Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco is by all accounts a fine man, a Godly priest and an able bishop, but shepherding the Church in a city where some 15% of the population is proudly homosexual is evidently going to require heroic skills. Homosexual culture pervades the city’s life in ways that would shock most Americans who otherwise pride themselves on their earthiness and easygoing tolerance. Office- seekers, who cannot hope to be elected without gay support, regularly troop through leather bars in search of votes. And safe sex means a police department that conducts how-to classes in bizarre bondage rituals in an effort to protect one or both partners from serious injury or death.
This was the milieu into which Bishop Levada was delivered early last year. He had hardly unpacked when the Board of Supervisors decreed that any entity doing business with the city would henceforth have to provide spousal benefits to the designated “domestic partners” (read live-in lovers) of their employees. Although paraded as an anti-discrimination measure, domestic partner legislation is but a tactical maneuver in a multi-front war to eliminate traditional social and legal dispensations favoring heterosexual marriage. Bishop Levada, worried about the status of Catholic Charities (which receives some $5 million from the city), courageously took issue with the ordinance. It was, he said, an improper and very likely illegal interference in the internal operations of a Church-run organization. In December he wrote to the Mayor, asking that Catholic agencies be exempted.
The Mayor in this case happens to be The Hon. Willie Brown, former Speaker of the California Assembly and one of the two or three wiliest politicians in the nation. He is charming, cunning, aggressively supportive of gay rights, and, as occasion demands, a bully. He also knows how to count. Notwithstanding the nominally significant Catholic population of the city, the Mayor concluded that the local Church was a tiger that had long ago lost its claws. This view was shared by the Board of Supervisors, which treated the Bishop’s request as so much arrant nonsense. No exemptions, period, they huffed and, by the way, how dare Levada inject religion into the secular temple of politics?
Mayor Brown, who’s made his career by being a better judge of his opponents’ temperaments than they are themselves, treated the Bishop’s entreaty with contemptuous silence— until he sensed weakness and decided to offer the diocese a fig-leaf. The ordinance could be cosmetically, but not substantively, modified: an employee might designate any legally domiciled member of his or her household as spousal beneficiary, i.e., the category would still include, but not be limited to, live-in lovers. Bishop Levada blinked. Notwithstanding multiple offers of free legal assistance, he took the fig-leaf, declared victory, and went home.
The result is a disaster for the diocese, for the Church, and for the nation. The San Francisco compromise may hereafter mark the outermost limit of “reasonable” opposition to the gay-rights agenda. Certainly, any bishop who takes a firmer stand will have Levada’s concession hurled in his face as the officially sanctioned position of the Church. Case in point: even as Levada threw in the towel in San Francisco, his sub-ordinary, Francis DiLorenzo of Honolulu, had been engaged in a pitched battle to stop the legalization of gay marriage in Hawaii. Levada’s concession threatens to undercut Bishop DiLorenzo’s efforts and, by extension, those of every other bishop who chooses to draw a line in the sand. Meanwhile, the faithful, whose generosity over many decades has made Catholic Charities the largest and most efficient charitable provider in the nation, now face a demoralizing prospect: by an act of civil law acceded to by their bishop, a portion of their contributions will henceforth subsidize the patently immoral decisions of certain Church employees.
The saddest part of all is that Bishop Levada missed a golden opportunity to instruct his flock on why the Church believes what it does about homosexuality and why the institution of marriage is undermined when spousal benefits are extended to unmarried persons of either sex. Perhaps not every bishop can be as courageous or as impervious to intimidation as John Paul II. But we’d all be better off if they tried.