Pope Benedict XVI selected yesterday a San Francisco bishop with a reputation as a conservative theologian to take over his former job - one of the most powerful in the Catholic hierarchy and instrumental in shaping the direction of the church.
Archbishop William J. Levada will become the church's highest-ranking American cleric in history when he moves to Vatican City to become the guardian of Catholic doctrine as the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Levada is a friend and intellectual ally of the new pope, and his appointment is a clear signal that Pope Benedict plans to maintain a tightly focused notion of Catholic teaching throughout the world church.
Pope Benedict announced Levada's appointment the same day he revealed that he has personally intervened to allow his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, to be considered for sainthood immediately. Normally, the church does not consider a candidate for sainthood until five years after his or her death.
"The extraordinary experience of faith that we experienced with the death of our much-loved Pope John Paul II has shown us a Roman Church profoundly united, full of life and rich in enthusiasm," Pope Benedict told Roman clergy assembled for a meeting in the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
The pope's disclosure coincided with the anniversary of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul in St. Peter's Square and drew a standing ovation from the assembled clergy.
The Levada announcement was the less spectacularly delivered of the two, issued in a simple statement from the Vatican Information Office. But in terms of the new pontificate and the direction in which it will lead the church, it was the more significant.
"This is arguably the second most powerful position in the church," said Chester Gillis, author of Roman Catholicism in America and chairman of Georgetown University's theology department.
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore called Levada "one of the sharpest minds around. He has a great knowledge of church law and history."
Levada, 68, is a California native who previously worked on the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith staff with the new pope, enforcing church orthodoxy.
Still, the archbishop presided over dioceses based in two liberal, religiously diverse American cities and once brokered an agreement that potentially allowed gay partners to share health benefits. So, his pastoral experience will bring a distinctively American point of view to the Vatican.
Levada called his appointment a "tribute to the Church in the United States and a recognition of our important contribution to the work of the universal Church." In a statement yesterday, he pledged to "represent the Church here well at the Holy See, and to make the bonds between the See of Peter and the American bishops ever stronger."
Before he became pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided for 24 years over the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, once known as the Inquisition. Through the position, Ratzinger established himself as an influential interpreter of the reforms that came out of the Second Vatican Council and a confidant of Pope John Paul II.
He issued several controversial edicts, among them punishments of Catholic clergy he thought veered away from church teaching, and decisions that centralized authority at the Vatican. It was his office that pressured the Jesuit weekly America to force its editor, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, to step down last week. Reese had repeatedly published articles on controversial church topics.
Levada was born and raised in Long Beach. After high school, he attended four years of seminary college in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Identified early on as a potential leader in the church, he was chosen to continue his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He went on to receive a doctorate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
He worked in parishes in Los Angeles, taught theology and worked in church administration before he returned to Rome in 1976. There, Levada worked at the congregation between 1976 and 1982, meeting the future pope and learning about how the congregation handled some of the most controversial of church debates, such as female ordination, contraception and priestly celibacy.
He then returned to California, where Pope John Paul II elevated him to bishop as an auxiliary in Los Angeles and later as the archbishop to oversee the Portland, Ore., archdiocese. In 1995, he was appointed archbishop of San Francisco.
Ever since Levada returned from Rome, he has remained a trusted Vatican envoy in the United States. He was the only American bishop on the editorial committee overseeing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, in 2000, was named as a member to the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. In both capacities, he worked closely with Ratzinger.
Another significant appointment came when he was named to the joint commission of U.S. bishops and the Vatican that finalized the American policy toward priests accused of sexual abuse. The Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith is currently reviewing the policy.
The bishop is also keenly aware of the scandal from personal experience because his archdiocese has faced abuse allegations against priests. The appointment had particular reverberations among victims of abuse with one group quick to call the choice "an insensitive and unwise decision."
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement criticizing Levada's response to allegations as slow and secretive and "harsh to victims."
But it was also in San Francisco that Levada showed an ability to negotiate with his critics.
In 1997, San Francisco pressured all social service agencies receiving public money to offer benefits to domestic partners. Though the Catholic Church rejects gay unions and any legislation that would legitimize them, Levada suggested that agencies allow employees to designate any person of their choosing to receive benefits. Thereby the church retained fiscal support without condoning same-sex unions.
"It was a very creative solution to a tricky problem," said Margaret Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.
Such experience will be crucial to a pope who plans to re-energize Catholicism and combat secularization in the West, said Steinfels. "The United States in some ways presents an enormous challenge to the Catholic Church. If the Vatican can figure out how to maintain Catholicism in the United States, maybe they can figure out how to do it elsewhere."