Saturday, March 03, 2007

Levada Gives Rare Interview: "I Am Not Responsible For the Crusades" -- Past or Present

Twenty-two months ago today, the newly-elected Pope Benedict changed his good friend's life, asking then-Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco to take the former's job of 23 years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Coming but two weeks after the conclave's close, the appointment of Levada -- a doctrinally solid prelate with a pragmatic bent -- as the church's guardian of orthodoxy both shocked many veteran Vatican-watchers and marked the beginning of the end of some ideologues' years-long love affair with the former Cardinal Ratzinger, whose pontificate has since continued to thwart the expectations of his pre-electoral base at a fairly consistent clip.

Outside an interview with Vatican Radio shortly after his Fall '05 arrival in the Eternal City, Levada has kept a low profile since settling into the Sant'Uffizio, preferring to speak through his various homilies, talks, and trips back home to the US. The highest-ranking and most influential American in the history of the Holy See, a year ago this month the doctrine czar was elevated to the Sacred College as the first cardinal-creation of the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

A CDF staffer from 1976-82 and long the global church's poster-bishop for the school of creative engagement with a constructive, practical twist, the prelate whose job is descended from the Grand Inquistors of old recently gave his first major sit-down since before his elevation to the Belgian publication Mondiaal Nieuws -- and it's been translated into English.
Cardinal Levada is not the kind of person you would expect to pat you on the back or to share a pitcher of beer with, though his formal distance does not stand in the way of a genuine friendliness. He is very accurate and articulate, and does not shy away from taking clear positions.

Before his appointment, Cardinal Levada served as Archbishop of San Francisco. His American background often comes through when he explains his explicitly conservative views on Church and society. MO* refrained from focusing on typical church issues such as same-sex marriage, clergy sexual abuse, and abortion. Instead, we focused on global issues including the relationship between Christians and Muslims, and between Europe and its Muslim neighbors.

The Catholic Church shares quite a few values and even elements of faith with Islam. That should make Rome an important player in the indispensable dialogue between the West and Islam, says Cardinal Levada. "That dialogue is a crucial effort at this moment of history, not just for the religions but also for the future of humanity. We both share a common resistance to the violence that is perpetrated in the name of religion. Even though the Old Testament contains many passages in which God uses violence against the enemies of His people, we know that God is not a God of violence".

The rejection of a religiously motivated violence, in Levada's view, is in the first place a call to respect each person's freedom. "In the Catholic Church we needed centuries of religious and doctrinal development to arrive at the insight that each person has a right to religious liberty", says Cardinal Levada.

Would not the defense of religious pluralism gain in strength and credibility if the Church itself would present it with a bit more humility, for example by recognizing its own mistakes in the past? "I am not anymore responsible for the crusades than atheists are responsible for what Hitler or Stalin did", the cardinal responds.

"The Church's clear position on religious freedom is the result of many painful experiences: the crusades, the religious wars in Europe, the martyrs under the Protestant kings of England, and the Catholic prelates in Spain and France", he adds. "And, as a matter of fact, Pope John Paul II did recognize those mistakes in the past. But it becomes a bit strange when the Church, time and again is denied credibility to speak up against violence by referring to the crusades"....

The place religious conviction has in the public arena and in political discussions is an issue that gets the Cardinal sit up and speak out. "I discern the emergence of a 'fundamentalism of religious exclusion'. That is a position that under no circumstance accepts the holy conviction of a believer, unless he is willing to present himself as a searcher among searchers, and his convictions as a possibility among possibilities. Once you say that you've searched and you've found the answer, you're excluded. Conservative believers in the US describe this tendency as the aspiration for a naked public square: a public square stripped from every religious reference and from every religious participation". Cardinal Levada rejects that approach and reckons that his Catholic Church and the Islamic communities in Europe can agree on this point....

A good number of Christians would fall under the category "closed believers" and would only accept the literal text of the Bible as the guiding principle of their lives and, if possible, of the way society is organized. Asked if he would consider this fundamentalism problematic, Cardinal Levada responded:

"From the point of view of society, not necessarily. Take for instance the Amish, a Christian sect largely living in Pennsylvania. They continue living like their forefathers of the 17th century did, they reject modern farming equipment and mostly all electricity and powered machinery. But that does not seem to be a problem for them. Their agriculture often is more successful than that of their neighbors, and they get along quite well with the rest of society.

Their fundamentalist beliefs would turn problematic if they would start to believe that God calls them to use violence against all those who do not share their convictions. The crucial thing is that free choice is guaranteed. Even though that freedom is conditional too, of course. As soon as parents reject, from their literalist beliefs, blood transfusions and thereby endanger the lives of their children, we are in problematic territory.

It is like the conviction of the Mormons who hold polygamy acceptable. Society at large in the United States thinks that is unacceptable because it is detrimental to the women and the children and thus for society. So the law interferes and forbids this belief to be put in practice. A society has to formulate limits, whatever the religious convictions of individual believers or churches".
Someone has to decide

Cardinal Levada does not like fundamentalism as a way of life. At the same time he heads the administration responsible for formulating and guarding the doctrine of a billion Catholic believers. In what sense does his mission differ from the ambitions of movements who preach an undisputable truth and try all they can to subject others to that truth? The prelate's answer is a lengthy dissertation on the relation between faith and reason, concluded by the statement that accepting the dogmas of the Church is not the same as abdicating one's freedom of thought or capacity to reason.

"After all", he said, "human reason and intelligence are, after divine grace, the ultimate gifts, the capacities that differentiate us from the rest of creation. But reason is balanced by devotion, the acceptance of an authority beyond yourself, of God. That is not the same as a rejection of human reason or an autonomous judgment, but an exercise in challenging our own thinking by confronting it to calls that supercede or, on first view, even contradict this thinking".

The role of the Church in that dialogue between an individual and his or her God, says the Cardinal, is not to be the first interlocutor, but the role is indispensable. "We believe that the apostles and their successors received the mission to interpret revelation in new circumstances and in the light of new challenges. That creates a living tradition that is much larger than the simple and strict passing of existing answers, insights and convictions from one generation to another.

But at the end of the day there has to be an instance that can decide whether a specific lifestyle is coherent with the principles and values of our faith, that can judge whether our actions are in accordance with the commandment to love your neighbor. The mission of the Church is not to prohibit people from thinking, investigate different hypotheses, or collect knowledge. Its mission is to give those processes orientation"....

Liberation theology did not quite endear CDF predecessor Cardinal Ratzinger to the Catholic left, to put it mildly.

The current Prefect nuances the situation: 'The documents on liberation theology that were published by Cardinal Ratzinger defend the social teachings of the Church in their right application. They do warn however against a theology that makes common cause with communist or socialist ideologies, because that is in contradiction with the liberation as it was revealed in Jesus Christ and of which the gospels give testimony. The condemnation of liberation theology, in other words, was not a condemnation of a socially oriented Christendom".

If the Church could speak out so clearly against the combination of Christianity and Marxism, would there not be a need today for an equally clear pronouncement that Christianity is not compatible with the praxis and the values of neoliberalism? Cardinal Levada answered unequivocally: "That would certainly be in accordance with the teachings as formulated from Leo XIII onwards".

He continued: "In the United States, neoliberalism was fiercely debated on the occasion of the signing of NAFTA. The unions opposed that free trade treaty because they feared the consequences of a globalized competition for the workers and the circumstances and conditions in which they work. My sympathy in that debate is clearly with the unions. We cannot just leave the issue of a global economy to a few people with economic degrees. Economics is far too soft a science for that. Economists come along with new theories every so often, without a guarantee for the people that they will serve them better. That is why Catholic teaching says that we cannot blindly jump into this neoliberal approach of the globalizing economy.

You just cannot say that in the end everything will be all right, when your theory in its contemporary practice costs the lives of millions of human beings. That is not what we understand to be a successful economy and it does not stand the test of gospel values. Our mission is: love your neighbor. But how do you do that when almost every African country is suffering from the most acute poverty? How do we practise charity in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands are dying? Those are the challenges that really matter in the world today".

Big thanks and tip to Gashwin for picking this up.