Saturday, December 31, 2005

THE CHURCHMAN OF THE YEAR: Benedict's First Choice

2005 Churchman of the Year -- US
The Most Reverend WILLIAM J. LEVADA
Archbishop-emeritus of San Francisco
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

It didn't take long after Pope Benedict XVI asked William Levada to succeed him in global Catholicism's toughest job before the howls of discontent began.

For the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had to deal with being tarred and mischaracterized over his 23 years in the job he had given to his old friend and confidant, bearing the brunt of ideologically-driven rage was nothing new. What had changed, however, was the source of the hyperkinetic fury: the ultraconservative base which, but a month before, perceived the former Grand Inquisitor as the one and only hope who, if elected to succeed John Paul II, could make their wildest dreams come true.

In naming Levada -- by no means a boat-shaker on the controversial issues which have polarized the church in recent decades -- Benedict sent a strong signal that his pontificate would not be dominated by the church's bellicose rightward fringe, who had long borne grudges against the archbishop for his effective, constructive handling of sensitive issues over his decade in San Francisco, where he continued the legacy of openness and outreach of his predecessor, John R. Quinn, while holding the Roman line on the hot-button topics of church teaching.

The historic appointment of the highest-ranking American in the history of the Holy See also signaled a strong vote of papal confidence in Levada's penchant for building solid working relationships with many communities in the city for whom Catholic doctrine was no obstacle to pushing law and culture to new frontiers, but who came to respect the archbishop as a fair broker who won the church a place at the table through his considerable gifts of savvy, intellect and consensus-building. Notably, despite Benedict's blessing, it is not a method which a significant number of his brother bishops find appealing.

Of course, that is just the prelude. Archbishop Levada stands head-and-shoulders above US Catholicism's newsmakers this year not for his past on this side of the Atlantic, but for the future he has begun to chart in Rome -- the exercise of a clout which will have a sizable impact on Catholic life in his home country for decades to come.

In a November interview with Vatican Radio, Levada said that when the Pope asked him to take over the leadership of the CDF, he "gasped," and said, "Holy Father, I'm not the person for that." "Yes, you are," Benedict replied, and proceeded to tell Levada why.

The Catholic Right still wasn't convinced.

Once Levada was unpacking in Rome, the former Cardinal Ratzinger's supporters continued to maintain that the new Pope was being "hoodwinked," that his choice was an outlier and that the American at Benedict's side would have no influence whatsoever in the affairs of the US church. Counterintuitively, for anyone to think these claims would have any merit would be to retroactively posit that Ratzinger's advice bore absolutely no weight in the considerations of John Paul II.

Yet again, reality has proven Levada's detractors wrong.

As expected, the new doctrinal strongman -- quickly appointed to the Congregation for Bishops after his August move to the Vatican -- moved quickly to ensure that Benedict's first major American appointment would bear the fruits of his counsel. In sending Levada's lifelong friend George Niederauer to succeed him in the City by the Bay, the Pope who had been championed by the doctrinally rigid sent the nation's liberal capital a message that its Catholic culture was healthy, vibrant and that the path marked out by the previous archbishop was to continue unhindered.

Within two weeks, the prefect then shepherded the nomination of another San Francisco priest, Fr. Randolph Calvo, who had served as vicar-general to Quinn as well as Levada, to the bishopric of Reno after an atypically short vacancy there. And with another opening in his former province currently pending, it's just one of many openings in the New Year which will be filled by the stamp of the archbishop's trusted hand.

The Levada movement -- which will reach its apex sometime in 2006, when (by seniority) his name appears first on the list of new cardinals to be created at Benedict's first consistory -- goes far beyond episcopal appointments. As he told Vatican Radio, "The fact that the [CDF] now has responsibility... for dealing with issues of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Given the experience of that, the explosion of that, on the American scene over the past few years, my experience with that... I think probably also may have said to him maybe it wouldn't be bad to have someone also who has this experience."

The backlog of cases referred from American dioceses for the CDF's judgment has been said to stretch 18 months or thereabout. That the Prefect knows the lay of the land here, he knows the bishops, the canonists, the various legal situations can only help but ease the burden under which the Congregation's work has been placed.

Issues of education will come up, as will issues of authority, erroneous teaching and those who persist in propagating it, political questions alongside magisterial ones. And that's just at the Sant'Uffizio, where the CDF has its offices. Even as for those issues which lie beyond the competence of his own dicastery, anytime the United States comes up it's likely that the Prefect will be sounded out for his opinion as an indicator of how it will play on the ground at home.

(On the international front, the release of the Congregation's findings in its high-profile investigation into multiple allegations of sex abuse levied against Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, is the most significant item of interest on its 2006 agenda. The probe of Maciel was initiated by Cardinal Ratzinger in late 2004.)

Levada said in an interview that one of the main strengths he brought back to the Vatican -- he worked at the CDF from 1976-82 -- was his "sense of the complex pastoral realities that a bishop faces."

Given the magnitude of his position, and his personal closeness with the Prefect-turned-Pope, it can be said that his calls won't go unreturned and his advice won't go unheeded. In the often unruly and highly-territorial world of Vatican bureaucracy, figures who can muster that kind of deference at the highest levels are few and far between.

For an American to occupy such rarified territory is nothing short of groundbreaking.