LEVADA
Eric Risberg  /  AP
Archbishop William J. Levada answers questions after Pope Benedict XVI named him as his successor as the Vatican's guardian of church doctrine on Friday, tapping a conservative theologian to be the highest-ranking American ever at the Vatican. 
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 5/13/2005 9:02:44 PM ET 2005-05-14T01:02:44

By becoming pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, the guardian of Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy for the past quarter-century, left one of the most powerful vacancies in the Vatican.

Now, Pope Benedict XVI has announced his replacement, and for the first time in church history the job will go to an American.

The pope chose an old friend, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, to be the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This office, which used to be known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, is responsible for making sure that the teachings and positions of the church are properly reflected.

Job to be the enforcer of church doctrine
The new pope developed a reputation for strong conservatism during his rule of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He cracked down publicly on several theologians who questioned the church’s positions on clerical celibacy, contraception and homosexuality.

Some of these theologians were forced to sign statements of compliance with church teaching or face excommunication. Others who were also university professors were ordered to stop teaching.

When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document calling homosexuality an “intrinsic disorder," Levada’s predecessor in charge of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Archbishop John Quinn, bore the brunt of the anger of America’s largest gay and lesbian community in the mid-1980s.

The AIDS epidemic was exploding when John Paul II visited San Francisco in 1987 and there were protests in the streets. Gay protesters carried placards attacking Ratzinger by name.

Quinn was a quiet intellectual who showed leniency to various groups of practicing Catholics who lived openly gay lifestyles.

So when Pope John Paul appointed Levada to replace Quinn it was perceived by many as a condemnation of that leniency, and a repressive move on the Vatican’s part.

Message to Americans: rules are rules
Pope Benedict’s choice of an American, and a conservative thinker from one of the most liberal cities in the country, has a special resonance for Catholics in the United States.

American Catholics who have felt disconnected and misunderstood by the Vatican in the past have often blamed the communication gap on cultural differences. 

In pointing to the strict orthodoxy of the polish pontiff, and the German doctrinaire, liberal U.S. Catholics would see them as “old world” Europeans who didn’t “get it," when it came to American society.

By putting an American in the position of moral enforcer, Pope Benedict is effectively muting that complaint.

Not only does Levada bring the understanding of a native, he also comes from a decade of facing opposition as a moral conservative in one of America’s most sexually permissive cities. 

Pope Benedict is sending a clear message to Catholics in America and Western Europe: The rules are not about to change in this administration.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Rome Bureau Chief.

Video: American named to high Vatican position

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