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Choice for S.F. Bishop Reflects a Clash of Values, Observers Say

August 26, 1995|From Religion News Service

SAN FRANCISCO — The resignation last week of San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, a social moderate, and the announcement that he will be succeeded by conservative Portland Bishop William Levada is more than just an ecclesiastical management shake-up, some observers say.

It's a clash between the absolutist values of Rome and the ever-changing mores of a diverse American public, theologians say, and a case study for the challenges facing not only America's Roman Catholics, but also Episcopalians, Southern Baptists and other denominations divided over such social issues as homosexuality, abortion and the role of women.

In naming Levada to head the highly diverse Bay Area diocese, the Pope "seems to be tightening his grip," said Tim Unsworth, a Vatican watcher who is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and author of four books on Catholicism. "This is his way of getting his men in there."

In his 16-year pontificate, Pope John Paul II has appointed more than 1,600 bishops worldwide. Supporters say he is passionately focused on preparing the church, and the world, for the year 2000 and beyond, and appointments are the Pope's most effective strategy to fight what he sees as a drifting away from established truth.

As such, his appointments tend to match the global, not the local, theological vision.

"In a nutshell," said the Rev. Jeffrey Sobosan, a priest and theology professor at the University of Portland, "Pope John Paul believes the primary pastoral function of religion is to provide peace of mind, consolation and security of God's love.

"That means he's not going to respond well to any sources causing discord, disruption, anxiety and anguish. He is going to see that as a denial of religion in its fundamental intent."

The Pope has not yet named a replacement for the Archdiocese of Portland, where Levada has presided since 1986.

As Portland's church leader, Levada "knew what the rules were, and he was unlikely to make rash departures from orthodoxy," said Kenneth Briggs, author of "Holy Siege: The Year That Shook Catholic America."

His successor "will be the same way," Briggs said. "It is unlikely that anyone who departs in any way from orthodoxy" will be named to replace him.

In his new post, Levada will inherit an archdiocese--which includes San Francisco, San Mateo County and Marin County--where attendance at Mass has nose-dived from 204,000 in 1961 to 106,000 today, and financial pressure has led to the closure of nine churches.

Surveys indicate the Bay Area lags far behind the nation in the percentage of residents who believe in God, are interested in religion or practice their faith. And an Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission approved by Quinn on June 30 laments that the Bay Area, "once vibrantly religious in tone, has now become a largely secular milieu."

Yet the commission set a goal of doubling church attendance by 2005, largely by building "vibrant spiritual communities among the new immigrant communities, single-parent families, the young adult community and the gay community."

Levada said he hopes to achieve that goal by reaching out to draw lapsed Catholics back into the fold. "It would be my first priority to say we need to look, first of all, at these people who were Catholic," Levada said. "I want to sit down with people and say, 'If you don't want to be a Catholic, fine. But if there's something someone has done in the church to alienate you, let's talk about it.' "

But the thought of a doctrinal conservative such as Levada leading Catholicism in San Francisco makes some in the large gay and lesbian community uncomfortable.

During his tenure, Quinn was considered a friend of the gay community, and is credited with building the archdiocese into the largest single provider of housing to people with AIDS on the West Coast.

Quinn supported the Most Holy Redeemer Church, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation of about 500 in the Castro district, and its former convent--home of the Sisters of Charity--which is now leased to Coming Home Hospice, a private organization that cares for people dying of AIDS.

A block from that church, at the Metropolitan Community Church, an openly gay congregation is led by former Catholic, the Rev. Jim Mitulski, who says that half of his 450 members are also "graduates of the Catholic Church."

He says Levada will do fine, despite his conservative theological bent, if he embraces the main values of the city: independence, eclecticism and creativity.

"The clock isn't turning backward," Mitulski said. "People in this area, Catholic or not, won't respect [an] authoritarian, backward-looking, repressive kind of religion. I suppose there's always some market for that. But it's not the future.

"In some ways," he said, "San Francisco, Portland and Seattle may be the new millennium cities. They are post-Christian. They are very secular cities. Religion does not play the kind of active political role it plays in some other cities in America and throughout the world."

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