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May 13, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 30

John L. Allen Jr.


Levada to head Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Tom Reese and America; Benedict reaches out to China, Vietnam and Judaism; Anglican-Catholic relations; Changes in the beatification ceremony; Beatification can begin for Pope John Paul II


On May 13, as had long been rumored, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Why Levada?

First, he has a solid theological background. He wrote his doctoral thesis in theology at Rome's Gregorian University under the direction of Jesuit Fr. Francis Sullivan, widely regarded as one of the best minds in ecclesiology of the 20th century. The subject of Levada's dissertation was "The Infallible Church Magisterium and the Natural Moral Law," examining how the magisterium understands natural law, and especially its binding force. Levada reviewed a range of theological opinions and drew what one observer described as "balanced, judicious" conclusions. Given the way that moral questions, especially on sexual issues and biotechnology, are among the most contentious matters the doctrinal congregation handles, it's a background that would serve Levada well.

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At the same time, because Levada has not spent his career as a professional theologian, he has not developed a deep specialization in any one area. A theologian in Rome described him as a very capable "general practitioner."

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins at the Gregorian, who remembers Levada as an industrious doctoral candidate, said that Levada now phones him to keep tabs on his own men.

"He keeps in touch," O'Collins said. "He says, 'How is he doing?'... I feel it kind of encourages the student to finish, because the archbishop needs him back."

O'Collins described Levada as "an extremely decent human being."

During a later stint in Rome, Levada also taught part-time at the Gregorian. He ran a seminar for third-year students, intended to produce a lengthy paper as a kind of synthesis of their work in the first cycle. Colleagues say that Levada was a very capable director, asking critical questions that stimulated thought rather than delivering lectures and controlling the discussion himself.

Second, Levada worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1976 to 1982, during the era that Croatian Cardinal Franjo Šeper was prefect under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, and for the early months of Ratzinger's own term. Hence Levada understands the nature of the office and its role in the broader context of the Roman Curia. Since 2000, Levada has served as a member of the congregation, meaning that he would step into the role of prefect already up to speed on current business.

At the same time, however, Levada has been out of the Roman Curia since 1982, serving in the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and the archdiocese of Los Angeles prior to his appointment as the archbishop of Portland in 1986 and archbishop of San Francisco in 1995. He has risen to prominence through pastoral leadership in his home country, rather than on the back of a succession of curial appointments. That means Levada would re-enter the world of the Vatican relatively independent of the obligations and loyalties that moving up through the Vatican can engender, leaving him, at least in theory, free to make objective judgments -- a bit, observers note, like Ratzinger himself, who entered the Roman Curia in 1981 already as a cardinal.

Third, Levada has an ideal resume for a prefect of the doctrinal office. From 1986 to 1993 he served as the only American bishop on the editorial committee of the Vatican commission for a Catechism of the Catholic Church. He authored the catechism's glossary, which was published in the English-language second edition. Levada also served on a joint U.S.-Vatican mixed commission that finalized the American norms concerning priests accused of sexual abuse, as well as on a task force on the church's response to dissenting Catholic politicians. He is presently the chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on doctrine.

At the same time, however, Levada would not be bashful about questioning a bishops' conference if he felt a matter of the faith was at stake. In a 1999 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Levada said he was sometimes grateful to the CDF for stepping in.

"I can think of one or two questions when I've been in the minority on votes in the American bishops, and I'm pleased that the Vatican has said, 'Hey, wait a minute. That doesn't seem like that's such a good thing to us.' Well, right on!" Levada said. "I think sometimes the American bishops take decisions in discussions that are too rushed, too agenda-driven. We don't give enough time to points of view. I'm not saying that's all the time, but it has happened."

Fourth, since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the juridical responsibility for handling cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, Levada's background as a member of the U.S. bishops' conference and the "mixed commission" that worked out the American norms means that he would bring an insider's understanding to those issues, and become a powerful voice in setting Vatican policy on the sexual abuse issue.

Fifth, Levada has the real-world pastoral experience of administering two complex archdioceses in Portland and San Francisco, so he would bring empathy for brother bishops facing their own pastoral difficulties. Moreover, both Portland and San Francisco are fairly liberal, post-modern environments where making the case for church teaching on many issues is a challenge, equipping Levada to play a special role in Pope Benedict's campaign to confront a "dictatorship of relativism" in the developed West.

Sixth, Levada has a reputation as someone with the capacity to find imaginative solutions to difficult problems. A leading case in point came in 1997, when the City of San Francisco threatened to withdraw funding from any social service agency that did not provide health benefits to domestic partners. I was in Los Angeles at the time and was assigned to cover the story, and it seemed for a brief period that the city and the church were at a stalemate. At the eleventh hour, however, Levada proposed allowing employees to designate anyone they wanted as a recipient of benefits on their health plans -- an aunt, a parent, a good friend, etc. In that sense, the church was making benefits more widely available, without endorsing same-sex relationships. One Catholic theologian at the time called the decision "Solomonic," though some critics still felt it fudged over the church's opposition to homosexuality.

None of this is to suggest that Levada lacks critics. On the left, some recall Levada's efforts to "water down" a proposed pastoral letter of American bishops on women, or his role in opposing some forms of "inclusive language" in the translation of liturgical texts; conservatives sometimes complain that he has not cracked down on what they see as a center of "dissent" at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, or that he has not been a more energetic participant in the "culture wars," given San Francisco's profile as a center of pro-gay activism. Sex abuse victims sometimes argue that Levada has not been sufficiently transparent or cooperative in responding to the crisis.

It would be difficult to imagine, however, anyone who could step into the job at the CDF utterly without "baggage." What Levada does seem to bring is intellectual preparation and life experience well suited for the challenge of heading the doctrinal office, plus a pre-existing relationship with the pope. Given that, it's little surprise he's was the Pope's choice.

* * *

Levada's appointment to the CDF is tantamount to a vote of confidence, in a certain sense, for American Catholicism.

While Americans have held other important Vatican jobs -- Cardinal Edmund Szoka was the governor of the Vatican city-state, and Cardinal James Francis Stafford heads the Apostolic Penitentiary -- the congregations are in a class by themselves, since they are where the pope's delegated juridical authority for the church is exercised. Within the congregations, none is as critical as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To entrust that job to an American, therefore, is a major vote of confidence from Pope Benedict.

It is an especially meaningful gesture of appreciation for American Catholicism, coming on the heels of recent developments with regard to Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese and the Jesuit-run America magazine.

More coverage from NCR

Editor of Jesuits' America magazine forced to resign under Vatican pressure  Posted May 13, 2005 at 12:52 p.m. CDT
Ouster troubles prominent Catholic journalists  Posted May 13, 2005 at 12:52 p.m. CDT
NCR Editorial: A priest to celebrate, not sack Posted May 13, 2005 at 12:52 p.m. CDT
Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves by Sr. Joan Chittister. Posted May 12, 2005 at 3:15 p.m. CDT

By now, those developments are well-known. The May 20 issue of National Catholic Reporter, which went to the printer last night, chronicle the the Reese case and reactions to its fallout.

Here I can only clarify one point that has been a bit fuzzy in some of the public discussion.

Everyone acknowledges that over the last five years, concerns about certain articles published by America on topics as diverse as condoms, gay priests, the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, and pro-choice Catholic politicians have reached the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the congregation in turn raised these concerns with the superior general of the Jesuit order, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

What has confused some observers, however, is whether or not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letter demanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in these discussions.

Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May 11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, before Ratzinger's election as pope, to Kolvenbach. I have not seen the letter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order to remove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see a change in direction at America. The Jesuit sources said, however, that the thrust of the letter was clear -- that Reese's position was no longer tenable.

I also do not know if that letter was signed by Ratzinger. What I can report with certainty is that over the past five years, Ratzinger personally raised the concerns about America in his conversations with Kolvenbach. Like other religious superiors, Kolvenbach meets with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss cases involving members of his order, and it was in the context of those routine conversations that America arose.

I can also confirm that one other Jesuit publication, the German journal Stimmen der Zeit, has also generated concerns from the doctrinal office to the Jesuits, though that case is described as "on-going" and no conclusions have been reached.

Of course, people will reach different conclusions about all of this. Some will see it as an overdue assertion of discipline with regard to publications officially sponsored by religious orders, while others fear an attempt to choke off reasonable, adult discussion of difficult issues. However, one should make no mistake that while Pope Benedict will strive to be a man of forbearance and dialogue, his will also be an uncompromising pontificate on what he perceives as matters of faith -- and Fr. Reese will probably not be the last Catholic to find that out the hard way.

* * *

History, as wags have noted, is where logic goes to die.

Thus it is that Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the Catholic church's most ardent battlers against Marxism, made his first diplomatic move an act of outreach to the world's last remaining Communist states, however titular that label may be these days, in China and Vietnam.

The occasion was Pope Benedict's first meeting with the diplomats accredited to the Holy See, which took place in the Sala Regia, just off the Sistine Chapel, on Thursday May 12. Normally in these speeches, the introductory greetings are pro forma, while the meat comes later. This time, however, the news was in the opening salute.

"While addressing myself to you, my thoughts also go to the countries of which you are the representatives and to their leaders," the pope said, speaking in French.

"I also think of the nations with which the Holy See does not yet maintain diplomatic relations. Some of them joined the celebrations at the time of the death of my predecessor and my election to the See of Peter. Having appreciated such gestures, I wish today to express my gratitude to them, and to address a deferential greeting to the civil authorities of these countries, expressing the wish to see them as soon as possible represented to the Apostolic See."

Though the pope didn't mention any nations by name, the reference to China and Vietnam, countries with substantial Catholic populations but lacking diplomatic relations with the Holy See, seemed obvious. In a televised discussion immediately afterwards on Telepace, an Italian Catholic TV channel, Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Vatican representative to the United States, said that the pope wanted to demonstrate "openness," especially to China.

Some observers believe that Pope Benedict also has Saudi Arabia in mind as a nation with which the Holy See does not presently have diplomatic relations.

"It would be hard to avoid the conclusion" that Pope Benedict had China and Vietnam especially in mind, said Brent Hardt, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, who represented America in the absence of an ambassador at the May 12 event.

While China did not send a representative to John Paul II's funeral, it did send a message of condolence. Vietnam's Ambassador to Italy, Le Vinh Thu, attended the funeral on behalf of the Vietnamese government, and Vietnamese diplomats signed books of condolences in other countries where the Holy See has diplomatic missions.

"It's only a question of timing to officially establish diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Vatican," Vietnam President Tran Duoc Luong said earlier this year in a talk with visiting President Ferdinando Casini of the Italian parliament.

Hardt said that in his personal greetings to the new pope after his speech, he assured him that "the prayers of the American people are with him," and invited Pope Benedict to visit the United States "at his earliest opportunity."

As Hardt and his wife Saskia left, he told NCR, the pope said to them, "God bless America."

"This event demonstrates the international respect, not just for this pope, but that the Holy See has earned," Hardt said.

Benedict XVI indicated his desire to be a voice for peace in international affairs.

"I come from a country where peace and brotherhood are close to the hearts of its people," he said, "especially of those who, like myself, experienced war and the separation between brothers of the same nation because of destructive and inhumane ideologies that under the pretext of dreams and illusions placed the burden of oppression on the human person."

A new American ambassador to the Holy See has been selected, sources told NCR, and an announcement is expected later this month or in early June. The ambassador would then have to be confirmed by the United States Senate and could be in place sometime over the summer.

* * *

In a brief exchange with Israeli Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur after the session with diplomats, Benedict XVI said that when he travels to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day in August, he also plans to visit the Jewish synagogue in Cologne. He will become the second pope since the era of Peter to visit a Jewish place of worship, after John Paul II's historic 1986 visit to the Rome synagogue. It's a clear sign that Benedict wants to build on his predecessor's outreach to Judaism.

The Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest in Europe north of the Alps, and at the time of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 numbered some 20,000 people. Roughly 11,000 Jews from Cologne perished during the Holocaust, and the rest fled to other countries. The community was rebuilt after the Second World War, and today numbers 4,000 members.

Given that Pope Benedict grew up in Hitler's Germany, the visit to the synagogue will have biographical as well as spiritual and political resonance.

* * *

Because then-Cardinal Ratzinger was such a public figure, reactions to his election as Pope Benedict XVI ranged from elation to concern, depending upon one's perspective. One quarter in which there was some initial concern was in ecumenical circles, although the new pope's repeated expressions of commitment to ecumenism have done much to reassure those anxieties.

Among Anglicans, the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at both the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI was a powerful signal of the distance traveled in Anglican-Catholic relations. The funeral Mass, in fact, witnessed the remarkable gathering of the archbishop of Canterbury, the British prime minister, and the heir to the British throne at a Catholic liturgy in Rome.

Anglican Bishop Stephen Platten of Wakefield, England, was in Rome on May 11, and gave a talk on ecumenism at the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita, where an English-speaking Catholic community gathers for worship Sunday mornings at 11 a.m.

Platten, who served as ecumenical aide to previous archbishops of Canterbury Robert Runcie and George Carey, said he has been "happily surprised" by the early ecumenical overtures of the new pope. He admitted that his first response was apprehension.

"I was standing in my study when my wife ran down the stairs saying, 'It's Ratzinger!' I thought, 'Oh, right,'" he said. Moments later, however, an FM radio station rang asking for comment, which, Platten said, forced him to think things through rather than lapsing into a knee-jerk response.

"We've been surprised in the past by popes," Platten said. "I think of John XXIII, but also John Paul II … surprised both positively and negatively. With John Paul II, I have huge admiration, but also some areas in which I think we didn't move forward as we might have, especially in responding to the Second Vatican Council."

With Pope Benedict XVI, Platten said, "We are dealing with someone who is a first-rate theologian, who will be understandable within the Western tradition of theology, whether we agree or disagree."

Morever, Platten said, Benedict may be willing to engage a towering issue that some believe prevents progress towards structural unity -- the question of power.

"The few hints one has picked up lead me to feel rather more sanguine about pursuing one of the key issues in Vatican II, which is collegiality," Platten said. "If we really want to look at where problems lie in Anglican/Roman Catholic relations, as in many other dialogues, it almost always boils down to authority."

"There are other issues, but in the end it's authority that matters, which is inextricably bound up with collegiality and how you articulate the sensus fidelium," Platten said. "You can only do it if the notion of collegiality is taken seriously."

Some discussion at the Caravita gathering was devoted to a new document from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, the official vehicle for dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics, titled "Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ." The document is set to be released in Seattle on May 16, with a joint vespers service at Rome's Anglican Church of All Saints to be led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, scheduled for May 22.

The document's aim is to identify what Anglicans and Catholics share in attitudes towards Mary, rooted in scripture and tradition, and to understand Catholic dogmas on Mary within that shared inheritance. The delicate nature of that undertaking was in evidence at Caravita, where Platten, who said he had read only a summary of the text, wondered aloud if the document smuggled in a "Catholic grammar" that might be alien to Anglican self-understanding.

Fr. Donald Bolen, an aide to Kasper, urged the audience to await the release of the document before forming judgments. He noted that the question of the authority by which the Catholic church proclaimed dogmas such as Mary's Immaculate Conception or her Assumption was, by definition, outside the purview of the body that produced the new document.

* * *

Two religious women will join the ranks of the blessed tomorrow, May 14, in a beatification ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica. Mother Marianne Cope of New York, and Spanish sister Florentina Nicol Goni, also known as Mother Ascension del Corazon de Jesus, will thus be the first beati in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

A German immigrant who was raised in Utica, New York, Cope died in 1918 at age 80. She helped establish St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Utica in 1866, and three years later helped form Syracuse's first hospital, now St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center. In 1877, she was elected provincial superior of her religious community.

Cope and six other Franciscan sisters went to Hawaii in 1883 to work with leprosy patients at the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai alongside the famous Belgian missionary, Fr. Damien DeVeuster, who also is a candidate for sainthood. She spent three decades working with victims of leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, prior to her death.

Goni was the founder of a women's religious order called the Dominican Missionaries of the Rosary.

Aside from the American connection with Cope, the beatifications have attracted attention for another reason: Pope Benedict XVI will not preside at the ceremony, and is not expected to be present. Instead, Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will lead the ceremony.

In so doing, the Vatican reverts to the tradition that the pope performs canonizations and other officials carry out beatifications, which had been the case until 1971, when Pope Paul VI elected to preside personally at the beatification of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Pope John Paul II, of course, personally presided over the beatifications of 1,338 beati, a record that's as close to unbeatable as such things come in papal annals.

Some have read this shift, not entirely unreasonably, as an indication that Pope Benedict XVI's papacy will be less personal, less theatrical, than that of his immediate predecessor. However that may be, the reasoning for the change is, in the first place, theological. Experts in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and elsewhere have long been concerned that the distinction between beatification and canonization had become blurred, given that both have recently been treated as papal galas, with little ceremonial distinction.

When someone is beatified, the pope allows members of the person's religious order and Catholics in the place the person lived to celebrate the newly beatified person's feast day Mass and hold other public acts of veneration. Canonization, on the other hand, is an official papal declaration that the person -- now recognized as a saint -- is to be venerated throughout the Catholic church. A beatification does not involve the pope's infallibility, whereas a canonization does.

Probably many people who watched the massive beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa in Rome in October 2003, however, came away thinking that she was now officially a saint, and will be puzzled when another ceremony is eventually staged. It's that kind of confusion the Vatican wants to eliminate.

A senior Vatican official told NCR May 10 that in the future, it's likely that beatifications won't be held in Rome at all, but in the diocese where the cause originated, and will be led not by Vatican officials but by the local bishop. In that way, he said, the local character of a beatification will be more clearly visible.

* * *

Speaking of beatifications, Pope Benedict XVI announced May 13 that at the request of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar for the Rome diocese, he has waived the mandatory five-year waiting period before a process of beatification can begin for Pope John Paul II. The decision means the cause can open immediately.

It does not, however, mean that John Paul II will be declared blessed next week. The process of collecting testimony and preparing documentation to ascertain that the late pope lived a life of "heroic virtue," which then has to be approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and eventually by the pope, will take time. Then a miracle due to John Paul's intervention has to be established, and that too has to be approved by medical and theological experts who work for the congregation.

The last time this happened was for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 and was beatified in 2003. Hence it will doubtless be a matter of years before a beatification ceremony is staged for John Paul II, but the outcome does not seem in serious doubt.

One possible miracle is already on the record. Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers, has attributed the 1990 healing of a three-year-old boy suffering from terminal leukemia to a blessing the boy received from the Pope during a trip to Mexico. The young man is now 19 and in good health.

The official notice from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said Pope Benedict had communicated his decision to Ruini on April 28, just nine days after his election. During the General Congregation meetings of cardinals in the interregnum, a petition was signed by many cardinals asking that the next pope waive the waiting period. The May 13 announcement is also, therefore, a first, small signal that Pope Benedict intends to make good on his vow to act collegially on what he hears from cardinals and bishops.

* * *

I'd like to offer a quick note of thanks to "Word from Rome" readers for their patience while I worked on a new book about the conclave and the direction of the new papacy. For those who are interested, the book, The Rise of Benedict XVI : The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church, may be pre-ordered at

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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