(OPINION) Serious fasting is hard, even for a Catholic archbishop, especially when the aroma of spaghetti sauce is wafting through a church during an Italian community dinner.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone learned that lesson during California’s bitter battles over the meaning of “marriage,” “family” and other common terms that had become controversial. But he had promised to join in 100 days of prayer and 40 days of fasting as part of an ecumenical coalition’s efforts to defend centuries of teachings on sexuality.
It was evangelical Protestants who proposed the fast, even though traditional Catholics have practiced that discipline for centuries.
“They meant serious fasting — like not eating, or eating very little, just one meal a day. So, not just giving up dessert, you know?” said Cordileone, during this summer’s Issues, Etc. conference at Concordia University in Chicago, sponsored by Lutheran Public Radio. (This independent online network also produces my GetReligion.org podcast.)
The inside joke about Catholics “giving up dessert” hit home, even though he was speaking to Missouri Synod Lutherans.
There was a time when Lutherans would not have invited a Catholic archbishop to this kind of event, said Cordileone. There was a time when it was rare for Catholics to cooperate with evangelicals and other believers seeking common ground on moral and social issues.
“To tell you the truth, I actually long for the good old days when we used to have the luxury to fight with each other over doctrinal issues,” said Cordileone, drawing laughter. “But right now, the ship is going down. … The crew cannot afford to stand on the bridge and discuss the best kind of navigation equipment to use — when the ship is going down.”
The “ship,” he stressed, is not the church — “it’s our civilization.” If clergy cannot work together to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and family, while also striving to convince their own flocks to live by them, then “our civilization is … hanging by a thread.”
Many of today’s most intense battles center on religious believers trying to practice — in their private and public lives — the teachings of their faith, he noted. There was a time when this was not a controversial issue.
Cordileone made national headlines during the coronavirus pandemic with his efforts to defend the First Amendment rights of California churches holding small, outdoor rites while following social-distancing guidelines. And after years of private talks with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose home is in San Francisco, the archbishop took a stand against her public support for abortion rights, same-sex marriage and similar causes, despite her many statements that she remains a “devout Catholic.”
In a May 2022 letter, he warned Pelosi: “I am hereby notifying you that you are not to present yourself for Holy Communion and, should you do so, you are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, until such time as you publicly repudiate your advocacy for the legitimacy of abortion and confess and receive absolution of this grave sin in the sacrament of Penance.”
Pelosi openly rebuked Cordileone, calling this conflict “his problem, not mine.” She has since received Holy Communion in a church in Washington, D.C., as well as during a papal Mass last summer in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
Cordileone addressed the Pelosi standoff while answering questions during the Issues, Etc., conference — stressing that he has no problem quoting the writings of Pope Francis when defending his own stance on abortion.
Rather than dwell on politics, the archbishop urged clergy to focus on strengthening their own flocks. Believers need to keep the doctrines of the faith, keep their marriage vows and be faithful in “your other spheres of influence, in your jobs, if you are in school, in other communities that you are involved in. … And then, let God do the rest,” he said.
But when threats to religious freedom arise, pastors need to be courageous. Many religious leaders have shown “a lack of spiritual vision, and fortitude, and a desire not to take risks because of the consequences of that,” said Cordileone.
“I would rather take those risks than face God on judgement day and say, ‘I just wanted to keep the peace, so I didn’t get involved.’ … I know that He will hold me accountable for the responsibilities that He has entrusted to me.”