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An End to Equivocation?

The word out West is that there’s a new sheriff in town.

George Niederauer, archbishop of San Francisco since 2005, turned 75 last year, the mandatory retirement age for prelates, and is stepping down. Pope Benedict XVI didn’t have to look far to find the man he wanted to replace Niederauer. He simply cast his gaze across the Bay and tapped Salvatore Cordileone, bishop of Oakland (the diocese out of which the NOR operates), for the job. Cordileone will be installed as the new archbishop of San Francisco on October 4.

The outgoing and incoming prelates present a stark contrast in character and style. Niederauer was an unknown quantity when he arrived, and he leaves pretty much the same way. Early in his tenure, we parsed an interview he gave to a local news-radio station and were left with no option but to describe him as “the most equivocal man in town” (New Oxford Note, May 2007). “It’s almost impossible to get a handle on where he stands on the burning issues facing the Church today,” we wrote.

Throughout his tenure, Niederauer consistently gave the impression that he was doing his darnedest to steer clear of controversy and confrontation. Perhaps in deference to the city’s notoriously thin-skinned residents, he always seemed more anxious to avoid the spotlight than to seize opportunities to highlight the hard teachings of the Church. It could be said that he found — and stayed in — his comfort zone in this most liberal of liberal cities. That’s not to say that Niederauer was thought of as a liberal. On the contrary, he was routinely described in the local media, somewhat curiously, as a “social conservative.” That might be because, according to general attitudes around here, as expressed by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a widely circulated, independent weekly newspaper, “All the bishops appointed by this pope are conservatives” (July 27).

As observant Catholics will realize, the Bay Guardian‘s assessment, especially with regard to Archbishop Niederauer, is far from accurate. If he’s a conservative, he’s at best a reluctant conservative. Perhaps he would be better described as a slow-motion moderate. This became evident when controversy and confrontation eventually snuffed him out. Niederauer had his share of struggles: most infamous were his run-ins with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Most Holy Redeemer parish in the city’s “gay district” (chronicled in our New Oxford Note “Archbishop Niederauer’s Eucharistic Moment,” Dec. 2007) and with Nancy Pelosi, then-speaker of the House of Representatives (chronicled in several issues, most recently in our New Oxford Note “Free Will & Freedom of Choice,” Apr. 2010).

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