Friday, May 13, 2005

More on Archbishop Levada's Appointment to CDF

This appraisal of today's news came to my attention at Amy Welborn's Open Book. It's from National Catholic Reporter's "Word From Rome" page, and is by John L. Allen Jr. All that follows is direct quotation from the article:

On May 13, as had long been rumored, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Why Levada?

First, he has a solid theological background. He wrote his doctoral thesis in theology at Rome's Gregorian University under the direction of Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan, widely regarded as one of the best minds in ecclesiology of the 20th century. The subject of Levada's dissertation was "The Infallible Church Magisterium and the Natural Moral Law," examining how the magisterium understands natural law, and especially its binding force. Levada reviewed a range of theological opinions and drew what one observer described as "balanced, judicious" conclusions. Given the way that moral questions, especially on sexual issues and biotechnology, are among the most contentious matters the doctrinal congregation handles, it's a background that would serve Levada well.

At the same time, because Levada has not spent his career as a professional theologian, he has not developed a deep specialization in any one area. A theologian in Rome described him as a very capable "general practitioner."

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins at the Gregorian, who remembers Levada as an industrious doctoral candidate, said that Levada now phones him to keep tabs on his own men.

"He keeps in touch," O'Collins said. "He says, 'How is he doing?'... I feel it kind of encourages the student to finish, because the archbishop needs him back."

O'Collins described Levada as "an extremely decent human being."

During a later stint in Rome, Levada also taught part-time at the Gregorian. He ran a seminar for third-year students, intended to produce a lengthy paper as a kind of synthesis of their work in the first cycle. Colleagues say that Levada was a very capable director, asking critical questions that stimulated thought rather than delivering lectures and controlling the discussion himself.

Second, Levada worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1976 to 1982, during the era that Croatian Cardinal Franjo Ĺ eper was prefect under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, and for the early months of Ratzinger's own term. Hence Levada understands the nature of the office and its role in the broader context of the Roman Curia. Since 2000, Levada has served as a member of the congregation, meaning that he would step into the role of prefect already up to speed on current business.

At the same time, however, Levada has been out of the Roman Curia since 1982, serving in the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and the archdiocese of Los Angeles prior to his appointment as the archbishop of Portland in 1986 and archbishop of San Francisco in 1995. He has risen to prominence through pastoral leadership in his home country, rather than on the back of a succession of curial appointments. That means Levada would re-enter the world of the Vatican relatively independent of the obligations and loyalties that moving up through the Vatican can engender, leaving him, at least in theory, free to make objective judgments -- a bit, observers note, like Ratzinger himself, who entered the Roman Curia in 1981 already as a cardinal.

Third, Levada has an ideal resume for a prefect of the doctrinal office. From 1986 to 1993 he served as the only American bishop on the editorial committee of the Vatican commission for a Catechism of the Catholic Church. He authored the catechism's glossary, which was published in the English-language second edition. Levada also served on a joint U.S.-Vatican mixed commission that finalized the American norms concerning priests accused of sexual abuse, as well as on a task force on the church's response to dissenting Catholic politicians. He is presently the chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine.

At the same time, however, Levada would not be bashful about questioning a bishops' conference if he felt a matter of the faith was at stake. In a 1999 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Levada said he was sometimes grateful to the CDF for stepping in.

"I can think of one or two questions when I've been in the minority on votes in the American bishops, and I'm pleased that the Vatican has said, 'Hey, wait a minute. That doesn't seem like that's such a good thing to us.' Well, right on!" Levada said. "I think sometimes the American bishops take decisions in discussions that are too rushed, too agenda-driven. We don't give enough time to points of view. I'm not saying that's all the time, but it has happened."

Fourth, since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the juridical responsibility for handling cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, Levada's background as a member of the U.S. bishops' conference and the "mixed commission" that worked out the American norms means that he would bring an insider's understanding to those issues, and become a powerful voice in setting Vatican policy on the sexual abuse issue.

Fifth, Levada has the real-world pastoral experience of administering two complex archdioceses in Portland and San Francisco, so he would bring empathy for brother bishops facing their own pastoral difficulties. Moreover, both Portland and San Francisco are fairly liberal, post-modern environments where making the case for church teaching on many issues is a challenge, equipping Levada to play a special role in Pope Benedict's campaign to confront a "dictatorship of relativism" in the developed West.

Sixth, Levada has a reputation as someone with the capacity to find imaginative solutions to difficult problems. A leading case in point came in 1997, when the City of San Francisco threatened to withdraw funding from any social service agency that did not provide health benefits to domestic partners. I was in Los Angeles at the time and was assigned to cover the story, and it seemed for a brief period that the city and the church were at a stalemate. At the eleventh hour, however, Levada proposed allowing employees to designate anyone they wanted as a recipient of benefits on their health plans -- an aunt, a parent, a good friend, etc. In that sense, the church was making benefits more widely available, without endorsing same-sex relationships. One Catholic theologian at the time called the decision "Solomonic," though some critics still felt it fudged over the church's opposition to homosexuality.

None of this is to suggest that Levada lacks critics. On the left, some recall Levada's efforts to "water down" a proposed pastoral letter of American bishops on women, or his role in opposing some forms of "inclusive language" in the translation of liturgical texts; conservatives sometimes complain that he has not cracked down on what they see as a center of "dissent" at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, or that he has not been a more energetic participant in the "culture wars," given San Francisco's profile as a center of pro-gay activism. Sex abuse victims sometimes argue that Levada has not been sufficiently transparent or cooperative in responding to the crisis.

It would be difficult to imagine, however, anyone who could step into the job at the CDF utterly without "baggage." What Levada does seem to bring is intellectual preparation and life experience well suited for the challenge of heading the doctrinal office, plus a pre-existing relationship with the pope. Given that, it's little surprise he's was the Pope's choice.