home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted May 19, 2005

New Vatican doctrine chief
a theologian who knows pastoral issues

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, newly named head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a theologian with pastoral experience honed by involvement in several debates over Catholic moral teaching and public policy.

He has been a national or international figure on questions ranging from gay marriage to theological dissent in the church, from abortion to euthanasia, from ecumenical dialogue to women in the church, from catechetical teaching to how the church should deal with Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion.

He was archbishop of Portland, Ore., when voters of that state approved the nation's only law permitting physician-assisted suicide.

In San Francisco a few years later, he faced a 1996 city ordinance that would require organizations with city contracts -- a group that included the archdiocese's Catholic social service agencies -- to provide insurance benefits to same-sex partners of employees. In early 1997 he got the city to modify the ordinance to provide the equivalent of spousal benefits to any legitimate designated member of an employee's household, including an ailing mother or sister or brother, removing its reference to domestic partnerships as the basis for benefits.

In 1996 he protested when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown presided over a marriagelike ceremony officially recognizing 175 same-sex couples as "domestic partners." He said the ceremony "symbolizes an attempt to redefine the basic human institution of marriage established by nature and creation."

He was again in the forefront of the same-sex marriage debate last year when the administration of Mayor Gavin Newsom started handing out thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The California Supreme Court eventually nullified the licenses.

The archbishop also wrote to President George W. Bush last year urging adoption of a federal constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Since late 2003 he has been part of the task force of U.S. bishops dealing with the issue of whether Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should be denied Communion. The issue took on national urgency in 2004 when Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., a Catholic who supports keeping abortion legal, became the Democratic presidential candidate.

In a presentation to the nation's bishops on the theological and canonical aspects of the issue last June, Archbishop Levada said "abortion holds a unique place" in Catholic teaching, raising a special problem when a Catholic politician supports permissive legislation in that area. But he urged real dialogue between bishops and Catholic politicians on the issues involved and said ultimately a decision whether Communion should be denied had to be made on an individual basis because "discernment of the state of the person's awareness of their situation is of paramount importance."

As a theologian, Archbishop Levada once worked for six years on the doctrinal congregation staff, also teaching theology during that time at Gregorian University in Rome. Since 2000 he has been a member of the congregation, one of the 20 or so cardinals and bishops who meet periodically to conduct the congregation's major business. Since 2003 he has headed the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

In the last year of his 1976-82 stint in Rome as a congregation staff member, he got to know Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German theologian, now Pope Benedict XVI, who headed the doctrinal congregation from 1981 to 2005.

Archbishop Levada's appointment to take up the pope's old job makes him the third-ranking official in the Vatican, after the pope and the secretary of state. It is the highest post any American has held in the Vatican. It also means that he is in line to become a cardinal the first time the new pope creates cardinals.

Archbishop Levada, 68, has been a priest since 1961 and a bishop since 1983. He was archbishop of Portland from 1986 to 1995. He was made archbishop of San Francisco in December 1995 after five months there as coadjutor. A California native, he was originally a priest of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The archbishop, who has a doctorate in dogmatic theology, was one of seven bishops around the world appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1987 to write the "Catechism of the Catholic Church."

He has also held other Vatican assignments. In 2002 he was part of a mixed commission of Vatican and U.S. bishops formed to study and revise "Essential Norms," a text of special legislation to help the U.S. church deal with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Earlier this year he was part of a similar mixed commission assigned to review that legislation and refine it in light of experience.

In 1997 he was one of the U.S. participants in a mixed U.S.-Vatican working group that prepared a final version of a new U.S. Lectionary, the book of Scripture readings for Mass. The group was formed after Vatican concerns had been raised over the use of inclusive language in the Bible translation being used.

Also in 1997 he was one of three papally appointed members of the post-synodal council formed to help the pope write a document on the themes of the Synod of Bishops for America.

When then-Msgr. Levada returned from Rome in 1982, he was made secretary of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the state's bishops. The following year he was made an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles at the age of 46.

He quickly became involved in activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, then called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. By the time he was made archbishop of Portland in 1986, he was serving on the bishops' committees for doctrine, pastoral research and practices, pro-life activities, and communications. He was also on the writing committee for a proposed national pastoral letter responding to concerns of women.

Four successive drafts of the proposed women's pastoral were written and debated. Serious divisions among the bishops emerged in the approach they wanted to take on a wide range of issues, including whether to suggest further study of the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. The final draft ended up being issued as a report of the bishops' Executive Committee with some of its findings serving as a basis for further work by various committees of the conference.

When the bishops debated the final version in November 1992, Archbishop Levada and another drafting committee member, then-Auxiliary Bishop Alfred C. Hughes of Boston, who is now archbishop of New Orleans, co-wrote a so-called "minority report" seeking substantial changes in several portions of the document on grounds that it did not have a consistent Christian anthropology.

In 1985, while he was still a Los Angeles auxiliary, in response to an ad that called for pluralism in the church on abortion, Bishop Levada wrote an Op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times saying that "public dissent from church teaching" is in effect "a deliberate decision to substitute one's own conclusions for the faith of the church."

In a 1986 address to the National Catholic Educational Association, he took issue with an article in an NCEA magazine that spoke about teaching students "the importance of dialogue and respectful dissent."

He said a theologian may legitimately engage in some forms of private dissent from church teaching, but one who does so publicly puts his or her "own judgment on a par with that of the magisterium," the church's teaching authority.

When a Catholic teacher decides to propose his or her own views in place of church teaching to students, he said, "it is difficult to see how the decision ... will not subvert the student's continued grasp of and eventual assent to the truths which the church teaches."

In 1989, when the Hemlock Society began its campaign in Oregon to legalize physician-assisted suicide, Archbishop Levada warned that it was "a public policy issue of historic proportions."

He termed euthanasia "a crime against life and an attack on humanity."

In 1994 Oregonians narrowly approved the Death With Dignity Act, the nation's only law allowing assisted suicide. Addressing the nation's bishops a week after the vote, the archbishop told them they needed to build coalitions of support for people in pain and their families in order to prevent the spread of euthanasia elsewhere across the country.

In 1991-92 he and Bishop Thomas J. Connolly of Baker led a fight against a referendum that opposed homosexuality, saying the proposed law was "potentially harmful and discriminatory to homosexual citizens" and could "contribute to attitudes of intolerance and hostility directed at homosexuals."

In San Francisco, long a leading center of gay activism, Archbishop Levada's ability to find a resolution to the 1996 ordinance on benefits for domestic partners of employees was widely regarded as a major achievement. At stake for the church was not only the moral principle but millions of dollars in city contracts through which Catholic Charities agencies assisted the city's poor and needy.

He also took many actions that received little notice beyond the boundaries of the archdiocese.

He revived the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, which had been discontinued several years before his arrival. He promoted appreciation of diversity in the archdiocese and got as an auxiliary the nation's first Asian-American bishop.

When the contract of 5,500 Bay Area janitors expired in 2000, Archbishop Levada and two neighboring bishops urged a fair contract that would substantially increase their wages from the average of less than $8 per hour that they received under the old contract. In 2003 he accepted three deaf men as seminarians, making the local seminary the only one in the country with a formation program for the deaf. On several occasions he decried the use of the death penalty in California.

When the bishop of Santa Rosa resigned in 1999 in a sexual and financial scandal, Archbishop Levada was made apostolic administrator and took quick steps to reorganize the diocese and its finances and to restore trust.

On the ecumenical front Archbishop Levada has been Catholic co-chairman of the U.S. Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue since 2000. In 2000 he participated in an international Catholic-Anglican summit in Canada that explored new ways the two churches could move toward unity. He was one of several Catholic bishops involved in the planning stages of a new national ecumenical body, Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., which is to be formally inaugurated later this year.

Of some 800 clergy sexual abuse cases that were filed in 2003 against dioceses in California, about 75 are directed at San Francisco. This March, in the first such case to go to trial in the state, the archdiocese did not contest the claim of abuse but only asked the jury for moderation in the amount of damages awarded. It awarded $437,000.

When the bishops adopted principles and legislation for dealing with abusive priests and deacons in 2002, Archbishop Levada proposed a resolution to develop a way, within the limits of church law, to deal with any such allegations against bishops and to hold one another accountable for implementing their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." His resolution led to the adoption of such a document by the bishops at their next meeting.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Levada will be in charge of all cases worldwide of priests or deacons accused of sexually abusing minors. It is up to the congregation to decide if an accused cleric is to be laicized.