Monday, March 19, 2007

Levada: Ma Vie en Rouge

A year ago this week, at the first consistory of his "serene and luminous" pontificate, the CDF Pope completed one of the more remarkable ascendancies in recent Vatican history by conferring his first red hat on William Levada, his successor at the Holy Office and the highest-ranking American ever to serve in the administration of the universal church.

Almost two years after the famous 3 May 2005 private audience in which Levada was offered the job, not a few still find themselves trying to get over the new Pope's selection of the former archbishop of San Francisco to take his place as the top guardian of church teaching. And it hasn't gone unnoticed, either, that Cardinal Ratzinger's cherished top two aides at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the secretary Archbishop Angelo Amato SDB, and the undersecretary Fr Augustine DiNoia OP, also an American -- have so far remained at Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio as opposed to pushing the Ratzinger revolution forward at higher rank in the other dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

Then again, with the cardinal-prefect having spent 18 months settling into the office where he served as a staffer from 1976-82, the gifts for his lieutenants will likely be in the offing sooner rather than later. Still, again, it's been historic; if you told someone a couple years back that two of the CDF's three top posts would soon be held by Yanks, you would've been looked at funny. That it's happened serves to burnish Benedict's trailblazer cred, and that he's got a keener eye on things US than some might think... and also than some might like.

Continuing his cycle through the media gauntlet -- begun last month with an extended interview for a Belgian journal -- the successor of the "Grand Inquisitors" of old talked to CNS' John Thavis in Rome on a variety of topics, including the abuse crisis (for which the CDF has particular competence), the challenge of addressing new developments in technology and bioethics, and most especially his first "Notification," released hours before the interview concerning the Basque theologian Jon Sobrino SJ.
The study of Father Sobrino's works began well before Cardinal Levada arrived at his position, at a time when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- was at the helm of the doctrinal congregation.

On March 15, the congregation said some of Father Sobrino's writings on the nature of Christ were "erroneous or dangerous" and conflicted with church doctrine.

Cardinal Levada said Father Sobrino was given ample opportunity to consider and respond to the critical review.

"The congregation works very slowly in reviewing a theologian's work, perhaps too slowly in many respects. It attempts to guarantee fairness for the theologian and put aside any idea that somebody is being railroaded," the cardinal said.

Theologians under review can have their own theological or canonical adviser. Any critique is based not on anonymous accusations but on the theologian's published works or public statements.

"Often the question is whether a theologian really believes something that is contrary to the faith, or whether he has expressed his thinking badly or partially," Cardinal Levada said.

Ultimately these questions are examined by a group of theological peers that routinely advise the congregation, then by the cardinal and bishop members of the congregation, and finally by the pope for his final judgment, the cardinal said.

"We don't publicize this process, because in some instances, I say gratefully, we have not had to come to a public notification. If a theologian acknowledges an error or a too-partial presentation and agrees to make an adequate correction in a subsequent book or article, then we'll consider the matter closed," he said.

So far, the cardinal said, that has not been the case with Father Sobrino, and so a public warning was necessary. Although Father Sobrino is 69 and currently not teaching, he remains an influential voice in Catholic theology, Cardinal Levada said.

"New generations of theologians and young believers need to have an accurate understanding of what the faith is. And here is a well-known, prominent Catholic theologian who does not give an accurate understanding of the faith, and we think someone has to correct it," he said....

With a permanent staff of only 36 people, the congregation is limited in what it can tackle at any one time. That's one reason documents and decisions are not churned out quickly, but take years to develop.

Currently, for example, the congregation is re-examining bioethics developments with an eye to updating its landmark 1987 instruction, "Donum Vitae" ("The Gift of Life").

"The principles of 'Donum Vitae' remain entirely valid, but there are new questions posed by technology and research -- in stem cells, to give just one example," Cardinal Levada said.

A separate question under study by the congregation is natural law, the term the church uses to describe the set of universal ethical or moral truths that form a common ground for all religious faiths and political systems.

Rather than embark on a new document, the congregation wrote to Catholic universities around the world asking them to focus their academic resources on the question of natural law, by sponsoring symposiums and other events. The idea was to get centers of Catholic learning involved in promoting a concept that is essential to understanding the church's position on issues like abortion, marriage, human rights and religious violence.

In dealing with fundamental issues of faith, Cardinal Levada said, the congregation must look sometimes at questions related to evangelization in the modern world: Is announcing the Gospel of Christ somehow an imposition on people?...

Pope Benedict, of course, can help set the agenda. Cardinal Levada meets with the pope almost every week, and said he finds the pontiff "keenly interested" in details of the congregation's affairs. But the pope also respects the autonomy of the prefect, he said.

"He's very interested in these things, but he does not try to micromanage in any sense. I take into consideration any indications he wants to give. But it's not like I'm looking over my shoulder," the cardinal said....

Since 2001, by decision of Pope John Paul II, the doctrinal congregation has been responsible for the handling of cases of clerical sex abuse against minors. That created an enormous amount of new work, and the congregation's disciplinary section had to be expanded.

Cardinal Levada said many cases are still being processed, but the number is finally tapering off.

"I think you could say the crisis dimensions (of the case load), caused by the situation in the United States, are behind us," he said.

A native of California, Cardinal Levada was archbishop of San Francisco for 10 years before the pope called him to Rome. He had one big advantage coming into the job: He had worked on the staff of the doctrinal congregation in 1976-82 and had been a bishop-member since 2000.

The cardinal studied with a language tutor after returning to Rome and found that his Italian came back nicely. That's important, he said, because most of the routine business is handled in Italian.
In his travels, the cardinal-prefect gave the closing talk at the biennial seminar for US bishops on bioethics last month in Dallas. Levada returns to the States next month, this time to receive an honorary doctorate from Cleveland's John Carroll University, where he'll give his first major talk since leaving for Rome and the congregation.

The title of the 24 April lecture is already circulating: "Where Do I Find Hope?"