Junipero Serra at a local church. He is making some progress, in a difficult climate, in his bid to rally broad public support.

Yet the Church in San Francisco still labors under tight restrictions. And the threat of a second lockdown— already a reality in New York— raises the distinct possibility that the restrictions will be tightened once again. When I asked whether he could envision a situation that would call for outright civil disobedience, Archbishop Cordileone said that it would be a last resort. “I don’t perceive a need right now,” he said, “but I’m taking no options off the table.”

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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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: thomas28899 - Nov. 19, 2020 7:16 PM ET USA

    In my opinion, the good Bishop emboldened his adversaries by taking a "political" view rather than a "Catholic moral" view. Once they saw he was willing to play this game...they doubled down. Our leaders need to be strong for the faithful and let God take care of the result. Then just maybe they won't have to backpedal as he did here. Final question: Were the many martyrs or our church politically concerned about their beliefs and willing to fight for them. I think we all know the answer?

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Nov. 16, 2020 8:39 AM ET USA

    The bottom line here seems to be that Archbishop Cordileone is making prudential decisions to oppose the restrictions -- resisting them by engaging public opinion, not just acquiescing to them. And he is making those decisions knowing his position and what might help the Church, versus what could harm it. That's as much as anyone could ask. Thanks for the update, Phil.