WHEN Archbishop William J. Levada was chosen to take over the job Pope Benedict had previously held as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he confided to friends he was worried whether he could do the job to the satisfaction of his boss.
Those early jitters appear to have dissipated as he settles into his new job at the Vatican.
He and the Pope have built up a close relationship and meet at least once a week to talk over congregation issues.
Archbishop Levada, who was Archbishop of San Francisco when he was named as the new doctrinal congregation chief last June, was described by some media as a “somewhat surprising” choice.
But many of the archbishop’s friends and fellow prelates back in the US were not surprised by the Pope’s choice.
Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland archdiocese said “those of us who know Archbishop Levada weren’t very surprised”.
Archbishop Vlazny has known him since 1958, when they met as seminary classmates at the North American College in Rome.
“His intelligence was obvious but his affability and goodness were equally evident. He could even be a bit mischievous at times,” Archbishop Vlazny said.
“As much as I enjoy his company, I am even more grateful for the good pastoral care he gave this local Church. … He is a loyal churchman, a faithful disciple of the Lord and a man of integrity.”
Though he speaks fluent Italian – which he learned during his seminary days in Rome and afterward as a staffer at the congregation he now heads – Archbishop Levada has retained a tutor to help him fine-tune his Italian.
The archbishop, whose father was of Portuguese ancestry, also speaks fluent Spanish, French, Latin and some Portuguese.
Archbishop Levada said at the time of his selection that he hoped to use his US pastoral experience to help him in his work.
He said his pastoral experience makes him sympathetic to the doctrinal and teaching challenges faced by local bishops around the world.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Levada also said that while the congregation sometimes must discipline errant theologians its primary work is positive – safeguarding sound doctrine so the faith can be shared with the world.
That task is something all theologians should share, he said.
Archbishop Levada said the doctrinal congregation lost a great theologian when its head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected Pope Benedict XVI.
“What you get with me is someone who has pastoral experience of dealing with questions of faith as they are lived out in the local Church,” he said.
“I think that’s an important thing for the bishops around the world, to have the sense that when they need to talk to me or to our congregation there is someone here who is sympathetic to their pastoral situation and experience,” he said.
Archbishop Levada, who as a bishop helped write the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said formation in the faith was one area where universal and local Churches could co-operate.
In the congregation’s dealings with theologians, the archbishop said it was important for everyone to understand that theology, properly understood, is simply a way of helping people learn who Christ is and what Christ did and said.
“I like to think that promoting a sound grasp of doctrine and helping the Church see how beautiful and wonderful God’s love is, as it has been revealed to us, that’s what theology is about. So I think that’s the primary job of this congregation,” he said.
Archbishop Levada said one of the “negative aspects” of the congregation’s work is that it must occasionally intervene and ask theologians how they justify their positions or square them with the faith. That can be misunderstood as a form of repression, he said.
“I think people have sometimes gotten the idea that if you don’t let every theologian say everything that he or she thinks, or if you challenge them in any way and say, ‘That’s not correct’, that somehow you are impeding freedom of conscience or freedom of inquiry,” he said.
“But that’s not the case. We have freedom to inquire.
“But a theologian himself or herself is called to discriminate between where that inquiry leads and how it corresponds to the faith that the Church continues to receive and to live by.
“Otherwise they would not be doing true theology, it seems to me,” he said.
“Theology itself is in dialogue with revelation, which has some things to say. And you can’t just say that revelation says anything you want it to say,” he said.
Archbishop Levada, a theologian who has specialised in ecclesiology, said he thought one of the most interesting areas of theological exploration today is interreligious relations, especially in the context of the contemporary mixing of cultures.
“I think we’re still at an early point in the development of looking at how Christianity can and ought to relate to these different cultures and the religious expressions within them,” he said.
Theological works on religious pluralism have drawn close and sometimes critical attention from the doctrinal congregation in recent years.
Archbishop Levada said that may be normal in such a developing field of study.
“I’m not at all surprised that there’s a lot of interest in this. I think that’s a very healthy sign.
“And I think the Catholic Church and Catholic theology and even our congregation ought to be very interested dialogue partners in that development,” he said.
When it comes to religious-political issues like the recent debate in the United States over Catholic politicians and Communion, Archbishop Levada said the doctrinal congregation is there to help, not meddle.
But he emphasised that the task of sorting out how Catholics “interface with a complex political world in a pluralistic society” falls first of all to bishops, both individually and collectively.
The doctrinal congregation also oversees cases of priestly sex abuse around the world, a new task that has brought extra work to a relatively small staff.
Archbishop Levada said the US bishops’ new sex abuse policies have been “diligently and vigorously implemented” in dioceses, and the Vatican supports this.
He said the slowness in processing the cases has been partly caused by a desire to be meticulously fair, something the Church needs to preserve.
“I’m not so sure that we should expect a rapid turnover and response, because that might not guarantee that thoroughness and fairness,” he said.
Archbishop Levada said he expected bioethical issues to continue to draw the congregation’s special attention, in part because it’s difficult for individual dioceses or even Catholic universities to have the scientific and ethical expertise to arrive at a mature judgment on these issues.
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