Cardinal Levada on Pope Benedict, the CDF and the Prosecution of Clergy Sexual Abuse

The prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith defends its role as a source of unity for the universal Church, and its expertise in the prosecution of clergy sexual abuse cases.

Cardinal William Levada
Cardinal William Levada (photo: Archdiocese of San Francisco website)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Amid calls for the decentralization of the Roman Curia by some Church leaders and theologians, Cardinal William Levada, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), underscored the CDF’s crucial role as the arbiter of faith and morals for the universal Church.

Cardinal Levada also suggested that the CDF was especially qualified to oversee the prosecution of clergy abuse cases, a responsibility given to the congregation by Pope St. John Paul II in his 2001 document  Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, issued motu proprio (on the pope’s own initiative).

Over the past month, media outlets have reported on proposals within the Vatican to shift the prosecution of abuse cases to another dicastery. These reports have not been publicly confirmed, and Cardinal Levada did not address them directly. Rather, he reflected on the CDF’s unique expertise in dealing with these often-complicated cases over the past 16 years.

Cardinal Levada, 80, the former archbishop of San Francisco who retired as prefect of the CDF in 2012, offered his comments during a wide-ranging Register interview on Jan. 9 at his residence on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. The conversation touched on his decades of service to the Church as a theologian, bishop and prefect of the CDF, and he also discussed the legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

As some Church leaders and scholars press for reforms of the Roman Curia that could give more power to national bishops’ conferences in the interests of collegiality and synodality, there has been talk of giving national bishops’ conferences the power to chart an independent course on questions related to faith and morals.

Cardinal Levada discounted such talk and predicted that the CDF’s enormous value as a source of unity for the universal Church would be recognized and secured.

“Bishops’ conferences can grapple with pretty much anything they want,” Cardinal Levada told the Register, as he recalled his own work with fellow bishops at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He characterized the relationship between the congregation and national bishops’ conferences as a “give-and-take.” And he noted that it is “very important to have a prefect who has had the experience of being a bishop because, in a certain sense, the bishops are the principal clients of the Roman Curia, so there needs to be dialogue about trying to put the Pope’s directives into practice and then bringing to the Pope the problems that are surfacing.”

But he questioned proposals that call for the CDF’s role to be downplayed and for the national conferences to be given more independence — as if the Vatican were “like the European Union,” faced with the threatened exit of countries eager for more autonomy.

“I don’t think that would be a useful proposal,” he said. “It seems based on a mindset regarding Church structures that is almost entirely derived from a political view of structures, and that doesn’t take into account the theological roots of the Church: how the structures should seek to preserve and enhance what Jesus himself has left us and established as the Church.”  

“It is not simply organizational. It is a part of divine revelation that Jesus intended to found a Church and is the head of his body the Church,” he added.

“Those are discussions that will continue to go on, but I don’t expect any dramatic decentralization,” Cardinal Levada said. “There are things that can be decentralized. But ‘independence’ is not the nature of the relationship. It is solidarity and cohesion.”

During his years as prefect of the CDF during Pope Benedict’s pontificate, Cardinal Levada was also responsible for overseeing the resolution of clergy sexual-abuse cases and would present the requests for laicization of priests credibly accused of such crimes during his weekly meetings with the Pope.

At present, once an accusation of sexual abuse involving a minor is leveled against a priest, his bishop and others conduct a preliminary investigation to establish whether the allegation has “the semblance of truth.”

If it does, the case is immediately referred to the CDF, which decides whether the CDF will handle it or send it back to the bishop. The CDF also decides whether there will be trial or an administrative procedure, which usually involves less complex cases.

“The experience that the CDF now has in the implementation of the motu proprio would favor the fact that it continues to do this,” said Cardinal Levada.

Over the years, the CDF has also established the proper disciplinary actions to be taken in such cases, “with the participation of highly qualified canonists working and teaching in Rome.” While there is general uniformity in imposing penalties, individual cases are also scrutinized, with “the gravity of scandal and the problem of recidivism” taken into consideration. Further, he noted that the congregation has “gained vast experience in how to handle the experience of different countries and the interface with legal and police authorities.”

Cardinal Levada praised the Holy See’s effort to make the protection of minors and vulnerable adults the “gold standard” of the Church across the globe, but he acknowledged that even within the Curia “there still were those who do not understand the value of the delicate — often difficult — measures needed to insure the protection of minors from sexual abuse, including penalties for those guilty of such abuse.”

“Not everyone was on board, but they understood Pope Benedict’s position. I was very clear about that in talks I gave and in working with various congregations of which I was a member,” he said.

A California native who was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Levada received a doctorate in fundamental and dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

As a young theology instructor at St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (1970-1976), he discovered one of Father Joseph Ratzinger’s seminal works, Introduction to Christianity, and quickly added it to the syllabus for the course, a decision that marked his immediate respect for the German theologian, who would later choose him as his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Subsequently, from 1976 to 1982, Father Levada served as an official of the CDF and continued to teach theology part time at the Gregorian. After he had served as a CDF official for a number of years in the early 1980s, he was thrilled to learn that Pope John Paul II had appointed the German theologian, then archbishop of Munich, as the new prefect of the CDF.

From the beginning, Father Levada was struck by Cardinal Ratzinger’s collegiality, humility and brilliance. “When he was prefect, he came into our working group, rolled up his sleeves — figuratively speaking. He listened, then summed up the discussion, and it was exactly right.

“He had such a great mind, and a synthetic mind, to be able to listen to people and then propose a consensus about some specific action or formulation of a doctrinal truth,” Cardinal Levada remembered.

After serving under Cardinal Ratzinger for one year, Father Levada returned to the United States and was appointed to a series of high-profile episcopal posts, including archbishop of Portland, Oregon, and then archbishop of San Francisco from 1995 to 2005. 

While he was archbishop of Portland, Pope John Paul announced plans for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and named Cardinal Ratzinger the chairman of the commission that would prepare a series of drafts of the Catechism. Archbishop Levada was one of seven bishops from around the world invited by Cardinal Ratzinger to join the editorial committee.

“For six years, I worked closely with him on the Catechism,” Cardinal Levada recalled. “That really had a central impact on my ministry and my life. It was such a great blessing to have so much of the doctrinal confusion resolved in a specific and unifying manner by the formulation of the truths of the faith in a way that was not hostile or polemical.”

Once the Catechism was published in 1992, Archbishop Levada sought to promote its use in Catholic schools and CCD programs, seminaries and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“This was something Cardinal Ratzinger very much appreciated and found supportive of his efforts and those of the congregation,” he noted. “One of the key things on his mind when he was elected pope was to use the Catechism in an effective way in the teaching of the faith.”

After Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Levada traveled to Rome to offer his congratulations. During their conversation, “Pope Benedict said, ‘Listen, Your Excellency. I have something I want to say to you.’” The American archbishop stopped talking and was flabbergasted when the Pope asked him to be the prefect of the CDF. “I was astonished. I said, ‘I am not a great theologian.’”

Later, though, as Cardinal Levada reflected on his appointment, he better understood the Holy Father’s thinking.

“He is a great theologian; and now he is Pope, and he doesn’t need a great theologian as prefect. He needs someone who knows the congregation — its personnel and procedures — who speaks Italian and who has had experience dealing with the sex-abuse crisis,” the cardinal reasoned.

As prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Levada met weekly with Pope Benedict for about an hour.

“To have the Pope as your immediate superior, who had your same job, you might think he would micromanage, but there was none of that in his approach,” he said.

Cardinal Levada submitted his resignation as prefect in 2012 at age 76, though he remained engaged in the work of numerous congregations and various papal commissions.

Pope Benedict’s decision to renounce his papal office came as a shock to Cardinal Levada, who was in California when he heard the news. Since then, however, he has come to appreciate the enormous importance of the pope emeritus’ decision to resign his office and live out his retirement on the grounds of the Vatican.

Pope Benedict’s resignation will now be an important part of his legacy, he predicted. It means that “someone who receives the votes from the cardinals in the conclave does not have to be concerned about ‘What will happen if I am sick or have a stroke, or cannot fulfill my duties as pope?’ That has been resolved by Pope Benedict’s decision to resign.”

The Pope’s decision to live on the grounds of the Vatican and devote himself to a life of prayer for the Church and his successor, he added, need not be the only path for a retired pontiff, but it does address potential issues that could generate tensions within the Church.

“It is a useful thing for us to see how he now continues a certain Petrine ministry of prayer and sacrifice on behalf of his successor,” the cardinal said. “He wanted to make sure he would never be viewed as a rival of his successor. There is no question that he is praying for his successor.”

Asked to comment on Pope Emeritus Benedict’s legacy, Cardinal Levada acknowledged the German Pope’s many achievements and drew attention in particular to his towering contribution as a homilist.

“Part of his extraordinary legacy is his homilies: his understanding of the liturgy and the way Scripture and the liturgical text can be applied and need to be applied in the homily for a feast-day celebration,” he said.

“He has given some of the most extraordinary homilies, and as the collections of those homilies are translated and come out in English, it will be a great part of his legacy for the Church in the U.S.”

Cardinal Levada also praised Benedict’s gifts as a writer who valued clarity of expression and who effectively mined spiritually powerful scriptural and liturgical images.

“You can trace his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) to the seminal ideas of his book Introduction to Christianity and how we envision God,” noted Cardinal Levada.

“God is a relationship. God is love. The relationship between Father, Son and Spirit is fundamentally a spiritual relationship of love, and that is the fundamental reality of creation.”

“These are dramatically important insights he offered to a technological age that wants to solidify everything according to a scientific pattern,” he concluded.

For Pope Benedict, then, the Holy Trinity “becomes a kind of poetic inspiration for all his work,” Cardinal Levada said. “At the base of everything is God, as Father, Son and Spirit, three divine Persons in one nature, a relationship of love.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.