Pope Francis has described in detail his struggles during the years of Argentine military dictatorship. And he’s opened up to the Italian press about how he once was a bouncer at a nightclub.

But he may face some of his more relentless struggles with clergy based in otherwise liberal San Francisco, whose recent actions seem to defy the pope’s message of inclusiveness.

The Rev. Joseph Illo, who last summer became parish priest at Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco, made headlines in January by announcing his parish would no longer accept new altar girls. Girls are better at it, Illo wrote in a note to his congregation, leaving the boys – potential priest recruits – discouraged.

Churchly duties ranging from secretarial work, food for memorials and Sunday school teaching often seem to be performed most effectively, or at least most frequently, by women. But few church leaders from any denomination seem ready to turn those into male-only domains.

“God’s gifts aren’t limited by gender,” said Karen Oliveto, pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

Illo likewise hasn’t shown a desire to take his masculinity gospel in that direction. But his new policy echoes strident rumblings from elsewhere in the church.

Illo’s all-boy altar team policy comes from the playbook of U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has condemned the idea of altar girls and other church “feminization.”

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who appointed Illo, has developed a new document requiring Roman Catholic high school employees to adhere to principles condemning gay marriage and contraception.

And multiple conservative bishops at a global Vatican meeting in October spoke out against moves to welcome gay people.

“There is a kind of panic among traditionalist Catholics or very conservative Catholics under the current pope,” said Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, associate editor at the Catholic lay magazine Commonweal.

In San Francisco, Illo has helped lead that priestly vanguard, proclaiming his strong ideas about public morality and Catholic teachings and how they pertain to sex. Illo previously made headlines in 2008, telling parishioners in Modesto, California, that those who voted for Barack Obama needed to attend confession, citing the then-president-elect’s views on abortion.

In April 2013, Illo on his personal blog described chuckling at seeing two people whom he believed to be lesbian and transgender board a San Francisco bus. He referred to them as “destroying the natural order.”

Upon being appointed to a new job in San Francisco, Illo condemned the city as a modern Gomorrah. San Francisco is a “sad and dysfunctional but beautiful city,” he said in a blog item announcing his new post in May.

This became a refrain: “I live in a city of unparalleled natural and historical beauty that is desperately sad,” he wrote in October. About two weeks later, Illo blamed “confusion about sexual and human identity” on an atmosphere of loose morals created by the Vatican’s last famously liberal pope, John XXIII.

A birth control commission formed by John declared Catholic couples should be allowed to make their own decisions. But John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, ultimately rejected this. But in Illo’s view, merely broaching the topic launched an epoch of sexual malaise.

“Our nerve failed in 1968, but we can return to the contest in 2014,” he wrote. “We can help correct the crazy tilt.”

To succeed, Illo might have to push past the more inclusive-seeming Pope Francis, who has publicly discouraged Catholics from procreating prodigiously and convened a special synod softening the church’s tone on homosexuality and women’s rights.

On Jan. 18, the pope told a Philippines crowd, “Sometimes we’re too macho, and we don’t leave enough room for women.”

Vatican observers such as Wilson O’Reilly say the pope has been fighting in the trenches, too. Burke was dismissed as head of the Vatican’s high court – a move widely interpreted as punitive.

But a number of prominent clergy have followed up with criticism of what they consider Francis’ deviations from traditional church teachings. The battlefield might tilt in their favor.

In mainline U.S. protestant denominations, it’s common for clergy to be more liberal than their congregations, a remnant of the 1960s, when many college students were drawn to the seminary by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In American Catholicism, conversely, the pulpits often are more conservative than the pews.

“Under John Paul II, there was a crackdown on nonorthodoxy. He had an effect on seminaries and people he chose as bishops. You don’t depart from doctrine and don’t question whether the priesthood should be opened to women,” Wilson O’Reilly said.

The masses may be ready for Pope Francis. But the network of clergy installed in past decades might not be. With his bishop’s blessing, Illo is creating a San Francisco house, called the Oratorio, where priests can live, pray, eat – and perhaps strategize together.

“So many Catholics think, ‘Aren’t we past that?’ Especially when we have this pope who has said many times: ‘We need to figure out how to give women more of a voice,’ ” Wilson O’Reilly said. “To most Catholics, Catholics like myself, it’s blindingly obvious, and it’s about time somebody in the Vatican said it. But there is a segment of Catholics who believe that it is a problem to hear that said.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Matt Smith can be reached at msmith@revealnews.org.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.