Vatican's focus falls on U.S., Europe

Choosing Levada spotlights the West

By Don Lattin and Angela Frucci

San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, May 15, 2005

When Pope John Paul II died early last month, papal pundits were consumed with the idea that the world's cardinals might replace him with an African or Latin American pope -- someone from a part of the world where the Catholic Church finds its greatest growth, and perhaps, its future.

Instead, they elected German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a longtime Vatican insider, as Pope Benedict XVI.

On Friday, Benedict named an American, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, as his chief doctrinal watchdog for the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world.

To some observers, the election of a German pope and the appointment of an American archbishop show that Catholic leaders are focusing attention on solving problems they see in churches across Europe and the United States. For years, Cardinal Ratzinger bemoaned the steep decline of the church's influence in Italy, France, Germany -- the historic cradle of Catholicism. And while church attendance in the United States is relatively high and stable, the moral and financial fallout of the clergy sexual abuse scandal continues to haunt American bishops accused of covering up the crimes of pedophile priests.

But Benedict's goals as pope -- and his marching orders for Levada -- go much deeper than shoring up church attendance in Europe or finding a way out of the 20-year-old sex abuse scandal. They seek to counter what the pope recently called "the dictatorship of relativism," which the church casts as the idea that there are no absolute truths, and all the religions and spiritual philosophies are equally good and true.

"Benedict, by choosing Levada, showed a priority to addressing the problems that are emerging in the Western culture," said Rome-based Vatican author Gerard O'Connell. "Levada knows all the problems of pedophile priests, the question of gay rights, all the questions that have been at the front line of discussion.''

O'Connell, the author of "God's Invisible Hand," a book on papal candidate and Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, said the cardinals decided it was too soon to name a pope from the Global South.

"The problems in Africa are of one nature, the problems in Asia of another nature and of Latin America, another," he said. "One interpretation is that they saw the importance of addressing issues that are part and parcel of the Western culture -- issues that will impact on the culture of other countries in years to come.''

The Rev. Keith F. Pecklers, a Jesuit professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, sees Levada's appointment as a sign that the pope has confidence in the American church -- not as an indication of problems.

"It's undoubtedly the most important office in the Roman Curia -- a clearinghouse for all the other Vatican offices," Pecklers said. "They always joked that an American could never be named pope. So, that an American could be named for this post is very significant."

In Mexico, which has the world's second-largest Catholic population, some religious leaders are discouraged that Benedict is not appointing Latin Americans to powerful positions.

"Levada will only harden the Vatican's Eurocentric views of the church," said Elio Masferrer, president of the Mexico-based Latin American Religious Studies Association. "I think it's necessary to appoint people from our corner of the world, people who understand our cultural differences."

Masferrer said Catholic traditionalism and the church's "rigid views" are causing many Mexicans to leave the fold and join evangelical churches.

"Evangelicals are tapping into this disconnect," he said. "There's a growing sense here, especially amongst the poor, that evangelicals' theological attitudes are more flexible and pragmatic."

Other religious leaders in Mexico are not concerned with the nationality of top Vatican officials. They want leaders who will stick to traditional Catholic values. The Rev. Angel Aboyotes, a conservative Mexican priest from the southern state of Guerrero, said he wants a top doctrinal authority who is not afraid to oppose homosexuality, divorce, contraception, and other hot- button issues facing the church. "We need people who will concentrate on the battles we face," Aboyotes said.

Levada said Friday that having a German as pope and himself as the prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "does not reflect a lack of attention to the needs of the Third World."

"It doesn't so much matter where you come from," he told The Chronicle. "If an African or Latin American became pope, they are not just serving those areas. They must have the vision to serve the whole world.''

In Brazil, which claims the largest Catholic population in the world, Auxiliary Bishop Dom Odilo Pedro Scherer, the secretary general of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, agreed with Levada.

"I don't know this bishop, but I don't think it is important where he came from," Scherer said. "He must have been named because he is competent."

Levada, 68, first met the 78-year-old pope in 1981, when the future-San Francisco prelate worked at the Vatican congregation he will now lead. They have continued to have a close collaboration over the past two decades.

The Rev. Leo Verheyen, a Belgian priest who runs a parish on the impoverished outskirts of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said Pope Benedict was "clearly putting one of his own men in charge. Every government has positions like this and its leaders go to people they trust."

Meanwhile, back in Rome, some Italians are still adjusting to having a German and American at the top of the church hierarchy. Italians traditionally dominated the Vatican power structure, but that is slowly changing. Simonetta Collatina, who works in Rome as a translator, called Levada's appointment "strange."

"Even though I don't really know anything about his ideas or his track record, I don't like the idea of an American in that office,' she said. "The conservatism of the American Catholic Church is not what the church needs. It needs to open up." Roman artist Paolo Provietti said few people in his world really care who runs the Vatican.

"The average guy in Rome knows there is a man in white that comes out and people clap," he said. "We loved the old pope, now we're learning to love the new one."


LEVADA THROUGH THE YEARS ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, ABORTION, OTHER ISSUES

Recent writings of Archbishop William Levada, excerpted from Catholic San Francisco, the weekly newspaper of San Francisco's Archdiocese:

On capital punishment, published Jan. 21, 2005:

... (W)e must ask ourselves and our fellow citizens whether the violence of State-ordered executions, like that of Mr. Beardslee, does not itself contribute to a culture of death in which respect for the dignity and precious worth of every human life is diminished. We believe that life in prison without the possibility of parole is a just and exacting punishment. We believe that the community would be protected by such punishment and that to continue the cycle of violence by killing Mr. Beardslee undermines society's commitment to respect the God-given dignity of every human person. ...

On single-issue politics and the exception for abortion, published July 30, 2004:

... If Catholic legislators are scorned and held out for ridicule by Church leaders on the basis of a single issue, the Church will lose strong advocates on a wide range of issues that relate to the core of important Catholic social teaching. ...

Some people fear that giving abortion (and euthanasia) a special place in Catholic moral and social teaching could result in undervaluing Church teaching on a variety of important issues, issues like war and peace, the death penalty, outreach to the poor, and the like. But Catholic social teaching is always careful to draw the necessary distinctions, and to allow for legitimate diversity in the application of its guidance in concrete situations.

Nevertheless it is clear from Church teaching itself (sometimes its use for political advantage obscures this) that not all moral or social issues have the same moral standing as abortion. For example, if a Catholic were to disagree with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has taught the evil of abortion and infanticide, widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world of that time. The clear and unanimous tradition of the Church has only in recent decades been challenged in practice. ... In order to preclude confusion among Catholics, Pope Paul VI had already declared this tradition "unchanged and unchangeable." ... A Catholic, to be in full communion with the faith of the Church, must accept this teaching about the evil of abortion and euthanasia.

On plaintiffs lawyers' role in Portland Archdiocese's bankruptcy, published July 16, 2004:

... The problem for the Archdiocese of Portland has arisen because of new allegations made in the past few years about abuse that was unknown until recently brought forward by victims.

The problem is exacerbated by the greed of plaintiffs attorneys ... who see the sex-abuse crisis as a way to push for excessive judgments for victims, from which these lawyers will benefit handsomely. The Portland Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy on the very day that a case was to open in court for two victims whose collective demand was for $155 million.

Of course this is a sad occasion for the Portland Archdiocese, as it would be for any diocese. But it is time to lay out the facts in the current situation. The plaintiffs attorneys, using the claim of terrible sexual abuse by priests, many of whom are dead, have encouraged victims to step forward decades after the fact to push claims for huge monetary damages from bishops today who had no responsibility or oversight for those priests -- claims that can be satisfied only by the threat of divesting today's parishioners of their churches, today's children of their schools, today's poor of the Church's charitable outreach. This is not justice. ...

On whether the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza should face the death penalty, published April 30, 2004:

... I do not judge people who seek the penalty of death for such a heinous crime to be wrong or immoral. Civilizations throughout history have employed capital punishment to redress violations of the good order of society by crimes like this. Our country grew up with an ever-expanding frontier where frontier justice seemed the only way to inculcate the lesson that crime doesn't pay.

But now this "frontier" City at the Golden Gate has a chance to look for a better way. (District Attorney Kamala) Harris wants to lead us to face down and punish a terrible crime of violence in a nonviolent way. I think we should support her in this conviction. Does this honor the memory of Officer Espinoza less?

Of course not. All of us who joined hands and voices and hearts at St. Mary's Cathedral around his lifeless body were there to honor him, to remember him, to pray for him. Now I also pray that the question of how justice should be done to his killer will not further divide this City, especially those who are public servants pledged to see that justice is done, on the streets and in the courts. ...

On why the 2002 bishops conference in Dallas was right to adopt a zero- tolerance standard for handling priests found to have abused children, published June 28, 2002:

... During the executive session it became apparent that approximately two-thirds of the bishops believed that the circumstances of their own dioceses, and the climate of public opinion nationally, warranted the application of the most stringent policy, i.e., no priest with any history of child abuse would be allowed to continue in ministry. While many of my brother bishops and I believed that such a policy unnecessarily penalized priests whose service proved no risk and was proven through years of faithful service, it is also clear that the broad support for such a policy means that it is necessary for all of us to support it for the good of the Church in our country.

... (I)t validates the concern voiced so often in these days that the judgment and actions of some bishops and diocesan officials had proved to be untrustworthy in reassigning priests who were serial offenders to assignments in which they would again abuse children. ...

I support the Charter adopted in Dallas, and I am taking the necessary steps to implement it in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. To do anything else would be to ignore the fact that bishops, like all Church ministers, are called to be servants of unity in their work of building up the Church as the Body of Christ.

Andrew Downie, in Brazil, and Monica Campbell, in Mexico, both of the Chronicle Foreign Service, contributed to this report.E-mail Don Lattin at dlattin@sfchronicle.com.