SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When President Donald Trump acted on his campaign pledge to roll back federal climate-change regulations last year, Gov. Jerry Brown of California reacted with an explosion of moral outrage.
“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” Brown told 60 Minutes, chastising the president for his “reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed” in the wake of the policy shift.
The Old Testament language might surprise Americans who remember Brown as “Governor Moonbeam” — the cerebral first-time California governor in the 1970s who promoted environmental sustainability, slept on the floor of his modest apartment and embraced a “woman’s right to choose.”
But the former Jesuit seminarian is now 80, and completing his second two-term governorship, he has offered an idiosyncratic blend of left-wing politics leavened with a very personal code of ethics, and an almost apocalyptic vision of the Golden State collapsing from unrestrained carbon emissions and budget deficits.
Indeed, as Brown prepares for his retirement at the close of the year, and marks a state-budget surplus approaching $9 billion, he has warned against complacency and predicted that California’s “next governor is going to be on the cliff,” facing “darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession. So good luck, baby.”
The best word to describe Jerry Brown is “eclectic,” said John Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna, a college based outside of Los Angeles. Pitney, a Catholic, has studied the governor’s values and politics.
“Years ago, during his first governorship, he was asked about his religious beliefs, and he said, ‘My practice is very catholic with a lowercase c.’”
This means that even as California has moved sharply to the left in recent decades, with Democrats both controlling all three branches of government and leading the national movement of “resistance” to Trump’s policies, the governor has occasionally bucked the special interests that drive much of the agenda.
“You can’t automatically put him in a box or assume he will adopt the path of political expediency,” Ned Dolejsi, the outgoing executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register.
That quirky brand of politics also means that even as many Catholic and pro-life Californians have condemned Brown’s decision to sign bills legalizing assisted suicide, permitting non-physicians to provide abortions, and compelling crisis-pregnancy centers to inform clients about subsidized abortions, they are approaching his retirement with a mixture of relief and trepidation.
For as Brown exits the California State Capitol, his likely successor will be Lt. Gov., Gavin Newsom, 51, the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner: another cradle Catholic with an endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America and a much more aggressive activist profile. Newsom is running against Republican John Cox, a Catholic businessman and staunch pro-life candidate.
“There’s a deliberative effort to roll back reproductive rights in the country, to attack women, to demean women,” contended Newsom during a candidate forum sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice California in January. “You need leaders to step into that debate. You need to call it out.”
Born in 1938, Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. was the only son of Edmund "Pat" Brown Sr., who was the governor of California from 1959-1967. The younger Brown was largely educated by the Jesuits. He attended their prep school in San Francisco and then enrolled in Santa Clara University, before quickly transferring to Sacred Heart Novitiate in Los Gatos, south of San Francisco, with the intention of becoming a Jesuit priest.
In 1957, Jesuit Thomas Allender was a first-year novice at Sacred Heart Novitiate, and he remembers Brown well.
“Jerry was a philosopher, with an inquisitive mind,” Father Allender told the Register. “He liked to question things, very much like he does today.”
The novitiate was designed to provide rigorous spiritual, moral and intellectual training, and two daily examinations of conscience were part of the daily regimen, along with Latin, theology, sports and the sacraments.
But Brown left after taking his first set of vows.
Father Allender remembers that he left at the same time as a group of novices departed, and the priest speculated that the departing seminarians had begun to question the value of their formation, which included restrictions on their choice of library books and limited contact with the outside world.
“I am surmising that they thought it was more appropriate training for monks than people who would be out in the world,” he suggested, while noting that Brown has remained in close touch with a number of his classmates and that Jesuit seminary formation has changed a great deal since the days before the Second Vatican Council.
Brown finished his undergraduate education at the University of California at Berkeley, moving on to law school at Yale University. And by the close of the 1960s, he was back in his home state, serving on the board of trustees for Los Angeles Community College, while working at a law firm in the city.
It was then that his political career gathered momentum. He was first elected as California’s secretary of state in 1970; and then he became governor in 1975, with his re-election in 1979.
But after that promising start, his career stalled, following several unsuccessful presidential bids. He took a sabbatical, spending time in India working with Mother Teresa.
Mayor of Oakland
In 1998, Brown finally revived his political fortunes as a successful if unconventional two-term mayor of Oakland, upending established party practices as he rebuilt the city’s downtown neighborhood and emerged as a critic of heavy state regulation.
In 2005, the lifelong bachelor, who once dated singer Linda Ronstadt, married his live-in girlfriend, Anne Gust, an executive with Gap Inc., in a civil ceremony officiated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and then a religious service at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in San Francisco.
In 2010, Brown’s comeback was complete with his return to Sacramento as governor, succeeding Arnold Schwarzenegger, the outgoing Republican governor.
Brown now presided over a “totally blue state,” as one lobbyist described the California Legislature. But while he retained solidly liberal views on social issues, he began to apply the brakes to government spending.
“This is a time to save for our future,” he said in May, after announcing a budget surplus of $8.98 billion for the state, “not to make pricy promises we can’t keep.”
Those who have followed Brown’s career through its many twists and turns suggest that his time in Oakland gave him a striking sense of humility and a respect for restrains on government overreach.
“I have seen a change in Jerry politically, as he has gone through his journey,” said Father Allender. “I have Republican friends who are happy with him. He is a rarity: an honest politician who doesn’t care about interest groups. His basic concern is what is best for California.”
Father Allender also suggested that Brown’s Catholic formation was evident in his opposition to the death penalty, an early position from his seminary years, and in his commitment to environmental issues. However, when asked to explain why the governor sharply departed from Church teaching on abortion, the Jesuit acknowledged that it was a nonnegotiable for the governor’s party.
“If you are a Democrat and want to get anywhere, then you must be pro-choice; and if you are a Republican, you are pro-life,” said Father Allender of the party norms.
Indeed, while Brown has earned a reputation as a global leader on environmental issues, pro-life activists in the state contend that he adopted the path of least resistance when it came to hot-button topics, like abortion and assisted suicide.
“He has toed the party line, even with assisted suicide,” said Alexandra Snyder, the executive director of the Life Legal Defense Fund, which represents the state’s embattled pro-life activists and crisis-pregnancy centers.
Wesley Smith, author of Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, and a longtime resident in the state, echoed Snyder’s harsh critique of Brown’s legacy on life issues
“When it came to fiscal issues, he could be reasonable,” Smith told the Register. But on social issues, “he acquiesced to the hard left of his party.”
And though some Catholics have pointed to Brown’s service with Mother Teresa as clear evidence of his faith-inspired values, Smith said the governor’s decision to sign a 2015 bill that legalized assisted suicide was a clear repudiation of Mother Teresa’s ministry to the dying.
In his signing letter for the assisted-suicide bill, Brown concluded that he would want that option available at the end of his own life.
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he wrote. “I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Smith was also angered by Brown’s willingness to accommodate procedural maneuvering by Democratic legislators, who used a special session to get the assisted-suicide bill approved after it stalled during the normal legislative process.
“The special session was called, ostensibly to deal with Medicaid issues, not assisted suicide,” he said. “But Brown shrugged his shoulders and said he would sign it.”
Likewise, Brown put Democrat Party goals front and center when he refused to defend Proposition 8, the 2008 state ballot initiative that effectively barred the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in California.
“When Brown and Kamala Harris refused to defend Proposition 8,” Smith argued, they failed to fulfill their responsibility to enforce state laws, setting a dangerous precedent.
Ned Dolejsi, who led the California Catholic bishops’ lobbying effort in Sacramento for the past two decades, agreed that Brown “comes from a generally progressive position on life issues and is pro-LGBTQ.”
But Dolejsi also suggested that the governor has shown some flexibility, even when engaging with hot-button issues.
A case in point is Brown’s recent veto of a bill that would have required the state’s public universities to offer abortion pills on campus. In his signing letter, the governor noted that students already had access to this service through local clinics.
Meanwhile, the state’s Catholic bishops have worked with the governor on immigration, criminal justice and health-care legislation, among other issues.
And yet, despite that history of respectful collaboration between Brown and state Catholic leaders, political insiders were still surprised when the governor vetoed a 2015 bill that called for the statute of limitations to be lifted retroactively on civil cases involving the sexual abuse of minors and would have had an outsized impact on Catholic dioceses.
Brown’s multipage veto message “was a treatise on the appropriateness of the statute of limitations,” said Dolejsi.
The governor wrote that good law must “responsibly balance the interests of the victims to address harm with the need for the third party, in this case the employers of the accused, to be able to defend themselves,” added Dolejsi, especially in cases that date back 30 years or more.
This year, Brown vetoed a similar bill; and now, if the polls are correct, it will be up to Newsom, his expected successor, to make his own decision about this matter, as Catholic dioceses across the nation face fresh demands for accountability on their handling of historic abuse cases.
Whether or not the next attempt to lift the statute of limitations succeeds, the intense concern about Church leaders’ failure to remove predatory clerics parallels a steady decline in the Church’s influence on social norms and public policy in this progressive, increasingly secularized state.
As Dolejsi sees it, this shift is reflected in the promotion of individual autonomy in public and personal life, a development that prompted the push for assisted suicide, but a shift that is bad news for organized religion.
“Whatever infringes on an individual’s right to liberty has to be challenged,” said Dolejsi.
Even Catholics’ experience of faith has become “less communal and more individualistic,” he said, weakening their impact on cultural norms and public policy.
Pro-life critics of Brown and Newsom, like Wesley Smith, fear that this shifting landscape will smooth the way for state Democrats to push through legislation that violates religious freedom and conscience protections.
Newsom, like Brown, also attended Santa Clara University, but the Democratic frontrunner is just in his early 50s, and he didn’t experience the formative impact of an old-school Jesuit novitiate during his early adulthood.
Perhaps for that reason, or maybe because Newsom is expected to adopt his party’s message of resistance to Trump’s agenda, the man who is likely to be the next governor of California is not expected to follow Brown’s unconventional path.
“Jerry Brown still had some understanding of faith as a Jesuit seminarian,” Smith concluded. “And he could apply the ‘brakes’” to some of his party’s legislative goals.
Come January, a new leader, formed by a different personal history, will be taking up the levers of power in this “all-blue state,” and Smith, while reserving judgment, is not “optimistic.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.