Levada a John Paul II Conservative

Archbishop William J. Levada, head of the San Francisco Archdiocese, is viewed as doctrinaire but pragmatic.
Archbishop William J. Levada, head of the San Francisco Archdiocese, is viewed as doctrinaire but pragmatic. (Lou Dematteis - Reuters)
By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, May 13 -- Early last spring, shortly after San Francisco's month-long spree of same-sex weddings, Archbishop William J. Levada set out to show the world that not everyone here marched to the gay-marriage drumbeat.

He stood outside a church before 1,000 Catholics and admonished the faithful to "keep society on the right track." The 4,000 same-sex marriage licenses given to couples here represented a "regression in society," he said. It was time to "stand up for the bedrock of society" and support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he said. Then, in his starched, imposing robes, he led the group on a five-block march through the crowded streets of North Beach.

Levada was well known as an openly conservative John Paul II Catholic in a vigorously liberal, heavily secular city. And, as the new prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Levada may easily adhere to the doctrines enforced by his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who now is Pope Benedict XVI.

Yet Levada's 10-year tenure here as the head of the San Francisco Archdiocese cannot be called strictly doctrinaire.

Levada, 68, receives low marks from victims of church sex abuse, who say he has followed the church hierarchy's lead in moving too slowly -- doing too little, too late -- to remove priests accused of sexual abuse, both here and as the archbishop of Portland, Ore., from 1986 to 1995. The Portland Archdiocese was the nation's first to seek bankruptcy protection from creditors because of abuse cases.

But Levada has been praised for a compromise he agreed to after San Francisco passed a law requiring all entities contracting with the city to extend health insurance and other spousal benefits to domestic partners. After Levada said the law created a "problem of conscience" regarding Catholic teachings on homosexual activity, a compromise was reached that said "any legally domiciled member" of an employee's household would be eligible for spousal-equivalent benefits.

In the unofficial gay capital of the nation, Levada has allowed Most Holy Redeemer, a 450-member parish in the city's largely gay Castro district where most of the parishioners are openly gay, lesbian or transgendered, to thrive.

Yet he has not been shy about opposing homosexual practices. San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is gay and Catholic, said Levada's tenure here has been marked by an "exclusion and non-pastoring to San Francisco's large gay and lesbian community."

Ammiano added: "There are many straight parishioners here who are disenchanted with Levada's leadership as well, because of the wholesale selling of church buildings and closing down of parishes to pay for sexual molestation litigation fees, and the strong feeling across the nation that the church has turned its back on that."

Levada's conservatism has brought him to the highest echelons of power at the Vatican, though his background seems to have groomed him for a place in the Catholic Church's capital. The fourth-generation Californian, whose ancestry is Portuguese and Irish, received his doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and held a midlevel position on the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1976 to 1982.

During his final year in Rome, he worked for Ratzinger, and they have maintained close ties. In 1999, Levada hosted Ratzinger on a visit to the United States for a conference on ecumenism, or relations with other Christian denominations.

"We should not be surprised that Benedict would choose someone who agrees with him on basic theological issues," said Paul V. Murphy, director of the Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought at the University of San Francisco. "But what may be interesting is that he's picking someone who on occasion has demonstrated the political acumen and diplomatic ability to avoid train wrecks and allow discussions to move forward."

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