Published on Saturday, April 9, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
How the Pope Squashed Activism in San Francisco
by Randy Shaw
From the late 1970's through the early 1980's, the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco was among the city's leading forces for progressive change. The Archdiocese created tenants organizations, priests led the fight for rent rollbacks, and San Francisco's Archbishop Quinn built local and national opposition to America's war against the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Pope John Paul put an end to such advocacy, squashing the local church's active support of progressive change.
After a week of overwhelmingly positive media coverage about the Pope, there should be at least some space for acknowledging the negative impact of his tenure on the fight for social justice in San Francisco.
In San Francisco's November 1978 election there was a ballot initiative to require landlords to distribute their Prop-13 tax savings to tenants. Polls showed the measure trailing badly, but momentum shifted after Mission District priests held a press conference urging support for the initiative. The measure ultimately lost 53-47, but the religious community's high-profile involvement turned a landslide defeat into a near victory.
When housing activists put a strong rent control and housing preservation measure on the November 1979 ballot, the Catholic Archdiocese lent one of its top organizers to the campaign. The following year the Archdiocese set up the Old St. Mary's Housing Committee (now Housing Rights Committee of SF) and later created the St. Peter's Housing Committee.
The Old St. Mary's Housing Committee was the key organizational base for tenant campaigns throughout the early to mid 1980's. Its original staff went on to form both the Senior Action Network and Planning for Elders in the Central City.
During the 1980's, San Franciscans regularly took to the streets to protest the Reagan Administration's illegal war in Central America. Under the leadership of Archbishop Quinn and the Archdiocese Social Justice Coordinator Thomas Ambrogi, the Catholic Church played a major role in building the anti-war movement.
But by the late 1980's, John Paul had succeeded in consolidating his hold on the church. His conservative agenda was evidenced most prominently in his attempts to extinguish Liberation Theology in Latin America, but he moved to remove progressive church officials wherever they were doing good works.
In San Francisco, the new papal administration decimated the Social Justice division of the Archdiocese. Ambrogi was forced out and Quinn would soon follow. I do not know what happened to the outspoken progressive priests of the Mission District, but they were no longer at their former parishes.
The Pope sent a strong message when his regime fired a Catholic university teacher for advocating contraception. The goal was to stifle progressive elements in the American church, and implementing this agenda left the Archdiocese on the sidelines in San Francisco struggles for social justice.
Neither the former Old St. Mary's Housing Committee nor St. Peter's has had any connection to their former parishes for over a decade. While some local parishes continue to be involved in faith-based networks such as the San Francisco Organizing Project and the Bay Area Organizing Project, their method of operation differs greatly from the secular and more independent activism previously promoted by the Archdiocese.
San Francisco's current Archbishop Levada keeps a very, very low profile in the city. While he lends his name and that of the Archdiocese to some good causes, he does not follow former Archbishop Quinn's approach of openly trying to inspire people to get involved in social justice campaigns.
Media coverage of Pope John Paul's legacy has focused on his success in consolidating papal power over every nook and cranny of church life. In San Francisco, this consolidation weakened the church's popular base and has left key Latino Catholic constituencies in the Mission District and elsewhere disconnected and disempowered.
While the Christian right has used evangelical churches for political organizing, the Pope's restrictions on progressive church advocacy deprived secular liberal forces of a key institutional ally. The Pope's political agenda not only turned the Vatican rightward, but contributed to America's conservative shift during his papacy.
According to a recent New York Times poll, the number of American nuns declined by 48% during John Paul's tenure. With his refusal to consider women priests and his hostility to an expanded female role in church affairs, the Pope has dissuaded generations of young women from devoting their lives to the sisterhood.
When you think of the enormous contributions of Sister Bernie Galvan, Sister Helen Prejean, and so many other nuns who have fought for the poor and disenfranchised, the Pope's discouraging of multiple generations of young women from the sisterhood underlies his opposition to progressive change.
Randy Shaw is the Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, editor of www.beyondchron.org, and author of "The Activist's Handbook," and Reclaiming America: Nike, Clean Air and the New National Activism