Volume four, Issue 20 | May 19 - 25, 2005


Levada an Enigma in San Francisco

Archbishop succeeds Ratzinger in doctrinal post; hometown jury is out on the prospects


Archbishop William Levada came to San Francisco in 1995 with strong credentials as a conservative—to straighten out the archdiocese’s floundering finances, deal with the child abuse scandals then just starting to emerge, and to quash, some observers feared at the time, an emerging tradition of liberalism there.

But during his 10 years in San Francisco Levada, now 68, has carefully held back from the most radical posture on abortion, has worked out a compromise with the city’s government to allow the church’s Catholic Charities to pay domestic partner benefits as city law requires, and has permitted a largely-gay parish to flourish in the city’s Castro district.

Yet, said the Washington Post on the day after his appointment last Friday to replace Pope Benedict XVI in his former role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Levada goes to Rome still maintaining his posture as “sharing Benedict’s conservative theological and social beliefs.”

Benedict, for whom Levada worked in the Vatican on and off between 1976 and 1982, has been denounced by gay and lesbian leaders since the day of his election. The new pope’s record “has been one of unrelenting, venomous hatred for gay people,” said the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Matt Foreman.

Ratzinger, head of the CDF since the early 1980s, was the author of the infamous 1986 Halloween Letter in which he described homosexuality as “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” Ratzinger also wrote, “When homosexual activity is… condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

Some observers call Levada, who will join Benedict in Rome in August, a politician. Others say enigma. But, said the pastor of the city’s gay-friendly parish, Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro district, he is like most American bishops, in a difficult straddle between the Vatican’s hard-line orthodoxies and the wishes of his diocesan flock.

During his tenure, Levada participated in protests against abortion and same sex marriage. In January of this year, anti-abortion activists staged a demonstration and march from downtown San Francisco to San Francisco Bay. Levada said Mass for the group in the city’s cathedral on the morning of the protest. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had, a week earlier, unanimously passed a resolution declaring the city to be a “pro-choice” zone. Mayor Gavin Newsom and several supervisors spoke out in a counter-protest in which they tried to block the anti-abortion group’s route.

“We were mocked, jeered. It was a horrible, horrible experience,” said John Gregson, one of the participants.

Levada looked on. “There he was, in a sort of tam-o’-shanter hat,” said Gregson, “on the sidelines, grinning.”

Formally, Levada has taken a hard-line position on abortion, but not as extreme as some of his fellow bishops. In a paper distributed to other American bishop he argued that that Catholics are more bound on issues such as abortion or euthanasia than they are on other church positions such as on war and the death penalty. Those who do not oppose abortion reject a “divinely revealed truth of faith” he wrote, while there is room for debate over war policy or the context of a state execution.

Levada did not, however, join the chorus of some other church officials, including Denver’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Saint Louis’ Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke, who took the next step and called on the church to refuse the sacraments to John Kerry, the 2004 presidential candidate who is a Catholic.

Shortly after Newsom started marrying same-sex couples last spring, Levada stood outside a church in the city’s heavily-Italian North Beach district, denounced the marriages as a “regression” and then led a march of approximately 1,000 people through the streets.

“And maybe that,” said one cynical local Catholic political strategist, “was what got him his new job.”

Gay rights issues were Levada’s indoctrination by fire to San Francisco politics during his first year there. He has been widely praised for participating in an agreement with the city which helped save the church’s $3 million in city contracts to operate housing and relief services. San Francisco’s 1996 equal benefits ordinance requires that city contractors, of which the church’s Catholic Charities is an important one, give domestic partners of their employees the same benefits offered spouses. At a pivotal meeting at the archdiocese’s offices, Levada, then-Mayor Willie Brown, gay Supervisors Leslie Katz and Tom Ammiano and others sat down together to hammer out a compromise.

“To me, it was a very creative solution,” said Ammiano. “But the devil,” he remembered joking at the time, “was in the details.”

The group agreed that in order to comply with the new law, the archdiocese would be required to allow their employees to designate “one other person” to participate in their health plans, regardless of their relationship with the worker.

“I wouldn’t say he was entirely comfortable,” Ammiano said.

“But we had a common denominator,” Katz added. The archdiocese was on record as favoring universal health care. “The idea was to treat people fairly,” Katz recalled, but “but there would be no acknowledgement of relationships where people were, the diocese said, living in sin. It was more about the practicalities.”

“He was contained and disciplined in his demeanor,” Ammiano said. “People were not hugging and kissing. It was like he was the CEO—the chief ecclesiastical officer.”

Levada is, Katz agreed, “a consummate politician.”

The archbishop has allowed most Holy Redeemer Parish to flourish in the city’s Castro District. Once a moribund parish that formerly ministered to Irish and German immigrant families, marooned three blocks from the crossroads of the city’s gay ghetto at 18th and Castro Streets, the church is now one of the city’s most thriving. Unlike many of the city’s churches—big drafty places where parishioners huddle in little groups separated by long stretches of polished pews—the 450-member Most Holy Redeemer Church is always full to overflowing on Sunday mornings. About 80 percent of the parishioners are gay and lesbian—parishioners whose sex life the Catholic Church says is a mortal sin—but who come from all over the Bay Area to practice their faith anyway.

When Ratzinger was elevated to pope, the reaction at Most Holy Redeemer was horror.

“I went into retreat for a week,” joked the pastor, Father Stephen Meriwether, in his homily the next Sunday.

But Most Holy Redeemer is the only place in the San Francisco Bay Area where life-long Catholics can be enthusiastically gay and lesbian too—even with what amounts to a wink and a nod from the archdiocese.

“It’s don’t ask, don’t tell for Catholics,” said Gino Ramos, the head of San Francisco’s chapter of Dignity, an organization of gay Catholics.

“When he gets to Rome I hope he’ll show the world that the Catholic Church is a place of unequivocal love for everybody, for all of Gods’ people,” Ramos predicted. “I am hopeful because he’s an American, a native Californian, well educated and also being from San Francisco he’s probably exposed to a lot more perspective than anyone else.”

But Ammiano, who was raised Catholic, isn’t so optimistic.

“Levada, just by his exposure to what has happened in San Francisco, is a tiny bit more enlightened, but that’s a very small step for a very big price,” the city supervisor said. “He’s not changing on pastoring for gays. He’s not changing on the gender issues. None of that will stop.
“It’s like the old days of gay lib. We’ll have to go a lot further than Levada to get full equality from the church hierarchy.”

Joe Dignan is the head of the Committee to Save St. Brigid Church and is in ongoing negotiations with the San Francisco archdiocese to preserve a 1900-vintage church.

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