A Theological Hard-Liner With a Moderate Streak

By DEAN E. MURPHY

New York Times

May 14, 2005

When Archbishop William J. Levada was appointed 10 years ago to lead the Roman Catholic archdiocese of San Francisco, he brought with him a reputation as an assertive protector of church orthodoxy.

In his previous post in Portland, Ore., he helped lead the fight against a state measure approving physician-assisted suicide, because the church opposes euthanasia.

In the 1990's he served on a Vatican committee that stripped the gender-inclusive language from a lectionary proposed by the American Bishops Conference.

When an American bishops' pastoral letter on women failed to win approval at the Vatican, Archbishop Levada helped rewrite it with such a conservative cast - condemning feminism and some forms of gender equality - that letter simply died.

Now Archbishop Levada will be the new watchdog over doctrine: prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His predecessor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler."

But as Archbishop Levada joked in his news conference in San Francisco on Friday, he expects to be "more a cocker spaniel than a Rottweiler" - a description he apparently rued immediately, saying, "No, no, don't print that."

In fact, while many liberals consider him a hard-liner, he has also faced criticism in San Francisco from conservatives for not speaking out strongly enough against homosexuality and gay marriage.

Several observers pointed to a battle in 1997 as a key to his approach: Then the city of San Francisco required organizations like Catholic Charities that received money from the municipal government to offer benefits to unmarried partners of their employees - including gay partners.

Archbishop Levada resisted, saying that it suggested condoning homosexual relationships.

But he struck a compromise, tinkering with the language so the church agreed to give benefits to everyone in the household.

The Rev. Gerald O'Collins, a Jesuit theologian who met him in the early 1970, said, "I just thought he was someone who was radical middle-of-the-road."

Colleagues and friends praised the appointment, saying he had a well-rounded résumé in the church: in academia, as an active pastor and bishop and inside the Vatican.

Archbishop Levada earned his doctorate in 1970 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, then spent the next six years teaching in Los Angeles. In 1976, he returned to Rome to work in the Congregation.

He left in 1982, working as archbishop of Portland from 1986 until 1995, when he began as archbishop of San Francisco. In 2000, he was appointed to serve on the Congregation.

In San Francisco, he defied the expectations of many more liberal theologians and priests, said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame: "A number of people were apprehensive about his coming there as an archbishop and were relieved to find out that he was much more hands-off in many respects than what they expected."

Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, who is Catholic, said the city put Archbishop Levada's diplomatic skills to test on many occasions.

In one of the tensest moments, when Mr. Newsom was criticized last year by many church leaders for promoting same-sex marriage in the city, Archbishop Levada made statements opposing the mayor's policy.

But he participated in only one public demonstration, weeks after a court had ordered the marriages halted.

"When he disagrees with a particular issue, he sees the bigger picture. Clearly in San Francisco he has seen the bigger picture," Mr. Newsom said. The mayor said pastors at two parishes in the city made it clear that he was not welcome at Mass, but the archbishop never shunned him. At his news conference on Friday, the archbishop was asked if the mayor was welcome at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, the seat of the archdiocese. "He has been to the Cathedral many times," the archbishop said.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, which is based in San Francisco, and chancellor of the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, said the archbishop is "someone suspected by the liberals as being too conservative, and suspected by the conservatives as being to liberal."

Yet, he said, "I can't imagine that Pope Benedict XVI would have appointed someone to succeed him at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who is not in line with his own policies."