SAN FRANCISCO — From his days as a Catholic schoolboy in Long Beach and a Los Angeles priest to his more recent opposition to gay marriage, Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco brings a mixture of theological conservatism and American openness to his new powerful assignment as chief guardian of worldwide Roman Catholic doctrine.
Levada, 68, is expected to have a collegial style -- and an American take -- in confronting theological controversies as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the same Vatican job that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger held before becoming Pope Benedict XVI last month.
The pope, who appointed Levada to the new job Friday, had earned the nickname "God's Rottweiler" for his unbending opposition to church dissent. Levada, asked at a San Francisco news conference how he compared with Ratzinger, quipped that he was "more a cocker spaniel."
A stocky, balding man who is known for his love of reading and opera, Levada has been adept at handling church-state relationships in one of the most liberal cities in the nation. But nothing in his career suggests that he would veer from defending the church's core dogmas and guarding against what he and Benedict have called moral relativism.
Levada rose from a parish priest in Santa Monica and La Puente to auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, and then to archbishop of Portland, Ore., and, since 1995, of San Francisco. And now he will become the highest-ranking American ever in the Vatican. Levada, who heads the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, came to know Ratzinger when the American worked in Rome in the doctrinal congregation in the late 1970s and early '80s.
In a 1994 paper, Levada decried what became known as "cafeteria Catholicism" -- Catholics choosing which teachings they would follow and which they would ignore. Such an approach, Levada wrote, had "no basis in Scripture or the church's tradition."
On Friday, he did not go into any detail but seemed to allow for at least some discussion. Asked whether issues such as birth control, married clergy and female priests would be raised once he assumed his new role, Levada replied: "Catholics discuss these things. I haven't talked to Pope Benedict about them. I'll have to wait and see."
Marriage for priests is "not a doctrinal issue and won't come before the Congregation," he continued. Birth control "might."
A change in Vatican style may be ahead once the graduate of St. Anthony High School in Long Beach and St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo moves to Rome in August. Church observers say he will bring American understanding of dialogue and the importance of individual conscience in a democratic society. And, they said, he also would carry the U.S. experience of living through the clergy sex abuse scandal and helping to craft rules to handle such cases and prevent reoccurrences; the Vatican congregation has jurisdiction over such cases.
"I think I'll be a spokesperson for the church in the United States ... creating a better awareness of our needs and issues," Levada said. At the same time, he said, he would "speak to my brother bishops" in America "in a way that will help them understand the needs of the [universal] church." In addition to English, Levada speaks Italian, Spanish and French.
Those who have known Levada for years said he would make good on those promises.
William Marmion, 69, a retired educator from Long Beach, has been a friend of Levada's since they were teenagers. In 1954, Marmion and Levada entered St. John's Seminary College, where the future archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, was their classmate. Marmion did not continue with his studies.
"We're especially fortunate that we have somebody that understands the American scene, in general, as well as the church in America that is going to be assuming this responsibility," Marmion said. "I think it's going to be good for the church universally, and I think it's going to be good for the church in America."
It is a view shared by Father Thomas Rausch, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "Maybe he would be much more conservative or hard-line than we think," Rausch said. "We don't know that. But he would bring a different experience to the job as an American. That would be very important. At the very least, he would be open to discussions."
During the U.S. presidential election last year, Levada cautioned against a blanket denial of Communion to all Catholic politicians who supported abortion as a choice, as some U.S. bishops seemed to advocate. Levada said that was a pastoral matter best left to the politician's priest or bishop. Still, he stressed that Catholics might argue about waging war and the death penalty, but that abortion and euthanasia were "evil."