Archbishop Weakland’s Perplexing Pilgrimage
BY BISHOP THOMAS J. TOBIN--The Rhode Island Catholic 8/27/09
BY BISHOP THOMAS J. TOBIN--The Rhode Island Catholic 8/27/09
Summer always affords me more time for reading, and one of the books I read this year was “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church,” the memoirs of Archbishop Rembert Weakland. You may be familiar with Archbishop Weakland – a Benedictine priest, former archabbot of St.Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA, abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine Order, and, most famously, Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977-2002.
Archbishop Weakland’s tenure as Archbishop of Milwaukee came to a tumultuous end when in May of 2002 it was revealed that many years prior he was involved in a homosexual liaison with a young friend, was later threatened with a civil lawsuit, and eventually used $450,000 of archdiocesan money to pay for a confidential, out-of-court settlement. The fact that this sordid arrangement came to light during the height of the sexual abuse scandal added plenty of fuel to the already raging fire. (Bishop, I would respectfully like to point out that AB Weakland paid back every dime to the diocese and that his accuser chose this particular time to come out of the wood work. It was the accuser's choice to use the sexual abuse scandal to further his own ends and further embarrass AB Weakland in the hopes of getting even more money.)
Archbishop Weakland’s memoirs provide fascinating reading for several reasons – first, because he himself is a multi-talented, colorful, and accomplished figure of historic proportions; next, because the book is well-written – detailed, but not ponderous; and finally, because the narrative is interesting, especially for ecclesial wonks, since Weakland’s personal story is interwoven so tightly with most of the major themes that have dominated the life of the Church during the past fifty years or so.
For a couple of decades, Archbishop Weakland was one of the leading voices of the “liberal wing” of the American Hierarchy. He proudly calls himself a “Dearden Bishop,” referring to the more liberal bishops who were strongly influenced by the ideology of the late Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit. Weakland quietly questioned and sometimes publicly challenged the teaching of the Church on hot-button issues such as homosexuality, clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, the primacy of the Holy See, and the role of episcopal conferences.
Understandably, the Archbishop’s memoirs have generated a tidal wave of reaction on ecclesiastical shores. No surprise there, for after all, the book is an intriguing combination of theology and gossip, Aquinas and Oprah, you might say. I’ve come across two reviews of the book in other Catholic publications. One was extremely harsh, and accusatory in tone; the other far more positive and forgiving. I suppose my reaction is somewhere in the middle.
I should say up front that I have pleasant personal memories of Archbishop Weakland. My few brief coffee-break encounters with him at USCCB meetings were enjoyable. He was always respectful and kind to me, at the time, a young bishop. And we share some common roots. His hometown was in Patton, Pennsylvania, and my dad’s family was from Cresson, a neighboring village. If memory serves me, Rembert and I spoke about our common Pennsylvania heritage on more than one occasion.
It strikes me that critics of Archbishop Weakland should be at least a little restrained in their umbrage, for after all there are many redeeming qualities of the Archbishop’s life and ministry. He responded willingly to the Lord’s call to the consecrated life; he has served the Church generously in a variety of difficult leadership positions; he has shown a determined commitment to the progress of the Church and the implementation of the Second Vatican Council; and he has consistently reached-out to the poor, the weak and the disenfranchised members of the Church and society. If his service has been marred by human imperfections, so be it. So is mine, and so is yours.
On the other hand, supporters of Archbishop Weakland should also be able to recognize the self-serving inconsistencies and contradictions contained in his story. (I am always fascinated by the fact it's mostly only the left which suffers from self serving inconsistencies and contradictions.)
For example, although the Archbishop always took pride in his liberal theological tendencies and his public pronouncements on controversial issues, he seemed to be genuinely puzzled, even hurt, when others labeled him a dissident. (This would make more sense if labeling him a dissident was the only adjective used to describe him. Unfortunately, the labels got far more vicious than this.)
He passionately promoted the dignity of the laity and their role in the governance and ministry of the Church, but had little hesitation about quietly using their money to cover-up his egregious sexual offense. (At least he paid the Archdiocese back, which certainly didn't happen with any other bishop who used the money of the laity to cover up clerical sexual abuse scandals and to pay off victims and lawyers. Where was their hesitation? )
He disparaged the secrecy of the Holy See but for twenty years hid his own indiscretions behind the walls of the chancery, indiscretions that were not just a matter of personal behavior but also profoundly affected the reputation and welfare of the Church. (Like every other bishop, who also hid sexual indiscretions behind chancery walls, Weakland was following orders. I personally fault him for following these orders, but certainly do not limit the fault to him.)
He railed against what he considered the authoritarian pontificate of Pope John Paul II, but clearly used his own persona and authority to impose his vision of the Church upon his own fiefdom in Milwaukee, easily dismissing those who opposed him as conservative, right-wing nuts. (I guess it's OK to run your diocese like a fiefdom and impose your authority if you are a conservative. At least Weakland didn't impose his authority by excommunicating all the 'right wing nuts', like a certain conservative bishop in Lincoln, NE excommunicated all his left wing nuts.)
In short, like many dissidents in the Church, throughout his life Archbishop Weakland benefited generously from the support of the institutional Church, but never hesitated to criticize the Church whenever it served his own purposes to do so. (Which is no different than conservative bishops who have benefited from religious sisters and the generosity of the laity, and who have heavily criticised them when it serves their own purposes to do so.)
Archbishop Weakland concludes his memoirs by writing, sincerely I’m sure, “My story now comes to an end . . . Like all the other tales of human pilgrimage it must end with a fervent prayer for God’s gracious love and mercy on such a flawed but grateful pilgrim.”
Without a doubt the Archbishop’s pilgrimage has been perplexing; it’s taken a lot of twists and turns along the way. Nonetheless, there’s much the rest of us pilgrims can learn from his travels including this: that whenever a pilgrim wanders off the track and away from the group, he runs the risk of getting hurt or lost, and in so doing, impedes the pilgrimage, and diminishes the peace and joy of his fellow travelers.
I get so tired of conservative clerics using a stunningly righteous and myopic view point to chastise progressives. Take for instance, the last sentence of Bishop Tobin's review of Archbishop Weakland's book. The implication is that only those who are of a progressive persuasion diminish the joy and peace of their fellow travelers. Conservatives never apparently upset the joy and peace of their fellow travelers. In one sense this is absolutely true, because the tendency with conservatives is not to recognize any other fellow travelers except those of like persuasion. I suppose that's why the rest of us are so frequently told to leave the church for other pastures. We're not considered fellow travellers.
Bishop Tobin is a card carrying member of the righteous right. He's not afraid to call a spade a spade, at least as he sees it. I actually appreciate that quality as I have more than a tendency to do the same thing myself but from another view point.
He writes a blog for the Rhode Island Catholic called "Without a Doubt" and he leaves no doubt about where he stands and why he has no doubts. Given some of his other articles, for instance this one on gay marriage, his review of Archbishop Weakland's book can be considered middle of the road and charitable--for him anyway. Here's a sample of the above linked article on gay marriage which illustrates his less charitable tendencies:
Here let me explain the “champagne principle.” Not every wine is champagne. Champagne has certain very specific, universally recognized characteristics. If someone were to take a bottle of Chianti, label and sell it as champagne, they’d be arrested for fraud. In the same way, those who seek to redefine marriage – with its specific characteristics – and to usurp the title “marriage” for their morally bankrupt relationships, are committing an act of fraud. It’s insulting to those who have entered the authentic, sacred and time-honored institution of marriage over the years.
When I read the above quote I felt incredible compassion for any Catholic parent of a gay child who saw this tripe about morally bankrupt fraudulent relationships and how insulting these relationships were supposed to be to their own marriages. I felt great compassion for the children of gay parents, millions of whom are biological children from failed 'sacred' heterosexual marriages. It seems to me that marriages in which one partner desperately pretends to be what they are not, in order to conform to the blessed sacred image, are the marriages which actually fit the definition of fraudulent.
The entire article makes no effort to separate the human individual from the 'gravely immoral' sexual acts which 'are offensive to Amighty God'. In his eyes, at least judged on his writing, gays are not really human as they are immoral humans, and God forbid that his diocese ever be put into position where his good Catholics would have to tolerate gay God parents at baptisms, hire gay employees in spite of their immoral lifestyles, or grant family benefits to gay couples. (I guess Bishop Tobin expects the children of gays to also have to pay the price for their immoral human parents.)
What I find interesting is that in his article about Archbishop Weakland, Bishop Tobin goes to great lengths to find the human in the gay Archbishop, in spite of the strong words about Weakland's 'egregious sexual offense'. This is in direct contradiction to his attitude to the nameless and faceless gays forcing their agenda down the throats of Rhode Island Catholics. Why is this? Is it because Weakland is an Archbishop and to completely dehumanize him somehow diminishes the standing of Bishop Tobin as a bishop? Or is it something else?
Weakland's life isn't near as perplexing to me as Bishop Tobin's individual treatment of the gay liberal Weakland versus Tobin's universal denunciation of gays or his dismissing of liberals as self centered and opportunistic. On some level, Archbishop Weakland got to Bishop Tobin. Weakland put some cracks in Bishop Tobins 'without a doubt' shell. Tobin defends Weakland as having succumbed to human weakness, as he has, as we all have.
Bishop Tobin is right, we all succumb to human weakness. It's how we learn and grow. How we become more human, more Christ like. It's why we need to forgive and quit judging each other. I suspect it was the human face of Archbishop Weakland which got to Bishop Tobin. Now if only Bishop Tobin would see the same human face in other gays. He might better understand what all the fuss is about.