Sunday, February 12, 2006

To the See of St. Francis

As Pope Benedict XVI's first major personnel move in the American hierarchy takes effect this week, Archbishop-elect George Niederauer's moment has arrived.

In three days, the 69 year-old Los Angeles native and former bishop of Utah's sole diocese will be installed as the shepherd of San Francisco's 425,000 Catholics in a celebration which will draw two cardinals, one Grand Inquisitor, around 50 bishops and thousands of friends, well-wishers and the people of his new flock gathered from near and far.

Displaying his well-known penchants for cultural sophistication, nuance and openness, the successor to Archbishop William Levada gave an extended interview to the San Francisco Chronicle in advance of the coming celebrations.

The audio of the exchange with reporter Wyatt Buchanan can be found here.

Niederauer, tapped in December to succeed Levada, who was called to Rome last May to succeed the new pontiff as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offered responses to highly-visible issues which have divided the Catholic world, including last November's Vatican instruction on the admission of gays to seminary formation, the role of the church in aiding HIV/AIDS victims, and his own tastes in film and literature.

Regarding the instruction, the archbishop-elect -- who spent most of his priesthood in seminary work before being named bishop of Salt Lake in 1994 -- emphasized that "a very strong priority is vocations to the priesthood." Given the San Francisco archbishop's ex officio role as chairman of the trustees at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Niederauer said that the document "has to be taken into consideration in the context of the entire program of priestly training and formation, not as just a headline item.... It probably will come up [in encounters with the seminary administration and faculty], but it's not going to be a meeting just about that."

While noting that he was not speaking "officially" for the Holy See, as Niederauer sees it, "By combining [the phrase 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies'] with [the phrase] 'affective maturity' it seems what the Vatican's suggestion is... that someone who's going to be a priest has to be able and willing -- and this has to be tested by time, of course -- to subordinate all relationships and to conduct all relationships with others in a way that's compatible with a celibate lifestyle.... That he is able to maintain the appropriate boundaries, he is able to retain his commitment to that celibate relationship with Christ in priesthood; and I think that would be true, also, for the heterosexual candidate. I think it's true for a married man. Can he have friends who are women? Sure. Does he have to conduct those relationships in such a way that are compatible with his commitment to his wife? Yes, he does."

The new archbishop rejected the claims of ecclesiastical conservatives who see homosexuality as the dominant culprit of the eruption of abuse cases in the United States, particularly over the last four years. "People who see as the sex abuse scandal as having as the cause the sexual orientation of the priests -- I felt they were mistaken," he said. "Because when we're talking about pedophilia, we're talking about a sickness, an illness, an aberration," recalling that the majority of sex-abuse cases are "committed by married men, or men who have been married.

"And yet I don't think anybody would say, 'Well, that's because of the heterosexual orientation of those men'.... To say that [sexual orientation] is the cause, I think, doesn't make sense," Niederauer said, with a reminder that a study by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the "causes and contexts" of the abuse crisis "is just beginning," and that it would be imprudent to place premature findings in its path.

The responses of the new archbishop, a "lifelong" friend of the church's new doctrinal enforcer, can be seen as a moment of revitalization for Catholicism's centrist, pastoral approach, which has been demonized by the American church's rightward factions as doctrinally insufficient.

Given Benedict's appointment of Niederauer, and the current Pope's record of 23 years as the doctrinally stringent head of the former Holy Office, the criticisms can be seen as hyperbole, at best.

San Francisco is known as a center of American gay and lesbian life, and the LGBT community's significant presence in the city extends into the life of its local church.

When asked why, in the face of the church's teachings on homosexuality, gays and lesbians would want to be part of the Catholic fold, Niederauer replied that, "They believe that this community of faith offers them a way of living in Christ and salvation in Christ.... They believe the Good News -- that Jesus is Lord and that the Church is the community of his disciples and followers, that the teachings of the faith, that the Eucharist, that the sacraments are the means of salvation."

Emphasizing the life of faith as a journey, he continued that "It's true you can't ignore your own personal circumstances, nor should the Church ignore them. But I think that the whole matter of faith and practice in the church is bigger than any one issue, however enormous that issue is to an individual person.

"One thing the Church does, and I think at its best does very well, is hang in with people their whole journey long, not say 'You must seem to me to be exactly as I expect you to be, or we don't want you here.' I think that we, yes we do, set the bar very high on several aspects of life -- we don't do it arbitrarily, we do it because we believe that's how the Lord is leading us. But at the same time we cetainly support and walk alongside the people who walk with us on this journey of faith and salvation, and I think that's something that a lot of our people realize and that's why they continue that walk in the Church."

Say the term "desert island books" and most American prelates would present a puzzled look. Niederauer -- who earned his Ph.D. in English Literature at USC and is, arguably, one of the most pop-culture savvy members of the American hierarchy -- actually volunteered it when speaking of his cultural influences: a love for Flannery O'Connor, who he used to teach a course on; Evelyn Waugh, and William Faulkner, among others. He says Anne Patchett is a current favorite, as is Sherman Alexei.

Of The Habit of Being, the collection of O'Connor's letters, which he said he "had returned to again and again" more than any other book (the Bible notwithstanding), the archbishop-elect spoke of "the thoughts and the feelings of a very tough minded lady who suffered all her life and died so young -- she died before she was 40 -- but still reflected on things with a great deal of sanity, honesty, faith. She's a very powerful figure for me in 20th century literature."

On film, Niederauer "liked" Syriana, thought Munich "too long," hasn't yet seen the Narnia movie and is a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who he confessed he's "secretly pulling for" given Hoffma's Oscar nomination for Best Actor in his role as the author Truman Capote in Capote, which is also nominated for Best Picture.

In his discussion of cinema, Niederauer did show his hand as an observant reader of The New York Times, citing a recent article in the paper's Arts section on "films that could use a nip and a tuck."

The new archbishop had no qualms affirming that he had seen Brokeback Mountain, making him the first senior American cleric to state publicly that he has viewed the controversial film.

When asked for his reaction, he replied that "I thought it was very powerful, and I probably had a different take on it than a lot of people did.... It was a story not only about the relationship between the two principal characters, but very much a cluster of relationships.... And I think in all of that one of the lessons is the destructiveness of not being honest with yourself, and not being honest with other people -- and not being faithful, trying to live a double life, and what that does to each of the lives you try to live."

Noting that, internationally, 30% of the non-governmental assistance given to AIDS and HIV sufferers comes from the Catholic church, Niederauer -- who inherits the Bay Area's largest social services provider, one particularly known for its AIDS ministry -- was asked how the church's stance on condoms could be reconciled with the reality of the pandemic.

"I think we're serving a greater good, and I don't mean that in any kind of insensitive way," he said. "Our belief is that we have to hold up the standard of abstinence, and we do that in all of our teaching about sexuality by saying that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong. Now that's a very high bar to set and I understand that. And I don't regret that -- I subscribe to it and I teach it. I understand why people find it difficult and disagree with it. I understand why they do. I don't agree with them.... What I would say is that people who disagree with us can disagree without being disagreeable."

"While people may not be able to go down that [doctrinal] road with us, and may not be able to agree with us, we must respect their opinions, but they must respect ours. And I think the context in which they have to see our holding to our convictions is that we are not turning our backs on persons who need us, that we are reaching out, that we are making sacrifices, because we believe we should, because we believe these people matter, because we have a respect for every individual human life, and that everybody is important enough to help -- especially when they need it."

Niederauer will have to settle quickly into his role as the metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of San Francisco, which encompasses Northern California, Utah, Hawaii and Nevada. Forty-eight hours after his own installation, he will serve as principal consecrator at the ordination of a San Francisco priest, Fr. Randy Calvo, as the new bishop of Reno.

As metropolitan over his former See, the new archbishop is expected to have significant influence over the Vatican's choice of his successor in Salt Lake City, a diocese which experienced sizable growth during his decade there.

Salt Lake Tribune