At the beginning of April 2005, the Catholic Church faced a difficult question: Who could possibly succeed Pope John Paul II? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, previously thought too old, was elected, the most worthy available successor, even if he insisted that after the “great pope” he was only a “humble worker in the vineyard.” Humble but most formidable.
Who, then, would succeed Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)? That was in some ways an even more difficult question.
There was literally no candidate who could do what Cardinal Ratzinger had done. The most gifted bishop-theologian of his generation, Cardinal Ratzinger could not be replaced. There was speculation that the new pope, Benedict XVI, would reach into the same world of theological scholarship whence he came, but who?
When Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco was chosen as the new CDF prefect in May 2005, there was widespread surprise. He was astute, but not a scholarly academic. And he was an American! The highest-ranking American in the history of the Roman Curia, it would turn out, at a time when the prestige of the CDF — La Suprema as it was once known in Rome — was at its peak.
Benedict XVI had no need of a theological adviser at the CDF; he could handle that on his own. But his 24 years of service there made him aware of two critical priorities: the importance of the CDF in ensuring that the Roman Curia as a whole thought theologically and the priority of the CDF in dealing with sexual-abuse cases. Cardinal Levada could attend to both tasks.
When, less than a year later, the case against Father Marcial Maciel — the fraudulent, corrupt and wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — was brought to a successful conclusion, it demonstrated that Cardinal Levada could do the second task. He would continue what his predecessor had started.
In 2010, Levada would strengthen the legal provisions for sexual abuse brought in under St. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001, and the CDF would mandate reporting to civil authorities.
The great example of helping the Curia to think theologically, rather than bureaucratically or even politically, was the establishment of the “personal ordinariates” for former Anglicans who wished to become Catholics that was accomplished during Cardinal Levada’s tenure. It was a generous and creative ecumenical gesture, allowing groups of Anglicans to enter into full communion with Rome while maintaining their distinctive Anglican patrimony.
Perhaps Cardinal Levada’s papers might be posthumously researched and published so that the fascinating tale of the ordinariates might be fully told. Suffice it to say that the professional ecumenists in the Roman Curia, led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Council for Christian Unity, thought the ordinariates were a bad idea. They might offend the Anglican Communion or perhaps even the Orthodox, who find the existence of diverse rites in the Catholic Church distasteful.
The entire initiative appeared to point in the direction of what the professional ecumenists consider to be the much-loathed “unity of return,” in which Protestants become Catholic, rather than some as-yet-undefined hybrid. Cardinal Levada’s CDF, working with the papal household, got the whole matter done with some deft bureaucratic maneuvering, needed precisely to avoid bureaucratic inertia stifling the movement of the Holy Spirit.
As a legacy gift to the personal ordinariates, Cardinal Levada’s personal secretary while prefect, Steven Lopes, is now their bishop in North America.
How did Cardinal Levada come to Pope Benedict’s attention? He first served as an official in the CDF as a priest from 1976 to 1983, so there was brief overlap with the beginning of Cardinal Ratzinger’s service as prefect. But it was his appointment in 1986 — the same year he was made archbishop of Portland — to the editorial committee of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that brought him more directly into contact with Cardinal Ratzinger.
Cardinal Ratzinger could assess Archbishop Levada’s work, as one of six bishops on that committee, on one of the most important initiatives of the post-Vatican II period.
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