Archbishop Weakland – the “after-article”

12 10 2009


In case you haven’t seen it yet, here is my latest article for Inside Catholic that is a review of Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s autobiography, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church. As expected, this article has led to a minor “feeding frenzy” over there of “conservative” Catholics venting their ire against the fallen liberal prelate. One criticism of my article is that I did not take seriously enough the sexual dimension of Archbishop Weakland’s downfall, which for many commenters was the main driving force behind his progressive agenda. I wouldn’t want to get into it here, but I will only reiterate what I said in my one comment over there: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. We have the scandal of Fr. Maciel, who was apparently JPII’s best buddy, and then we have the traditionalists like Fr. Timothy Svea who fell into worse sins and crimes. What about that master of ceremonies of the current Papal court who got picked up by police in the red light district in Rome? I once knew an SSPX priest, Fr. Benedict Vander Putten, who I thought was on fire with the love of God. Turns out he was on fire for the love of underaged girls. Need I go on?

So here too I will steer clear of the “Fox News” culture of accusation and titillation and just argue the issues I set out to discuss in the essay. I think at times that I might have been too hard on the Archbishop, that maybe I have been guilty of the closed-mindedness that I accuse him of. But probing my own reading of the book, I really can’t say that the man has an ounce of real contrition for what he has done. As AG put it to me, the whole book could be summarized as, “yeah, I know I messed up on this one thing… but I am still a good person who did a lot of great things. And I could have done greater things if that darn John Paul II hadn’t persecuted me so much…” I did not get a sense from Weakland that the Church existed as something bigger than the walls of his head. It’s his ideas or the highway; the only reason he is staying Catholic is because he has a strong institutional tie to the Church. It’s all he really knows.

Nevertheless, there are some issues that I felt were “too nuanced” to place in my Inside Catholic essay. For the sake of time and clarity, I will focus on the very last few pages of the book. In those last thoughts, Weakland describes a sermon he gave to a group of priests during a retreat after the scandal was over and he had resigned from his position. Weakland here shows that he is very perceptive about the current state of the Church. While I doubt at times his sincerity in terms of faith, I cannot doubt his intelligence and knowledge of the Church on the institutional level. The principle thought of this sermon was that:

I realized the Church had to do more dying before it could fulfill the mission given it by Christ. I was distressed that church leaders, myself included, tended always to blame everyone but themselves for the crisis in which the Church finds itself…

What follows are a series of vague observations about how the Church must die to its own sense of “perfection” and completeness, to acknowledge itself as a pilgrim body of flawed sinners. Obviously, he speaks all of this with an agenda we need not get into due to its well-documented details in the modern press. There are, however, a few nuggets that the reader should meditate on, such as this one:

Again I recalled to the priests the phrase used by Cardinal Francis George at the synod for America in 1997 that we American Catholics are, from a religious point of view, culturally Calvinists. We tend to confuse the ideal with the reality; we like to give the world the appearance of the perfect model…

I agree with this, but only if taken in the traditional sense. He uses such a citation to argue against Cardinal Ottaviani’s traditional formulation of the Church as a societas perfecta. If taken in that way, I disagree. The Church is the Ark of Salvation, and in this sense, it must be perfect. In other words, the Church, in its most strict sacramental and doctrinal sense, peddles a perfect product. It’s the people that are handing it out that are the problem. This was best formulated by the Cardinal Consalvi’s quip when he heard that Napoleon sought to destroy the Church, “We have not managed to do it ourselves!” There may be a real mush that surrounds the Church, a soft slimy layer of sinfulness, hypocrisy, and violence that covers her message and life-giving love to this day. But the great task of faith is to find the hard core that we can plant our feet on. Weakland comes dangerously close to denying even that.

He is right, however, if we take it to mean that we get the Church that we deserve. Many people enter the Church or remain in it because they think it will solve all of their problems, get them out of doubt, or make them “better” than those who don’t believe. They are enamoured with the institution and what it can do for them. Weakland is one of those people, though he would probably be the last to admit it. He has an agenda that transcends the being of the Church; he shares it with the Episcopalians, liberal mainline Protestants, and modernists of all stripes. The name of that agenda is “progress”. But there are other agendas. One of the more subtle ones is the “save civilization from godlessness” line. The problem with this one is that it wants to repeat all the mistakes that made Western civilization godless in the first place. Maybe we all just need to cool it and realize that this may not be a problem that we can “fix”. We can’t make a perfect Church that will then create a perfect society if we ourselves are so manifestly imperfect. The Church may be a perfect society because it has no need of anything outside of it to make it better. That does not mean that those inside of it, even the Pope himself, partake of that perfection in any real sense.

In this sense, Weakland counsels the Church to “cool it” in another aspect:

…I mentioned that the Church must die to its omniscience. For some reason, the Church feels that it must hurry to join every controversy and give an authoritative solution. I yearn for the days when the hierarchy would do in our day what it did in the past regarding many squabbles between theologians, especially from competitive religious orders: just saying the equivalent of “Cool it, Boys…”

Again, I think it necessary to read past Weakland’s agenda to get at a real point. There is a sense in our ranks that the Church has to deliver a “complete package”: a complete metaphysics and way of life that we all have to take or leave, no exceptions. But the greatness of Catholicism was not formed by such a tribal, absolutist spirit. It isn’t a brand that we have to be loyal to at all costs. It is the sum total of human experience: sloppy, unedifying, and at times, seemingly contradictory. The gravest error of modern Catholicism is not simply that it doesn’t “preach the Gospel”, but that it seeks to teach “too much”. That is the fundamental flaw of such contrived visions as the theology of the body, the Opus Dei’s theology of work, von Balthasar hoping Hell is empty, and so on and so forth. There is so much fancy-speak that often turns into cacaphonous gibberish. At the end of the day, you don’t know what you need to believe. The Church tries to serve modern man a seven course meal, when all he needs is some doctrinal and sacramental meat and potatoes. The mystical element, the high art, and the poetic theology will take care of itself once fed this nourishing if unappentizing gruel. It cannot be forced on people by committee or ideological fad.

What we know of God is preciously little. We see through a glass darkly. But even those small glimmers of light must be preserved with an almost fanatical exercise of memory. This is the mustard seed that will grow into a great tree of full knowing.

One last thought of Weakland’s resonated in particular with me, and it is a sentiment that I have spoken on this blog many times:

If the Church has lost so many among the American intelligentsia, artists, musicians, and even theologians, it is because it gives the impression that it does not need them – being self-sufficient in creating and judging what it feels best for its faithful to live the gospel message. Because we have alienated all these groups and they do not feel at home in our midst, we no longer are able to create a Catholic culture that is the expression of our faith…

I agree, but point out that the slavish homogenization that Weakland’s generation perpetuated in the Church Universal is partially responsible for this crisis. No creative person wants to be in the shadow of a Church that mimics the worst qualities of the lowest common cultural denominator. The Church has not given a compelling message to struggle with from a creative perspective. Will John Paul II’s Luminous Mysteries (which I make great efforts NOT to pray), felt banners, and St. Louis Jesuit folk-musical tripe ever inspire the human imagination in the same ways as the Dies Irae, the majestic high altar, and visions of souls roasting in Purgatory? Will the inventions of Catholicism in the last fifty years echo through the centuries like old cadences of hushed Latin on marble floors that, if you are very quiet, you can sometimes still hear in old churches? Or will they merely be broken old trinkets from a century of frivolities long ago forgotten, along with much of Catholic Tradition itself? I leave it to you to answer that question.

The Church does need all of these people. Our Faith will not live by the “expertise” of liturgical committees and theological scholars alone. Even in the most “conservative” circles, there is a dictatorship of the technocracy: people who don’t see the benefits of the emotional kitsch of old grandmothers, of hardened criminals lighting a candle before the saint they think “protects” them, of patronal fiestas that tend to “get out of hand”. And as long as such a dictatorship stands, the more “normal” elements, those who will write the Masses performed by agnostics in concert halls, those who will paint the paintings admired by fascinated tourists, those who will write the novels that may spark the unbeliever to believe… all of those people will stay away. The Church needs to stop being a club and start being humanity again.

Weakland reiterates that this may not be a problem that we can “fix”, and in that I am in agreement. But the problem with Weakland, and maybe it is one he struggles with, I don’t know, is that he does not account for the possibility that the Church may be bigger than his own ideas. Many people have accused me of being “un-Catholic” since I am not “obedient enough” or “docile enough” to the statements of the Church hierarchy of the last fifty years. They seem to think that “docility”, that affirming of the dominant line of authority, is the essence of romanitas, and that is what I am missing. I beg to differ. The true essence God are far bigger than the walls of your own skull. You live in a continuity not just over space but over time. You are responsible to an entire history that begins first and foremost with what your family taught you.

There is a wonderful inscription in French in a cemetery in Lafayette, Louisiana, that I saw yesterday. It was from children to their deceased mother thanking her most of all for passing on to them the “faith of their ancestors”. I feel far more indebted to them than I do to any Pope. But even if you are a convert, you are responsible to the Faith and way of life of all of those people (like my ancestors) who had to suffer through fire and sword to put that Faith in your hands. To be Catholic is to live with the burden of history. Even if it seems ridiculous, even if you have a thousand difficulties with it, you pass it on, you defend it, and you show it to others. That is different from “marketing it”, wanting to remove from it all of the “blemishes”, or wanting to “update it”. To be humble is not the same as being brainwashed. To have faith is not the same as being an automaton who doesn’t have to think anymore. This seems obvious, but by the way people behave, it really isn’t.

Overall, I find Weakland a figure to be pitied more than anything. Maybe he made a half-million dollar mistake, and that is nothing to be sneezed at. After all, it would take half a lifetime for a poor working mother to make that much, and for that, Weakland should be much more ashamed than he comes across in this book. But he doesn’t seem to “get” that he comes across as a sad figure rejected by much of the Church he aimed to serve, having taken much more than he contributed. I think for a long time, I will probably remember to say an extra “Hail Mary” for him.



19 responses

2 02 2010
dan e bloom

The After-Article – A new journalism term coined for the comments that now often follow a published news article on a snailpaper’s website
In the old days, before After-Articles became common, a news article or feature story would appear in, say, the New York Times or the LA Times or the Boston Globe or the Guardian in London, and if a reader wanted to contact the author of the article or the editor of the newspaper to comment on the story pro or con, he or she had to write a letter and send it in by snailmail or email and wait for a response. Most letters never received a reply or a response. Sometimes the author did reply. It took weeks, months.

Fast foward to 2010. Now many news articles and opeds and feature stories — longform journalism — in the New York Times and other snailpapers have a comment section following the online publication of the story and readers can write in immediately and voice their opinions or make their feelings known one way or another, pro or con. Some comment sections print 10 – 25 comments, some as many as 500 or 800.

And reading the comment sections — what I now call THE AFTER-ARTICLE — often is more interesting and enlightening and rewarding to the reader than the original article. So a new term is born. Use it.

2 11 2009
21 10 2009

I’m doubtful of the importance of Crimen sollicitationis in the sex abuse scandal. Though I’m not a canon lawyer either, I recall that it specifically deals with soliciting (presumably) women in the confessional, and the steps that should be taken to guard the privacy of all parties during trial. Most bishops said several years ago that they hadn’t even heard of it. At worst, I suspect it was one of the many aspects of secrecy that contributed to the culture that has been well-described by Fr. Thomas Doyle.

Arturo has never gone on a “Catholic sex-abuse scandals” rant here, so I’m reluctant to open that can of worms, except to say that as stated above, in Weakland’s autobiography, I really see the attitudes among the hierarchy (clergy are their own class of people who cannot be troubled with the standards, or laws that some of the laity follow) that in some cases allowed the cover-up of the abuse of children.

18 10 2009

One thing that I would like would be a sociological study of how traditionalism manifests itself in Latin America and Africa. Given the material and political situations in those countries, traditionalists probably/hopefully don’t engage in the same kind of obsessive existential navel-gazing we do in the industrialized world.

18 10 2009
Arturo Vasquez

One of my rules now in writing is not to turn everything I write into chapters in some prolonged bildungsroman. I think writers today, especially people on blogs, have some sort of warped sense of self-importance in that they always want to tell THEIR story, as if their story means SO MUCH in the broader context of history and eternity…

That being said, these comments reminded me of one experience I had as seminarian with the Society of St. Pius X. There is a traditionalist chapel in the poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires called Lanus. The chapel is dedicated to the Virgin of Lujan, the patroness of Argentina, and St. Cajetan, the saint who helps people find work. During one pilgrimage where we had to walk from the seminary in La Reja to Lujan, the shrine to the Virgin, (about twenty miles) I was designated to lead the people from Lanus in prayers, devotional songs, etc. I could tell these people were poor and they had it rough in their lives. But the affection and understanding that they showed this pocho, relatively privileged kid from the United States has always stayed with me. The traditionalist movement is pretty small down there, but to say that it is completely elitist… that is something that I know is not true.

The dirty little secret of those who criticize the traditionalist movement for being “elitist” is that the ethos of the mainstream church is equally elitist, being a creation of a bunch of experts imposed on the people for “their own good”. The only reason they accept it is that they don’t “know any better”. Or better yet, they are not accepting it. In many parts of the world, they are just voting with their feet. Even in Latin America, people often consider their Catholicism and their allegiance to the Church as two separate things. They may not be entirely orthodox, but then again, neither am I. They are just trying to make it through this life. And sometimes, the Church doesn’t help. The mass popularity, then, of the “Novus Ordo” is only skin-deep, and I wouldn’t put much stock in it. It’s just the clergy thinking they are giving the people “what they want”. But that is far from what is actually going on. To be continued…

17 10 2009

Let me make this clear from the outset; I prefer the traditional liturgy myself to any other formulations. That being said, I don’t think that it’s going become widespread outside of some hard-core enthusiasts. Unless TLM supporters can find some way to make the Bolivian peasant, the Nigerian slum dweller, and the politically repressed Vietnamese civil servant care about the comparative advantages of the TLM vis-a-vis the NO, their cause isn’t going to make any headway. It’s hard to explain these kind of issues in general without making reference to obscure encyclicals, historical trivia, Patristic sources, and other facts that few people in the non-Internet world care about. I would estimate that the total number of “traditionalists,” including SSPX supporters, FSSP supporters, fellow travelers, and sedevacantists is probably no more than 2 million out of a Church of more than 1.5 billion souls. In other words, the liturgical revolution is not going to be blogged.

One way to alleviate this could be to create a priestly order dedicated to evangelization of the poor through beauty, sort of like a cross between the FSSP, the CM, and the Dominicans. This is pure fantasy on my part, but I think it would be a great way to bring dignity and the Gospel to places that are devoid of both.

17 10 2009

Well, Adrian, either the aesthetic dimension matters or it doesn’t. And if it does matter, then surely my opinion of felt banners and “folk” music (because I’ll be damned if that St Louis Jesuit nonsense is folk music–it’s just ersatz Carpenters soft-rock by any name) is at least as valid as your opinion of Mother Angelica’s wimple and traditional liturgy.

Weakland is emblematic of his generation : the self-absorbed baby-boomers who hijacked the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in order to impose upon the Church their own vision of what it ought to be (which strikingly resembles what the Methodist Church already is). The pendulum is swinging the other way, as they tend to do, and this generation is having to wake up to the fact that the “yoof” have their own ideas about what they want; and they seem to want Catholicism. Sorry if that pains you.

What these things have to do with your romantic nostalgia for the 1960s isn’t clear. I would think the example of Anglo-Catholic socialism might show that a Christian socio-economic ethic is not incompatible with a desire for beauty and reverence in worship and a sensible orthodoxy of belief. But that’s probably just some utter tosh I picked up in a book I read by Chesterton or Belloc, so never mind.

15 10 2009

Damn. Good post.

Where else does Arturo write?

14 10 2009

I do think the charismatic movement its pentecostal-style religious expression will be the future of Christian theurgy. Obviously, the sacraments are still valid, wherever they are valid. But eventually the old liturgical traditions will become the province of costumed hobbyists and magicians. We can’t rescue ourselves through a historical reenactment. We are stuck in the ugly little place we have built for ourselves, at least until the Apocalypse or some kind of social revolution.

14 10 2009

One could argue that Cardinal Ottaviani’s letter, Crimen sollicitationis aided and abetted the clergy sex abuse scandal. Someone with a better grasp of canon law and such would have to evaluate such a claim, however.

14 10 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Honestly, Adrian, I really don’t know what to think of your comments. Do you want the Catholic Church to become some form of liturgical Pentecostalism that is a counter-weight to the liberal Protestant mainstream, if only in terms of social class? Because I have seen that future, and it ain’t that great. It’s fine if I am living in a dream world of sorts, but that doesn’t make the reality any more palatable. And that doesn’t mean that to be Catholic is to be a fatalist either. If I wanted to do that, I would just become some sort of classical pagan. The thought has crossed my mind.

14 10 2009
William Tighe

“the world was actually much improved in some respects — and the reactionaries in the institutional church didn’t make themselves particularly useful in those very important struggles — they often sided with the bad guys”

Ho, hum — how? The spread of contraception? The promotion of abortion? The mainstreaming of homosexual perversion? The advocacy of WO? Thanks, but no thanks.

“These new callow conservatives we see today with their cute Chesterton quotes and their new liturgical movement are really the fucking worst. Fuck them and Mother Angelica’s ridiculous wimple too.”

Or maybe it’s simpler, really; you can think of yourself as a “big boy Catholic” because you can use the f-word? Again, thanks, but no thanks.

14 10 2009
john harmatolos

No, thank-you.

13 10 2009

Arturo the Blogger is a good writer and a perceptive critic, so I have no reason question his evaluation of Weakland’s book (which I have not and will not read). I am pretty sure, though, that Arturo’s general indictment of Catholic progressives is wrong. Bringing in the felt banners and the folk music into the bill of grievances really shows how traditionalists like our host are, above all, aesthetes consumed with a romantic nostalgia for a Catholic past they themselves never experienced. Yes, I agree that there is a lot of ugliness in Catholicism today; maybe that is a serious problem and it probably is fair to blame the liberals. But the world actually did not go to hell in a hand basket in the 1960s. On the contrary, the world was actually much improved in some respects — and the reactionaries in the institutional church didn’t make themselves particularly useful in those very important struggles — they often sided with the bad guys. These new callow conservatives we see today with their cute Chesterton quotes and their new liturgical movement are really the fucking worst. Fuck them and Mother Angelica’s ridiculous wimple too. Are they playing dress up?

13 10 2009
William Tighe

Reading this several times, Arturo, I came to the conclusion that what Weakland really wants is for the Catholic Church be more like the Episcopal Church or like Anglicanism — not so much the real historical “Anglicanism” (the rubbing together of incompatible beliefs and practices in an institution controlled by the Crown in its own interests) or the semi-deistic Episcopalian “Church of the Establishment”,* but rather a kind of fantasy Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism, tasteful, high-brow, rather latitudinarian or laodicean doctrinally and keeping its nose and its strictures out of its leaders’ private lives.

* I am thinking here of the contrast between “the Established Church” (the Church of England) and “the Church of the Establishment” (the Episcopal Church) that my English clergyman friend Fr. Geoffrey Kirk conceived and deployed in several of his writings.

13 10 2009

What really made Weakland’s character clear for me was the difference between the way he accepted the archbishopric of Milwaukee and the way Timothy Dolan did. Weakland was all about lamenting the “lack of culture” in Milwaukee, while Dolan could not have looked happier to be there.

13 10 2009

Wow, a veritable feast of self-doubt while not forgetting, at least, to be critical of a crucial man.

Your posts are so much like those still lives of rotten vegetables, fruit and spoliating fish meant to make a man contemplate his mortality, his sinfulness, and hopeful salvation. I appreciate their Iberian flavor because that spirit is something I love, like a port wine or a book by Raimundo Lull.

You sidestep the traditionalist interpretation of his impoverished, malfeasant and highly bureaucratized life, but remain critical of him none the less, while asking those of us, and I am one, who are critical enough of him to want him punished by the civil arm, if we don’t live in glass houses.

We’re not Bishops, actually, we’ve just been sold a bill of goods and bear the responsibillity of what our ancestors handed down to us when they taught us to say our prayers, and asked us if we knew our Catechism.

The only thing I wanted on my First Communion, aside from the vague sense that I was communicating with Jesus who loves me, having memorized the Apostle’s Creed which I remember to this day, not to be too impious, was the cake and presents I was going to get when I’d made my first communion. I was filled with this idea of my importance and that I had just come upon a milestone in my life. I was given something of inestimable importance, yet I very dimly understood it, and I bear the burden of that moment, my self-importance, vanity and fascination with that tasty, frosted cake.

But I’m not a Bishop, nor am I a priest, nor am I Timothy Svea. It’s not fair to compare them, for their burdens are unequal to the ones that we bear. Those of us who are laymen, married or not.

Perhaps you rightly point out that we put our foot in mouth, for we all sin, but most of us aren’t Bishops entrusted with the souls of a large North American Diocese, and I’d also like to point out that the unpunished pathological histrionicism of this Bishop, Timothy Svea or Fr. Vanderputten (if what you say is true) is not a burden that most traditionalists share, however self-important, overreaching and vain we are.

12 10 2009

Since more people haven’t commented yet, this is what I got out of the book:

First, on the issue of Weakland’s homosexuality: Having read the book, it is hard to believe that (according to him) his realization of his homosexuality when he was in his forties has anything to do with his liberal agenda. I’ve known Catholics just as progressive as he is, and they aren’t homosexuals or members of any other group that one could point to as wanting a church “accepting” of their inclinations or behavior. Weakland also just doesn’t come across as someone that interested in sexuality. He talks very briefly about feelings of loneliness and the difficulty of living with celibacy –in a 400+ page book, he spends a few paragraphs on it – and that’s it.

I did find this book shocking in other ways. Weakland seems to be a person completely lacking in self-awareness, and in awareness of how his writings could be perceived by others. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir that was quite so vain, arrogant and self-congratulatory. One wonders why it didn’t take him longer to write this, considering that he must have been typing with one hand while patting himself on the back with the other. Just in the first 20 pages, I thought, “wow, how strange that he doesn’t mention God more – most clergy writing a memoir would at least fake some nice words of devotion to God. Maybe he is just really honest.” No, he comes across as so blinded by his own feelings of superiority that in his writing, God really is nothing more than a side character in his personal drama.

As Arturo pointed out in his Inside Catholic article, Weakland has in many ways led a quite charmed and blessed life – from a distressing childhood (his family lived in deep poverty; his father died very early) to an education, travel, and a level of power most people would envy. It’s hard to figure out where he learned such a complete sense of entitlement: parishioners who complain about what he is doing are “persecuting” him, Pope John Paul II has the audacity not to give him a longer personal audience, he must be allowed a sabbatical from his duties as archbishop to travel to Julliard and Milan to finish up his doctorate of music!!! So what if his indiscretion cost the Church half a million dollars. Oh well. And he was hounded and harassed by the news media for it! (Little mention of how his behavior may have wounded the Church’s mission, no mention of how it wounds the Body of Christ.) Even his recollections of meetings as abbot primate and archbishop ring with his arrogance: “the sisters thanked me greatly for allowing them to…the people gathered told me how much it meant to them that I did this…I cried too, knowing I was the first person who had ever really listened to their concerns.” He’s always the first person in his own dramas.

And I think that’s the saddest part of what this memoir reveals about Weakland’s story: not his liberal agenda, but his deep sense of entitlement and lack of accountability, and what it may say about the institutional Church. Up until the papacy of JPII, Weakland thrived in the Church and was given positions of considerable power; after, he still enjoyed considerable power in the American church alongside his like-minded buddies. Thus was my own takeaway message from this memoir: the dangers of having a hierarchy. Weakland’s memoir is like a case study of a bunch of sheltered, infantile company men with a deep sense of entitlement, little sense of accountability, and drunk on their own self-importance. In that, Weakland is in good company with a few other archbishops I can think of, and probably many more.

12 10 2009
Fr. Anthony

My comment is on under October 12th.

I think you will appreciate Bishop Broadhurst’s criticisms too.

Fr. Anthony

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