The Latest Attack on San Francisco’s Archbishop

One might have imagined the headline “Showers for the Homeless” would have brought a certain relief, a certain sense of “what a good idea.” But not in San Francisco. As anyone following the latest dust-up in the San Francisco ideology wars will know, the archbishop and the rector of the Cathedral of San Francisco are being excoriated in the media for having installed a sprinkler system in the alcoves near their back door as a “safety, security, and cleanliness measure to avoid the situation where needles, feces, and other dangerous items were regularly being left in these hidden doorways.” “The problem was particularly dangerous,” according to Bishop William Justice, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese and Rector of the Cathedral, “because students and elderly people regularly pass these locations on their way to school and mass every day.”

Can you even begin to imagine the public outcry and legal hell the archdiocese would be facing had a child wandered off and cut himself with one of these needles? How much worse if the needle had been covered with blood infected with the HIV virus? You can write the news story yourself: “The archdiocese was especially irresponsible in this instance because there were examples of systems to alleviate such problems commonly in use in the Financial District of the city.” This is, in fact, where the archdiocese got the idea.

Indeed, former mayor Willie Brown wrote in his regular column in The San Francisco Chronicle to say that, as mayor, he had “ordered Market Street to be hosed down every night” precisely for the same purpose.

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We’d send the Department of Public Works trucks out at 1 or 2 a.m. for the cleaning. When advocates hollered, I just said the middle of the night was the best and safest time to clean the otherwise busy street. And whenever things started getting out of hand at Civic Center, the Recreation and Park Department would declare that the grass was in need of repair. The next thing you know, truckloads of fertilizer were being spread around, followed by days of heavy sprinkler soakings.

Notice a key difference, however: Mayor Brown merely wanted to rid the streets of the homeless. The Archdiocese wanted to relocate them and invite them inside one of their many homeless shelters.

Indeed, as it turns out, contrary to the ignorant comments that you may have read on-line (and you can still find among the top fifty entries on Google) to the effect that the Cathedral was “Hosing the Homeless” in order to “keep them away,” the truth, as Bishop Justice points out, is that “The Archdiocese of San Francisco is, along with the Catholic St. Vincent de Paul Society, the largest supporter of services for the homeless in San Francisco,” and in this effort, St. Mary’s Cathedral “does more than any other Catholic church.”

So why headlines like this: “San Fran Catholic Church Keeps Homeless Away By Dousing Them With Water” and “San Francisco Catholic Church Installs Watering System To Ward Off Homeless”? Why not “San Francisco Catholic Cathedral Trying to Balance Helping the Homeless with Children’s Safety”? Why did even usually level-headed Catholic commentators bemoan the Cathedral’s attempt at finding some balance between the two goals with vapid rhetoric such as: “Is this what Jesus would do?” Or “I don’t think the Pope would be happy.” Or “How can the Cathedral be imitating something done in (gasp) the Financial District?”—as though needles and human excrement are somehow less of a problem to children and the elderly at the Cathedral than they are to businessmen and families downtown.

Americans like to think about issues in terms of rights. And one of the problems of thinking about every problem in terms of the rights of one person is that it often blinds us to our concomitant obligations to other persons or groups. When a child is injured by a used needle that wasn’t washed away, we complain about the damage done to him or her. When a homeless person is—and note this—inconvenienced by being asked to come into an actual shelter rather than stay in a public doorway and defecate there, we complain again. “Rights talk” rarely allows us the intellectual space to balance our obligations to various persons and groups. “Rights,” as the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin used to argue, are “trumps.” As such, they cannot be “balanced” against other obligations or concerns. The result, in many cases, is a narrowly focused, comfortably self-righteous set of complaints that lead, not to a fuller realization of the common good, but to an irrational inability to achieve any sort of commonsense balance of needs and obligations.

Here’s a fact: The Catholic Church in San Francisco provides more services to the homeless than does any other organization. Here’s another fact: The Cathedral is a public space used by hundreds of different people every day and even more on Sunday. People who live in comfortable urban or suburban enclaves who rarely encounter the homeless, or encounter them only from that discreet distance people nicely decked out in business attire usually reserve for smelly, potentially threatening persons they meet in the street, can of course self-righteously complain that the Cathedral should have done something else. I’ve read plenty of self-righteous complaint, but I have yet to read one useful suggestion.

But having said all that, let’s be very clear about one more thing: Very little about this so-called “controversy” has anything whatsoever to do with concern for the homeless. This sprinkler system has been in place for two years—two years! Why all of a sudden, out of the blue, did it become a concern now? Was some poor homeless man hurt? Was a reporter out by the Cathedral and notice somebody getting doused? The sprinklers have had their intended effect. The homeless aren’t stupid; they simply go somewhere else. Have San Franciscans suddenly gained a new respect and concern for the homeless in their midst? There’s no evidence of this. Indeed, evidence of such an increased concern would likely have manifested itself by: (A) increased donations to the San Vincent de Paul Society and the Catholic homeless outreach, and (B) increased demands that the sprinkler systems in the Financial Sector be similarly shut off. But no, it seems it’s alright to demand that the Cathedral cease and desist, but to allow smelly people in doorways in buildings downtown? That might be bad for business.

So why has this particular story gone viral now? Because it’s not about the homeless. Sadly (especially for the homeless, who aren’t being helped at all by any of this self-righteous complaining from a distance), this story has almost everything to do with Archbishop Cordileone’s attempt to ensure that authentic Catholic doctrine is taught in the four archdiocesan Catholic high schools. As has been reported here and elsewhere, “concerned parents” have paid a high-powered public relations firm, San Francisco-based Singer Associates, Inc., to lead their media blitz against the archbishop. The goals of this media campaign are clear: make the archbishop look “unfeeling,” “unconcerned,” and “disconnected” from the people of his archdiocese. This, to my mind, is a complete and utter slander of a man’s character crafted for no other purpose than to score media points in an ideological battle. Perhaps the crassest example of the lengths to which such people are willing to go is that they would scruple using the homeless as pawns in their battle.

And if you don’t believe me, read again. Look over all those articles blasting the archdiocese for this “shower scandal.” How many of them mentioned the number of homeless people the Cathedral cares for? How many of them actually investigated over the course of several nights to see whether any homeless people were actually injured or inconvenienced in any way? How many of them mentioned that the same systems exist all over the city? How many suggested better resolutions of the problem than the sprinklers? I’ve been reading around for quite a while, and other than a couple of mentions of the relevant data in the Catholic media, I’ve not found any.

So is this really about concern for the homeless at St. Mary’s Cathedral? Or is it really about rich parents who are sending their kids to Catholic schools not because they’re Catholic, but as an escape because they can’t abide the public schools any longer—parents who can’t stand the idea that those “Catholic” schools might actually become Catholic in any way other than the name on the front of the building? And if there were homeless people sleeping out front of those school buildings leaving feces and needles behind? What lengths do you suppose these parents would go to in order to make sure this “problem” was long gone? I think we all know the answer to that question.

The homeless are merely being used as pawns by people who (A) haven’t done even a fraction of what the Catholic Church in San Francisco has done to help, and (B) wouldn’t tolerate the presence of such people near their own homes, schools, or businesses. This made-up media tempest is really about keeping any slight vestige of sexual morality out of Catholic schools. This isn’t about homeless people being allowed to sleep in doorways; it’s about teenagers being allowed to sleep with whomever they want. The real tragedy is that both groups will likely end up more badly damaged by the current efforts underway to undermine the Church in San Francisco.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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