Promoting the Faith: An Interview With William J. Levada

The Office of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is reached by staircase or elevator up one level from the inner courtyard at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio, 11, near the end of the colonnade that wraps around the Piazza San Pietro. The dome of St Peter’s Basilica, designed six centuries ago by Michelangelo, is in partial view from all the office windows.
On March 7 I met with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the congregation who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2005. We met in a sitting room adjoining the office in preparation for his visit to John Carroll University to give the Margaret F. Grace Annual Lecture on April 24. The cardinal appeared relaxed and immediately recalled in exact detail an invitation we extended him in 1996 to give the keynote address at the opening event of the Cardinal Suenens Center. It had been sent with the personal encouragement of Cardinal Leon-Josef Suenens, who wrote in his memoirs that Monsignor Levada and he were on the same wave length.

You spoke recently to the Belgian periodical Mondiaal Neuws about the development of doctrine and used the nuclear bomb as an example of how the magisterium is usually far behind in the evolution of moral challenges. Could you describe another moral issue that has changed over time?

I’m particularly fascinated by the history of slavery, especially when the enormous historic slave trade was particularized as the African-American slave trade. It’s remarkable how black America chose the Exodus as a theme of liberation. In the Bible as a whole there is no explicit moral challenge to slavery as an existing cultural system. It’s simply a given reality. St. Paul returns Onesimus to his master and tells Philemon to treat him as an equal, but Paul does not make this a moral obligation. There is a long tradition in the church of accepting the institution of slaveryJohn Noonan points this out effectivelybut in the light of the repeated teachings of modern popes and the Second Vatican Council on the dignity of the human person, church teaching has evolved from acceptance of slavery as part of the human condition to its eventual condemnation. Slave labor is now rightly regarded as evil and a moral outrage. If I were teaching theology today I would welcome a doctoral student doing historical-theological research on slavery from the beginnings of the church up to now. That would be an excellent area for serious study.


I assume you are referring to John Noonan’s book, A Church that Can and Cannot Change?

Yes, but also to conversations with John Noonan that were easier to come by when we were both living in the Bay Area. I’ve always admired John’s range of intellectual interests. He is a first-rate legal scholar, but he is also a philosopher comfortable in theology as well. What I appreciate is his dispassionate examination of the historical background of issues, even when the examination yields some embarrassing factsfor example, that some religious communities in the United States had slavesand then is able to offer insight about the development of doctrine opposing slavery. John has done this on other issues as wellcontraception, usury and abortion.

What else is on your shelf to read?

I’m about halfway through The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist. I’m fascinated by Dawkins because he writes about agnosticism, atheism and faith and is convinced that religion closes people’s minds to scientific truth. Engaging religion and science in conversation is important, so for me it’s necessary to understand Dawkins’s arguments.

Another is Peter Brown’s book on the cultural and religious transition from the Roman Empire to medieval times, The Rise of Western Christendom.

The title of your Grace lecture is Where Do I Find Hope? Where do you find hope?

The topic is more challenging than I first thought it would be. I finally decided to concretize my response in terms of two of the major contributions of Pope Benedicthis encyclical God Is Love and his Regensburg address. From the pope’s emphasis on two of the theological virtues, faith (at Regensburg) and love (the encyclical), it is possible to draw the conclusion that the gift of reason and the reasonableness of faith, and certainly the centrality of lovenot only love of neighbor but love of who God isthat those virtues are capable of motivating and generating a vision not only of the future but also of this world here and nowa vision that gives hope.

Even with fear of terrorism permeating people’s lives?

Yes, in spite of terrorism. These are definitely difficult times. That’s why the pope’s address at Regensburg wasand remainsa serious invitation to all people. God has given us all the light of reason. As Christians we believe that with the light of faith we can recognize that we already have the tools we need to be able to dialogue with our neighbors in the world and say no to violence. It’s a long-term goal and a long-term process, but reason and faith provide clear alternatives to violence, and these means need to be pursued with great urgency.

I heard yesterday in Krakow that the Jesuit Jon Sobrino is receiving a notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What is the context of the document?

Perhaps for the first time the notification is accompanied by an explanatory note that helps readers understand the process that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith goes through in the examination of a theologian’s writings. With regard to Father Sobrino, an active process has been going on since 2001.

The process before a notification appears involves correspondence and sometimes a meeting with the theologian whose works are being reviewed. The theologian’s superiorusually a bishop or, if the person belongs to a religious order, the head of the orderis in the loop from the beginning. There may be considerable back and forthrequests for clarifications and submissions of clarifications. When the clarifications are adequate, the process is closed. When inadequate, a notification is made public because the writings of the theologian are public. That’s what happened in the case of Father Sobrino.

The notification always concerns the public writings of a theologian. It is not based on hearsay or secondhand reports of what someone says the theologian is saying or on subjective intentions of the theologian. The focus is what the theologian has written and what’s in the public domain. The process is careful to invite the theologian to indicate his own understanding of how what he has written accords with Scripture and tradition.

I can’t help noticing that Jacques Dupuis, Roger Haight, Jon Sobrino are all Jesuits.

Yes, these Jesuits have received notifications in recent years from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but it is not because they are Jesuits but rather because of their writings that notifications were sent. There is no special attention given to Jesuits at the congregationfar from it. Writings of theologians who are not Jesuits have also received similar review. It is true, though, that the intellectual as well as spiritual formation of Jesuits often prepares them for service in areas of theology where they become specialists in their fields. Precisely because the writings of these major theologians are so diffuse, it is important to be clear about problematic areas and to identify particular formulations that are in error or that do not fully conform to what the church’s tradition is saying. But the congregation has always had, at least in recent years, Jesuits among its principal consultors as well.

An issue from the earliest days of Christendom has been how the word and in the expression human and divine is to be elucidated. How, for example, can Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane experience loneliness and abandonment by his friends and at the same time experience the immediate presence of the Father? Bishops and theologians at the earliest councils have wrestled with the mystery of the dual natures of Jesus. Can the wrestling continue with new insights and categories to help new generations?

The question Who do people say that the Son of Man is? is at the center of Christian faith. Catholic theologians have grappled over the centuries with what it means to be God and man. The bishops and theologians at the first several councils not only discussed the question but arrived at some answers that are dogmas of faith, and thus define for us the direction and parameters of how Christian theology will answer this question. Any answer that omits or downplays the true divinity or humanity of Christ will not be a true representation of the Christian faith. Of course new insights are still possible today. But theologians today, in their questioning, will not be true to the apostolic tradition if they attempt to provide new answers to this question that are not faithful to that tradition, as it has been refined and defined through centuries of theological thought and the decisions made by the bishops at the ecumenical councils (church magisterium). The dogmas of faith about Christ are already answers to the question given under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, and they are binding upon the faith of all the faithful, including theologians.

How long have you known Pope Benedict?

Pope Benedict came as prefect of this office in late 1981, when I was in my last year as an official in the congregation. I was here with him for four or five months. Later Cardinal Ratzinger appointed me to be a bishop-member of the editorial committee of the catechism project, and we met frequently, two or three times a year, sometimes for a period of a week or two at a time. We reviewed all of the 25,000 or so suggestions, amendments and other items sent in by the bishops of the world. At one point it was necessary to bring extra people in to help until we got the work done. I’ve known Pope Benedict over the years in different capacities, and I feel that I know him well enough through the work we are doing and have done together.

Is he different in some ways now as pope?

Yes and no. I see him now in a different role that requires him to step out on a very public stage, which he never had to do before. He has overcome a certain innate reserve so that he can accept his role comfortably, and I’m delighted to see that. At papal audiences, for example, his natural instinct now is to pay attention to babies. He shakes hands, extends his arms and seems very much like he wants to embrace the world. I think of this development as an actual grace from God. People find the pope very genuine and warm. He also has the ability to put any topic, especially complicated and more abstract ones, into very clear terms. In my dealings with him I have witnessed that he can sum things up in a few lines and get to the heart of what people are saying or are trying to say. His intellectual breadth and uncommon ability to synthesize lots of materialthose things have not changed.

Do you think he misses doing the work of this office?

Not exactly misses ithe continues to have a very keen interest in our work, because our questions move very slowly through a long process of review by commissions and consultations with theologians. Ultimately they come up for review at the level of the congregation, or meeting of cardinals and bishops, after which they are presented to the pope. Through my weekly visits with him we have an opportunity to bring him up to date with what’s going on in the congregation and what the status of the more significant questions is. We do this not only because he is interested but because the pope is the one who has the ultimate responsibility for teaching the faith, guarding the faith, promoting the faith. These responsibilities we have as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in service to the pope, so it’s important that the pope knows what we are doing. Along the way, if he wants to give us an orientation or direction, he can.

You meet with the pope weekly?

We meet on Fridays at 6 p.m. in the library of his apartment on the fourth floor of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. Thirty to 45 minutes would be the typical length of a meeting, and we speak in Italian. It’s more convenient for the pope, so that he doesn’t have to jump from language to language, even though he’s quite capable in many languages. Most of his work is in Italian now, the common language used in the Roman Curia.

Is your meeting strictly business?

It’s not chit chat, but some small talk that might be of interest to the pope, yes, there’s that. There are many things that I might refer to himarticles, news reports, meetings. I would also let him know items of my schedule related to the work in the congregation.

You are closely associated with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Is it what you and the commission hoped for?

I think none of us were quite sure in the beginning that it would be possible to put into one volume a complete, updated description of the faith. The result, I think, is that the catechism (published in 1992) turned out to be a major contribution to the church in the post-Vatican II era as a succinct expression of what the church believes. It has been received better in some circles than others. In the United States, in general, the catechism has served bishops as a guide for catechetical materials and theological education. Personally, I have found it very useful as a bishop in preparing homilies and articles. It’s the go-to book for basic orientation in contextualizing an issue. I’ve talked to bishops in other countries where the catechism was not received as well, sometimes because of initial criticism. I think that has been unfortunate.

Now there is a companion volume

Yes, the compendium that was approved by Pope Benedict shortly after he took office.

The compendium is shorter by intention, yet it does not include the phrase from the catechism that the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty. Is this a signal of development?

I think you are correct to note that there is a development of church teaching in the area of capital punishment. With regard to the compendium’s omission of a phrase from the catechism, I have asked those responsible for the compendium to indicate whether this is a signal of development, as you put it. The response to this is negative. The literary genre of the compendium is a brief presentation of essentials, and the omission is due to the need for brevity. Not everything said in the catechism could be included in the compendium, but the latter was careful not to introduce changes into the text of the catechism.

At the same time, the need to take into account Pope John Paul II’s development in regard to the death penalty, contained in his 1995 encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (No. 56), resulted in a change in the text from the first editions of the catechism (French, 1992; English, 1994) to the Latin typical edition published in 1997. A comparison of the English translation of 1994 and those made after 1997 will demonstrate the development in the catechism’s treatment of the death penalty to reflect, among other things, the papal teaching that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267).

It’s also important to remember that when we speak of the development of doctrinewe often think of the later Marian doctrines as classic examples of such development we are referring to a rereading of the tradition of the church from the Scriptures until now. As Pope Benedict has remarked, such development is characterized by its continuity, not discontinuity, with the apostolic tradition as taught and lived in the church through the centuries.

Would you say that the catechism and compendium have met expectations?

Both books are good examples of the primary focus of this congregation: the promotion of the faith. We are very aware at the congregation of the deliberate recommendation of the bishops in the postconciliar reform of Vatican II that this congregation would develop a positive orientation in its work, in addition to its traditional focus of rejecting heretical and erroneous teaching. And all of us are sincerely committed to that.

But I gather that’s not always possible?

It’s true that we spend a certain amount of our time safeguarding doctrineadvising theologians of errors in their work and doing so by taking every opportunity to correct in a way that does not become a public reprimand. I’m rather confident that if corrections took place by peers, if there were a functioning process of serious review and assessment in light of Catholic doctrine by theologians competent to evaluate the work of one of their own, there would be much less work for us to do in the congregation.

Evaluation by the academy?

Yes, by the academy. I like to insist that in addition to academic freedom there also exists an ecclesial freedomor more precisely, an ecclesial responsibility and obligationto engage problematic areas in the writings of theologians, especially major theologians who are the point-persons in their fields. If someone teaches Catholic theology as a Catholic theologian, then the church has an obligation to say what’s in the tradition and what isn’t.

We ended our conversation talking about prayer. What, I asked, does the cardinal pray for? First among his intentions are prayers for the pope, for himself and for the members of the curia for their work in service to the people of God by communicating and promoting the good news of the Gospel. He prays also and especially, he said, for the poor who live with the unjust effects of globalization and are pushed even further into misery and suffering. The work of the congregation, both global and personal in its scope, is in human hands that depend on wisdom, strength and guidance from prayer.

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11 years 8 months ago

You make it clear in your interview with Doris Donnelly that "Theologians will not be true to the apostolic tradition if they attempt to provide new answers that are not faithful to that tradition."(p.17) You also emphasized that Pope Benedict has stated that "development of doctrine" is "characterized by its continuity, not discontinuity, with the apostolic tradition as taught and lived in the church throughtout the centuries."(p.20)

I'm sure you must realize that any theologian who accepts the thinking of today's scripture scholars - good, Catholic scripture scholars - regarding the interpretation in Genesis of the creation of humans, and original sin, has to honestly start out attempting to provide new answers reflecting dicontinuity with centuries-old apostolic tradition. Doesn't the church have to be open to these recent interpretations, and therefore, open to those theologians who see these recent interpretations as giving them room to accept understanding of human evolution in much fuller terms than the church is usually willing to admit?


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