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Theological Notebook: Allen on Levada heading the CDF and on Reese and America

In from Mike and Donna's where we watched the final episode of Enterprise, talked Trek for a very long time, then talked theology studies, book-binding, and my new apartment and move-in politics for even longer. I am now home and facing grading until the sun rises.

I include in this entry (below) reporting from this week's "The Word From Rome" column by John Allen that gives a decent little background to Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, who has just been appointed by Pope Benedict to take over his former job as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I have to agree with Allen that, given his pedigree, he looks like a very capable appointee and it will be interesting to see an American in this role of oversight on the teaching of the Church's doctrine. An interesting personal note is that Levada did his dissertation (in ecclesiology--the theology of the Church) under the Jesuit Francis Sullivan, the very fellow I'm looking at doing a dissertation on. This makes us... unrelated, but with a certain theological connection whose vagueness I will neither attempt to explain nor justify. Yeah.

Allen also includes some clarification he has received from Jesuit officials in Rome regarding the resignation of Tom Reese from the editorship of America, the political playing-out of which you heard me express deep disappointment with earlier this week. My fear with this kind of move is that if we do not let the conversation regarding matters considered very controversial by members of the Church play out in a magazine that has shown its dedication to publishing writers from across the theological spectrum, those topics will be considered only in more "polarized" journals. This, I fear, might amount to increasing writing that "preaches to the choir," but does not contribute as effectively to a truly ecclesial conversation. I fear that in the United States we already are doing too much to encourage people to conceive of the Church not as "the People of God," but as "the People Who Agree With Me."

Levada to head Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Tom Reese and America;


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 Šeper 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.

* * *

Levada's appointment to the CDF is tantamount to a vote of confidence, in a certain sense, for American Catholicism.

While Americans have held other important Vatican jobs -- Cardinal Edmund Szoka was the governor of the Vatican city-state, and Cardinal James Francis Stafford heads the Apostolic Penitentiary -- the congregations are in a class by themselves, since they are where the pope's delegated juridical authority for the church is exercised. Within the congregations, none is as critical as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To entrust that job to an American, therefore, is a major vote of confidence from Pope Benedict.

It is an especially meaningful gesture of appreciation for American Catholicism, coming on the heels of recent developments with regard to Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese and the Jesuit-run America magazine.

By now, those developments are well-known. The May 20 issue of National Catholic Reporter, which went to the printer last night, chronicle the the Reese case and reactions to its fallout.

Here I can only clarify one point that has been a bit fuzzy in some of the public discussion.

Everyone acknowledges that over the last five years, concerns about certain articles published by America on topics as diverse as condoms, gay priests, the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, and pro-choice Catholic politicians have reached the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the congregation in turn raised these concerns with the superior general of the Jesuit order, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

What has confused some observers, however, is whether or not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letter demanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in these discussions.

Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May 11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, before Ratzinger's election as pope, to Kolvenbach. I have not seen the letter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order to remove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see a change in direction at America. The Jesuit sources said, however, that the thrust of the letter was clear -- that Reese's position was no longer tenable.

I also do not know if that letter was signed by Ratzinger. What I can report with certainty is that over the past five years, Ratzinger personally raised the concerns about America in his conversations with Kolvenbach. Like other religious superiors, Kolvenbach meets with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss cases involving members of his order, and it was in the context of those routine conversations that America arose.

I can also confirm that one other Jesuit publication, the German journal Stimmen der Zeit, has also generated concerns from the doctrinal office to the Jesuits, though that case is described as "on-going" and no conclusions have been reached.

Of course, people will reach different conclusions about all of this. Some will see it as an overdue assertion of discipline with regard to publications officially sponsored by religious orders, while others fear an attempt to choke off reasonable, adult discussion of difficult issues. However, one should make no mistake that while Pope Benedict will strive to be a man of forbearance and dialogue, his will also be an uncompromising pontificate on what he perceives as matters of faith -- and Fr. Reese will probably not be the last Catholic to find that out the hard way.
Tags: media, theological notebook

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