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The Vatican Selects a New Prefect

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The Vatican Selects a New Prefect

The new pope handpicked Archbishop William J. Levada to replace him as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Who is this man—and why did the new pope appoint him to this important office?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Upon accepting his election as the new pontiff, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (often referred to as the “cardinal of enforcement,” for his staunch position in support of established conservative church doctrine) left vacant one of the most important offices, next to the papacy, in the Roman Catholic Church. He had been appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, by Pope John Paul II, and held the office for 24 years. The purpose of this office is to ensure that the teachings and positions of the universal church are clearly understood and taught.

In finding a replacement, he looked to an old friend, Archbishop William J. Levada, to fill the void. During an audience with the pope in Rome, the new pontiff asked the archbishop to become his successor, a position that no American has ever held.

A Fourth Generation American

William Levada is the well educated great-grandson of Portuguese and Irish immigrants who arrived in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1860s. Born June 15, 1936, to Catholic parents Joseph Levada Jr. and Lorraine Nunez Levada, the archbishop’s early years were shaped by the Catholic elementary and high schools that he attended in Long Beach, California. This period was briefly interrupted by a three-year stay in Houston, Texas when his father, who worked for Shell Chemical Corporation, was transferred there. While living in Houston, William Levada attended St. Mary’s School, finishing his elementary education.

Returning to Long Beach, he received his high school education from St. Anthony’s High School, graduating in June 1954. He then completed four years of Seminary College in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which included philosophy coursework, and graduated in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Continuing his education, he entered into theological studies at Gregorian University and a seminary formation program at North American College, both located in Rome, Italy.

While studying there, he received a post-ordination doctorate in sacred theology magna cum laude. He was ordained into the priesthood in a ceremony held in St. Peter’s Basilica on December 20, 1961, after which he spent five years performing parish work in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. During this time, he served as an associate pastor, high school religion teacher and chaplain of the Community College Newman Center.

In the fall of 1967, Mr. Levada was sent back to Gregorian University for graduate studies to pursue a doctoral degree in theology, eventually earning a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree in June 1971. During this time, he also conducted seminars at North American College for the undergraduate theology students. He went on to teach theology at St. John’s Seminary in the fall of 1970, a position that lasted six years. He was also named Director of Continuing Education for the Clergy in the Los Angeles Archdiocese during that tenure, and served in 1975-76 as the President of the Senate of Priests.

Continued Advancement

It was autumn 1976 when William Levada, at the recommendation of the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, was first assigned to the congregation that the archbishop now oversees. He was appointed an Official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, which once again took him back to Rome. This assignment lasted six years and included teaching as a theology Instructor at Pontifical Gregorian University. The former student had returned as a teacher.

During the last year of his assignment to the congregation, Mr. Levada first came to know Cardinal Ratzinger, who had just been appointed to the position of Prefect. This planted the seeds of a working relationship and friendship that would cross paths in the years to come.

Returning once again to California in mid-1982, the now Monsignor Levada, continued gaining experience by serving as Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, as well as serving as coordinator of statewide church efforts and liaison with government agencies.

Spring 1983 saw his appointment and subsequent ordination to Bishop. As a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he served on various committees such as Committee of Doctrine (which he chaired) and Committee for Pro-life Activities.

Conservative in a Liberal City

Upon taking his new appointment, Mr. Levada leaves behind some 425,000 Catholics in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties that were under his spiritual supervision. As Archbishop of San Francisco, he was responsible for upholding Catholic teaching in one of the most liberal cities in America, home to a large population of homosexuals and lesbians.

Staying the course of conservative Catholic doctrine in a liberal city was not new to Mr. Levada when he took over the Archdiocese of San Francisco from his predecessor, Archbishop John Quinn. In fact, his first appointment as an archbishop (1986) was in overseeing a diocese in Portland, Oregon, also a liberal American city. One of his many accomplishments during his nine-year tenure as Archbishop of Portland was a successful drive for a $5 million retirement fund and the St. John Vianney retirement residence for diocesan priests. This certainly did not go unnoticed by the church hierarchy. It was during this time that he served, from 1987 to 1993, on the Editorial Committee of the Holy See’s Commission for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which he was appointed by Cardinal Ratzinger—the only American bishop to have been selected.

Mr. Levada authored the Catechism’s Glossary. In a recently released statement, he said that the purpose of the group of seven bishops serving on this commission “was to prepare a draft of the catechism, conduct a consultation among bishops of the world and many scholars, and develop a final text under the direction of the commission of 12 cardinals of which Cardinal Ratzinger was president” (Catholic Online).

It was during this time that Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Levada would have come to know each other’s thinking and position on church doctrine. The archbishop recalled the “many occasions when [Ratzinger] would unexpectedly join our discussions, roll up his sleeves, review the proposed changes and amendments, ask our opinions and discuss them with us…” (Ibid.)

Mr. Levada’s appointment as Archbishop of San Francisco in 1995 was seen by some to be a clear statement from Pope John Paul II. Mr. Levada’s predecessor had shown a lenient attitude towards Catholics who were openly practicing homosexuality—even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, had released a paper declaring homosexuality an “intrinsic disorder.” Of course, this did not sit well with San Francisco’s homosexual community. John Paul’s visit there in 1987 spurred sign-carrying protesters, who attacked Cardinal Ratzinger by name.

Mr. Levada has not been shy in his comments about gay and lesbian lifestyles. Though “he has been involved on several occasions in delicate negotiations with the City to find a way of implementing gay rights issues,” the guiding factor has been that it be done “in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching” (emphasis ours). He has been vocal in his opposition to same-sex marriages and has instructed priests to seek the guidance of bishops to determine whether a Catholic politician who supports abortion rights should be denied communion.

Speaking of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who reportedly was denied communion by the pastors of two local parishes due to his active support of same-sex marriage, Mr. Levada has said, “I have told him that I think he is wrong on same sex marriage” (San Francisco Chronicle). Clearly, the new Prefect stands with Pope Benedict on this issue, as well as a host of other issues facing the Catholic Church, such as clerical celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women priests.

The Right Man for the Job

In 2000, Mr. Levada was made a member of the congregation that he is now Prefect over, once again exposing him to Benedict’s strong conservative thinking and influence. Certainly, the new pope would have come to know the archbishop’s mind on important key issues facing the Catholic Church.

He is well versed in, and understands, the pope’s authority as the head of the church. He was Bishop Co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States. These talks were geared at finding common ground and promoting unity between these two faiths. Mr. Levada shares this vision with Benedict XVI, who, during his first few weeks as pope, repeatedly attempted to reach out to Orthodox Christians and Protestants. The Roman Church would certainly like to bring the many churches of the Christian world under her protective umbrella and influence.

Though Mr. Levada pictures himself as more of a “cocker spaniel rather than a rottweiler,” the task of clarifying worldwide Roman Catholic doctrine falls to him.

As the appointed Prefect of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mr. Levada released this statement: “The work of the congregation seeks principally to promote a sound understanding of the content of the Christian faith, as has been handed on through the Church [meaning the Roman Catholic] since the time of Christ, and to assist the Pope and the bishops of the Church throughout the world in the delicate task of clarifying erroneous positions when that is judged necessary” (Catholic Online).

Benedict XVI—who held the position of enforcer of Catholic doctrine, and did so in the face of vocal liberal opposition—would have picked a successor who was up to the task, and to carry on in the tone that he has set.

Many feel that the message to Catholic Americans, who have felt that the Vatican is out of touch with Western culture, and to the world, is that the conservative doctrines of the church will stay.

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