OAKLAND — The Vatican’s new chief theological watchdog, former archbishop of San Francisco William Joseph Levada, has been bemoaned in some circles as a doctrinal conservative. But he is receiving praise from at least one liberal stronghold: the Bay Area’s Jewish community.
Levada became the highest-ranking American in the history of the Roman Catholic Church when he was tapped last month by Pope Benedict XVI to succeed him as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Vatican body is charged with promoting Catholic morals and beliefs and disciplining clergy who challenge church dogma.
Despite falling on the opposite side of Levada on a host of social issues, Jewish communal leaders in San Francisco are hailing him as a “mensch” who has a keen interest in Jewish-Catholic relations.
“I think he carries back to Rome a history of very strong, positive relations with the Jewish community and an awareness of the concerns of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Jonathan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in San Francisco, sounded a similar note, saying that Levada has “been very empathetic to a lot of concerns of the Jewish community, and has been quick to respond when we’ve called.”
Some Jewish observers also expressed comfort with Levada (pronounced Leh-VAY-dah) on wider policy issues, noting that he had managed to project a moderate image even as he upheld the church’s conservative positions.
Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, Northern California’s largest congregation, cited Levada’s bargain with city officials over an ordinance requiring agencies with municipal contracts to extend benefits to domestic partners. City tax dollars kept flowing to Catholic Charities as the archdiocese granted marriagelike benefits to any legally domiciled person in an employee’s household, with Levada — who is an ardent opponent of gay marriage — framing the decision as a show of support for expanding health care coverage, not gay rights.
“It shows someone who is practical and who is interested and willing to find a way to resolve conflicts,” Pearce said. “Obviously he is filling a position that demands a strong adherence to church doctrine, but I believe they have selected someone who also understands how to be conciliatory and how to find compromises.”
A California native, Levada served as the archbishop of Portland, Ore., from 1986 to 1995 before assuming his post in San Francisco.
As archbishop of Portland, Levada drew liberal praise for publicly opposing an ultimately unsuccessful 1992 state ballot measure equating homosexuality with pedophilia, and requiring state and local government to set a standard for youth “which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.”
Levada did a “gutsy thing,” said Rabbi Emanuel Rose, religious leader of Portland’s Congregation Beth Israel, the largest synagogue in Oregon. “I really wasn’t expecting it, but I was proud to see he did it,” Rose recalled. “The editor of the Oregonian, who is a practicing Catholic, did something unprecedented in writing a front-page editorial, as I recall, against that bill. I can’t help but believe he felt empowered to do that as a result of what the archbishop had done.”
Rose also praised Levada for agreeing to speak at Beth Israel during a Sabbath service.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Levada quickly made good impressions on the Jewish community: first by promising the American Jewish Committee’s regional board members that he’d work to broaden the good relations his predecessor had built, and later by joining local rabbis at a memorial service for victims of a string of suicide bombings in Israel.
Levada is “a good listener,” said the ADL’s Bernstein, adding, “You feel when you meet with him that he really hears what you’re saying and responds to that rather than giving pat answers to things.”
The ADL invited Levada to a 2004 board meeting to discuss Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” which many Jewish communal leaders argued resurrected antisemitic claims about the Jews’ role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Levada listened carefully, according to Bernstein, and soon wrote an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle stating that a true understanding of Jesus “rejects any interpretation of the events of the passion and the death of Christ that imputes to Jews in general… a responsibility for his death.” Levada wrote that he had not yet seen the movie, but when he did he would “try to see it through the eyes of my Jewish brothers and sisters as well…. And I hope that they will know that there are Christians committed to stand in solidarity with them against any resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own country or abroad.”
Dialogue forums co-sponsored by the ADL and the archdiocese soon followed. Bernstein said he was “very much” satisfied with Levada’s handling of the situation.
“He has to balance a lot of different interests within his own church and within the broader community, and I felt he stuck out his neck enough for us to take a strong position on this movie,” Bernstein said. “It’s going to be a very positive thing for Jews all over the world to have someone in this position from America, who knows not just how Jews can live in a diverse society but people from all different backgrounds,” Bernstein said. “I think he’s going to bring a real commitment to multiculturalism.”