Pope Francis, renewal, abuse scandals and dissenting priests

Cardinal William Levada, retired Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith shares his thoughts with Michael Kelly

Cardinal Levada, what brings you to Ireland?

The principle purpose is the talk I gave at Maynooth College to a couple of hundred people from various parishes and dioceses who are doing a project of study on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism is one of the reasons why Pope Benedict declared this ‘Year of Faith’.

So, I talked to them about the Catechism, about the [Second Vatican] Council, about the ‘Year of Faith’. It was a great experience for me: to see the dedication, the interest of these people, their intelligent questions, reviewing the history of the Catholic life and faith in Ireland, where we’re going in the future. I thought it was a great sign of encouragement and hope, for me, but I think it must’ve been for them as well. It’s the kind of thing that really does work towards the renewal of the Church when so many people become educated about their faith and use that source-book that Pope John Paul said is an instrument of Church communion, which it certainly has proved to be, and a sure indication of what the teachings of our Catholic Faith are. That was my purpose in coming, and I was very pleased to be invited by this association of adult education group, students of the Catechism.

And it’s always a joy to be in Ireland!


We’re approaching the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How would you say the Catechism has been received?

It’s been received with extraordinary welcome by people who use it and know it. There are still people in the Church who say: “don’t give that to me, or my people, it’s too much for them”. I think they short change peoples’ educational level, and the hunger they have to be better educated in their faith, as many of them are educated in their work. They take a lot of studies that prepare them for other aspects of their lives, but some have not had the chance to go beyond their grade school years in studying the Faith. It’s a very great joy to them.

I believe that the promotion of the Catechism is still helpful, because its use is not time-conditioned. It calls for an enculturated catechesis. It will be there to be a point of reference as years pass on and as new issues come up and new styles of looking at things and so forth. You’ll still have that fundamental way, the fundamental tradition of the Church updated to include the Second Vatican Council. It will be a basis for our going ahead.


Do you see adult faith formation as having an increasingly important role in the life of the Church in Ireland?

Undoubtedly. The questions and comments of the people after our session were most often around that very point: that this is a new opportunity for them and they want to bring it forth to their children.

The New Evangelisation depends on well-educated Catholics. I have a quote from Blessed Cardinal Newman: “I want a laity that knows their faith that knows their history that can defend their faith”. He was talking to a group of adult Catholics in his day, he doesn’t know about the Catechism obviously, but it’s exactly the same thing today.

I believe that adult faith formation is the key to the New Evangelisation. People are not going to be able to evangelise confidently if they do not know their faith.


You were one of the cardinal-electors in the recent conclave that elected Pope Francis. How do you view the early months of his papacy?

I’ll go back to the conclave which elected him which was a very moving and solemn moment. You’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, perhaps, and have seen that marvellous fresco of Michelangelo Christ the Judge which we looked at every time we went up to cast our ballot and swear that this was the person before God we thought would be the best Pope.

It was a real moment of joy when we were able to greet him and pledge our obedience and hear him ask for our prayers. Since then I have only had one occasion, just this past week, to visit with him personally. So, I have the same impressions as most other people I suppose, reading copies of his talks and watching videos of his audiences. I think he’s made a very strong impression on people throughout the world. An impression that is, of course, transmitted through various types of media.

He strikes me as not being afraid of being Pope. I’m not going to say whether he likes it or not – that’s something you’d have to ask him. But, he strikes me also as – it must be true of every Pope – not wanting to pretend to be some other Pope, to be his own person. He has a long experience as a priest and bishop. So, what he does comes to him normally in that sense. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Universal Church. He is himself, he shows that very much, he speaks off-the-cuff at times, embraces kids who want to come up and hang on him and so forth. He has made a strong impression by his goodness, his reminders to the Church and the world about the poor, people who are easily forgotten or put aside out of our mind and vision. It’s a terrific thing: we’re all touched, I think, and moved personally to examine our own consciences in that regard.

If there is one thing that gives me a little trouble, and here I don’t want to be media-bashing, but I think there is a tendency – maybe it’s natural, although, sometimes I think it’s either mistaken or malicious or something in between – but there’s a tendency, to look at everything he does in contrast to Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II or both, and try to make a story out of that. Pope Francis does not meditate on trying to be different – he is himself. Every Pope is different. What I’m trying to get at is a certain tendency that I find in some of the media presentations: “Well, now we have a Pope who does this, and he’s contradicting what the previous Pope did or he’s turning things into a different story” and so forth. I think that’s way overdone. This, ultimately, makes the Pope less a sign of unity and a sign of division, which he is not. I mention this in answer to your question, not to take anything away from a man who has done so admirably and has assumed a huge new role that, as one of his cardinal-electors I could hardly imagine doing myself. That just increases my admiration for him. He is certainly in my prayers and I take the opportunity to say to whoever hears about my remarks: he never fails to ask for our prayers. Let’s give them to him. Our Blessed Lord said: your prayers are always answered, you may not know when or how, but they’re always heard by God and answered.


As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith you worked closely with Pope Benedict XVI. What do you believe is his lasting impression on the Church?

His decision [to resign] came to me as a great surprise. A great surprise in the sense that we weren’t accustomed to Popes resigning. Very few people that I have talked to feel that he was wrong in doing that. They understand perfectly that the question is a question in conscience, before God, and the question depends on whether he can fulfil the ministry, the task, that he has been given. With his insight and humility he has made a giant step in regard to the future of the Church and the future of the Papacy so that this particular question can be resolved by any future Pope because of what he has done. I think that’s a relief, certainly for someone who is in the Sistine Chapel and sees his name being put forward as a future Pope to have that in the back of his mind.

Of course I know him [Benedict XVI] pretty well. One of the talents that he was able to put before the world was a gift for preaching: a homily that touched everybody. A homily that got to the heart of the Gospel message and connected it to the life of the Church and the Sacraments. His homilies will be treasured.

His catechesis, his Wednesday audiences, he was a man who did those things with attention and care, but achieved an unexpected directness, if not simplicity of style, but a directness that was able to put sometimes things that are difficult to get your mind around in a very clear way.

I think of his extraordinary visits to some of the countries of the world where he gave talks about democracy and the Faith and religion and life. Take Westminster Hall, in London, speaking in the United States, the Collège des Bernardins, in Paris. These are all a testament that he has left that the Church will be all the richer for.


Often in the media, Pope Benedict was portrayed as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ or the ‘panzer cardinal’. Do you think the media was unfair to him?

The media didn’t get him, or got him and wanted to use these derogatory terms to try to sully his great credentials and his great gifts, precisely for the ministry for the papacy. I think most people can get through that silliness. Not everybody, it’s true, and it does a lot of harm, but most people can get through that, they have a way of looking at the excesses of the media.


The role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to ensure that the Church’s tradition is faithfully handed-down and taught. Yet, some people accuse the congregation of being heavy-handed or unjust. How would you answer these charges?

Well, the first thing to say is that if you are working for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it helps to have a pretty thick skin so that you aren’t overly-sensitive if you are criticised. Secondly, we are not above criticism. We think that the work we do is helpful and useful, but we’re always ready to say if we could’ve done better we’ll learn and do better next time.

The main work of the congregation is to preserve, guard, protect and defend the Faith on the one hand and to promote the doctrine of the Faith. It’s a two-fold, two-pronged mission that we have been given. This is an essential work that has to be done on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Christ Our Lord, who, in the Gospels, shows us how he himself was not above criticism. Indeed, criticism put him on the Cross ultimately. We don’t go so far in imitating him, but we accept the fact that not everybody is going to agree with everything we do.

There are many critics of the congregation who are essentially critics of the Faith, of Jesus, of God. I’m not trying to overstate the case, but, I think we represent a challenge to a highly-secularised mentality. We do our best to explain things with good reasons and take advantage of opportunities to publicise teachings.

We do also, at times, have to exercise fraternal correction. Priests, religious and theologians – people who have been given a charge, people who have been given the work of speaking with the authority of the Church behind them – cannot simply come out and say “I don’t accept this” or “I don’t like this”.

They have a responsibility, otherwise they use their role to produce confusion and people may hear them preaching from the pulpit or read what they write about something that’s contrary to the faith. So, they need to be brought to a sense of responsibility. We try to do that in a dialogical way. Sometimes people don’t see our role as dialogical, but nevertheless it is. We always talk to their bishop, to their superior, and ask them to take the appropriate steps to correct the situation.


A few Irish priests, sometimes referred to in the media as ‘silenced priests’ have had correspondence from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about some of their views and opinions. How have you found dealing with these cases?

I have to smile when you say ‘silenced priests’. Yesterday I read that the spokesperson for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) study on the Murphy Report was none other than Fr Tony Flannery, one of these ‘silenced’ priests who I don’t think knows the meaning of the word silent!

Fr Flannery is a case in point. He takes to the news a lot, but, I have never seen in any reports what the fundamental problem was that led to our intervention. He [Fr Flannery] likes to say “because I’m for married priests”. This is not the case: he wrote two articles in Reality magazine in which he questioned, undermined, the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist and on the priesthood. Now, as a priest, when these were brought to our attention we brought them to his Superior General and he said he had no idea.

What we try to do is to say: if you hold these positions you are formally in heresy. For Martin Luther, or the Protestant reformers, they were key issues and they denied these doctrines of the Church. So, we hope that the person will see that this is not in accord with the doctrine of the Church and will say what I really do hold in the doctrine of the Church and to say that. Write a note, have it published in the same place so that people will know you are not a heretic. That’s the question.


You were prefect during some of the most difficult times for the Church in recent years as a result of clerical abuse cases. Some people have been critical of the Vatican or have even accused the Holy See of being involved in a cover up. What would you say to that?

I was a bishop responsible for two archdioceses in the United States and had to deal with these issues from that perspective, as best I could. We were on a ‘learning curve’, I can tell you that. Part of our problem was that the Code of Canon Law was not adequate for us to be able to address some of the cases that we had in a timely fashion. I hand it to Pope John Paul II, particularly in his trust and use of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in helping to formulate a new set of canonical procedures that would allow bishops to deal with cases in a more timely fashion. That’s how I see the motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (a 2001 document by Pope John Paul II and revised by Benedict XVI in 2010 which streamlined procedures for the handling of abuse cases – Editor). As bishops in the Church, I can tell you that the role of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI was decisive in helping us to meet the challenge.

Now, the other aspects: good seminary formation, screening of applicants, ongoing formation of priests, disciplining priests and not returning priests to active ministry if they abused children. We found that far from a Vatican cover-up, it was the forward-looking and co-operative work of the Vatican that helped the Church in Ireland, the United States and other places. But, this challenge is still ongoing.


Do you think the Church was slow to see the importance of co-operation with the civil and law enforcement authorities?

Undoubtedly. Yes, that is the case. Because of the very nature of these things, these acts remain hidden oftentimes until they were revealed in later life. Children wouldn’t talk about them or felt they couldn’t. All of us, including the civil authorities, were on a learning curve and still are in regard to the various aspects of this. This is not simply a question of priestly behaviour, this is a behaviour that one finds in various sectors of public life and society. We all have to make sure that we have satisfactory civil laws with punishments that are a deterrent to this kind of behaviour and when it happens that the person is properly dealt with.