While Pope Benedict XVI is busy filling the shoes of John Paul II, a quiet American is trying to do the same in Benedict's old job. So how's it going for William J. Levada, former Archbishop of San Francisco, whom Benedict tapped to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? "I'm past the deer-in-the-headlights phase," he told TIME last week in his first interview since he took office in August.
Good thing. The most influential U.S. prelate in Roman Catholic history, Levada is tasked with maintaining doctrine and discipline among the 1.1 billion faithful at a time when several issues threaten to divide the flock. In November the church issued a controversial Instruction on gay seminarians. To Levada, "the document is very clear. A person with deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not suited for the priesthood." Another tricky topic: Should politicians be denied Communion if they espouse policies that contradict church teaching? Levada would like to see that debated more but says, "There are certain teachings that, as Catholics, we have to accept as part of Jesus' gospel," such as opposition to abortion. "Catholic politicians need to take this seriously," he says. "Maybe they need to say, 'I'm not able to practice my faith and be a public representative.'"
A more immediate concern is the ceremony this week at which Levada and 14 other prelates will be elevated to Cardinal by the Pope. Asked how he might feel when he gets the red hat signifying that high office, Levada admits a purely sartorial worry. "Of course," he says, "you want to make sure you have your hat on straight."