Archbishop Levada in line for key job at Vatican

Pope said to want S.F. prelate as chief doctrinal watchdog

By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada is the new pope's leading candidate to become the chief doctrinal watchdog for the 1.1 billion member Roman Catholic Church, according to Vatican sources and several media reports.

The Chronicle reported on May 4, the day after Levada became the first U. S. bishop to have a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI , that the pontiff was considering the San Francisco prelate for the head of the Vatican Congregation to the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now, Time magazine reports on its Web site that a "senior Vatican official" says the Levada appointment is "a done deal."

There has been no official announcement from Rome, and on Tuesday neither Levada nor his spokesman would respond to questions about the latest reports.

But Vatican analyst Rocco Palmo, the source of the May 4 report, predicted Tuesday that Levada, 68, would get the Vatican post and then be elevated to cardinal at a June 29 Vatican assembly.

"He will be the first American cardinal named by the new pope,'' Palmo said in an interview with The Chronicle. "He is about to become the highest- ranking American in Vatican history."

Palmo noted that Levada has extensive experience dealing with the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. church.

"He has on-the-ground experience in the United States," Palmo said. "That is priceless."

The Levada appointment, if confirmed, would have a major impact on the Catholic Church in the United States and the Bay Area.

For years, many American Catholics have complained that the Vatican does not understand the 65 million-member U.S. church.

Levada, who worked on the Vatican staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1976 to 1982, has an intimate understanding of the issues facing the U.S. church, having served as the Archbishop of Portland from 1986 to 1995, and since then as the Archbishop of San Francisco.

During his final year in Rome, Levada worked for the pope, known then as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of that key Vatican office, and has kept close ties to the German cardinal over the last two decades.

"If they want to address the ethical and moral issues in the church in Europe and North America, you have Ratzinger speaking to Europe and Levada to the United States,'' said Paul Murphy, a church scholar at the University of San Francisco.

Murphy, the director of the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought, noted that Levada may serve a very liberal archdiocese, but he carries strong credentials as a doctrinal conservative.

"He won't necessarily please liberals in North America, but he is someone very familiar with the North American situation,'' Murphy said.

Levada's election would have a double impact on the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which covers San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.

It would create an opening for the job of San Francisco Archbishop, giving the new pope a chance to put his mark on the Bay Area church.

But Former Vatican diplomat John-Peter Pham said Pope Benedict has more global reasons for considering Levada for the key Vatican post.

Pham said Benedict hopes to use his papacy to strengthen ties with the Eastern Orthodox churches, which split off from Rome centuries ago in a dispute over the power of the pope.

"Levada is the academic expert on that topic,'' said Pham, author of "Heirs of the Fisherman -- Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession.''

"It would be a tribute to William Levada, theologian,'' Pham said.

Catholic author and former Vatican Radio staffer David Gibson said the Levada appointment "makes sense."

"Popes pick people they know and trust,'' said Gibson. "Archbishop Levada has shown himself to be a loyal lieutenant, and he is not going to take the spotlight away from Benedict."

Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church -- How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism," said Benedict wants to keep an eye on dissident theologians and liturgical innovation in the United States.

"America is seen as the vanguard of much of the experimentation that concerns Pope Benedict," Gibson said.

"Levada knows the scene. He know what battles to pick, and what battles not to pick.''


Archbishop William J. Levada

Born: June 15, 1936, in Long Beach, where he grew up.

Ordained: St. Peter's Basilica in Rome in 1961 after attending seminary in Los Angeles and Rome.

Education: Graduate theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a post-ordination doctorate in sacred theology.

Vatican experience: In 1976, Levada was appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, where he served six years.

Leadership posts in U.S.: In 1982, he was assigned as executive director of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops in Sacramento. In 1983, he was ordained a bishop, and in 1986 he became Archbishop of Portland, Ore. Levada succeeded John Quinn as San Francisco's seventh Archbishop in December 1995.

Source: Archdiocese of San Francisco

E-mail Don Lattin at dlattin@sfchronicle.com.