American Said To Be Tapped as Vatican's Doctrinal Enforcer

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New Job? Levada performs a mass in 1999

Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco is likely to be chosen to be the new Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican post held for 24 years by the man who last month became Pope Benedict XVI, several well-placed Vatican sources have told TIME.

"It's a done deal," a senior Vatican official told TIME on Tuesday, after days of rumors that the American was emerging as the frontrunner. "This was a decision directly from the Pope. Levada was already asked, and has accepted. If it ends up not happening, it means somebody got to [the Pope] and convinced him to change his mind."

If the Vatican confirms the appointment in the coming days, Levada, 68, would become the man responsible for overseeing all moral and theological matters for the Holy Father, who himself headed what as once called the Holy Office for 24 years up until his election last month as pontiff. If named, Levada would by all accounts become the most influential American ever in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Another Vatican source said the former Cardinal Ratzinger and Levada had built what he called a "hidden friendship" over the years outside of the Roman power circles, dating back to the period the American spent as a mid-level official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early 1980s. "They would go to dinner together," the source said. "This is someone the Pope thinks he can work closely with."

Levada currently serves as one of four archbishop consulting members of the Congregation. If named to head the office, he would become a Cardinal the next time a new batch were promoted to the title. The Congregation oversees all issues related to theology and the maintenance of Church orthodoxy. In his nearly quarter-century in the post, Cardinal Ratzinger became a lightening rod for reformist critics of John Paul II's papacy.