Recommended Reading
Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop
By Rembert G. Weakland, OSB.
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2009
Reviewed by Denys Horgan

Two questions come to mind on reading “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop,” by the retired archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland: Would he have written this book if his homosexual dalliance 25 years previously had not been brought to light? And would we be reading it if we had not known about his fall from grace?

It would be a pity if the answer to either of these questions is a “no.” For this masterful apologia pro vita sua does not need a hint of scandal to justify its writing or reading.

Weakland faces up to the affair from the get-go. In a prologue, he recounts in as much detail as is necessary the circumstances that enabled his relationship with another man to get out of hand. He makes no excuses for his conduct: He apologizes for it and for the way he reacted to it, and humbly asks for forgiveness. A reader who is tantalized with the possibility that the book will reveal anything else about the affair will be disappointed. There is nothing more to be said.

On the other hand, a reader who is looking for a frank account of the Roman curia’s decades-long hostility to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in general and its distain for the U.S. church in particular will be amply rewarded. Weakland was not just a passive observer of recent church  history, he was in the thick of it, playing defense and offense, sometimes both positions at the same time.

Born in 1927 and christened George Samuel, Weakland was raised in Patton, a small Appalachian town that served as a hub for the offices of the many coal-mining companies in the region. Two years later, as the Great Depression was gearing up, the town’s bank closed down, then the hotel owned by his father and grandfather burned down, and three years later his father died of pneumonia leaving a mother with six young children, from six months to nine years. Both poverty and tragedy singled him out at an early age.

Natural musical talent

But Weakland also had talent. There was a piano in the house and some music books, which he devoured.  His natural skills developed under the tutelage of one of his Catholic school teachers, a nun, and in sixth grade he was playing Chaminade, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. He was sent, all expenses paid, to a Benedictine high school, St. Vincent’s in Latrobe some 60 miles away, and at the age of 13 he entered the scholasticate, where boys considering the priesthood lived. Although he was tempted by a career as a concert pianist, he joined the Benedictines as a novice in 1945 and took the name Rembert. He studied in Rome and was ordained in 1951. He continued his studies in Italy, France and Germany, and returned to study music at the Julliard School and Columbia University in New York. In 1999, on a sabbatical when he was Archbishop of Milwaukee, he completed his studies in music with a doctorate from Columbia.

He rose steadily in the ranks of the clergy. He taught music at St. Vincent’s from 1957 to 1963, when he was elected archabbot; four years later he was elected abbot primate of the entire Benedictine Confederation and moved to Rome but traveled throughout the world encouraging local monasteries. In 1968, he happened to be in the same Thai monastery as Thomas Merton the day he was accidentally electrocuted. He was re-elected abbot primate in 1973, Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Milwaukee in 1977 and he retired in 2002.

Pope Paul was a friend and Weakland had relatively easy access to him. Even before he was made archbishop, when petty complaints were being lodged against him in Rome, he would be called into the Vatican to be told off by some cardinal or other. But Weakland could go over their heads to the pope directly, and would usually get his way or accept a reasonable compromise.

Changing of the guard

All that changed when John Paul II came to power. Paul VI and Weakland shared a vision of the church that was born of the Second Vatican Council: Paul appreciated and respected religious orders and their role in the church, and Weakland was a strong proponent of the collegiality of bishops and the greater role for the laity that the council had clearly intended.

John Paul was different. People will say that he and the Vatican bureaucrats under him were chosen to restrain what they saw as “excesses” being perpetrated by local churches in the name of the council. Weakland’s memoirs reveal, however, a series of dust-ups with a Vatican determined to hold on to its power and privilege in the face of national conferences of bishops proposing their own solutions to their own problems in their own way, bishops thinking for themselves, and a well-educated laity eager to have their say.

Weakland, who had already demonstrated a genuine pastoral concern for the members of his own order when he was an abbot, showed the same pastoral concern for the people of Milwaukee. He was alarmed at the inevitable prospect of a great shortage of priests in the future and openly questioned the necessity of celibacy for ordination. When he held a dinner for 125 resigned priests and their wives in the diocesan seminary, word got back to Rome, and the displeasure of the Vatican was made known to him. He held another dinner the following year. He got into deeper trouble when he suggested, innocently, that there was no reason why women could not be ordained.

What worried him, most of all, was that Rome was taking these and other pastoral decisions without consulting the bishops of the world, as the council had foreseen, and without listening to the theologians, biblical scholars and the laity, especially women, who had other points of view. It was as if the council—still the most authoritative voice in the church—had never spoken. Synods of bishops would be held in Rome, but they were presented with agendas that were loaded, and nobody seemed to be listening to what the participants had to say anyway.

Losing control

It was not that the bishops were straying from the party line: The point was that when bishops took an initiative on their own, Rome saw itself losing control and its power diluted. And Rome had the support of some bishops who, also feeling they were losing their personal power and autonomy, were only too happy to placate the Vatican and undermine the conferences. Powerful groups of lay people with lots of money also found a sympathetic ear in Rome.

A clear example of this was the U.S. bishops’ attempt, championed by Weakland, to formulate a pastoral statement on the American economic system. They succeeded despite attempts by conservative lay Catholics such as Michael Novak to undermine it by pre-empting the bishops’ statement, and the likes of  William F. Buckley who claimed Weakland wanted “to introduce socialism to the United States,” and that “people should hope that before that happens, there will still be enough church-attending Christians to pray efficaciously that he will fail.”

Little has changed. The right wing still levels the charge of socialism at those who campaign for a more equitable distribution of wealth, and pray that their efforts to bring about a more just society will fail. A recent issue of America magazine (March 2) remarked: “A small but vocal contingent of Catholic conservatives are calling for a “tea party” style revolution within the church in an effort to root out the dissent they see lurking within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. … Hostility to the C.C.H.D.’s agenda has been longstanding within certain Catholic circles. What is new about these Web-based assaults is the attacks on specific individuals on the U.S.C.C.B. staff and the complete absorption of secular society’s noxious style of political mudslinging as a legitimate form of criticism within the church.”

Over time, Weakland saw the conferences losing any standing the council had given them and Rome reserving decision-making to itself and appointing new bishops solely on the basis of their willingness to toe the party line, irrespective of their ability to lead a diocese. The unfortunate results of these policies are evident today, most prominently in the failure of bishops to deal properly with clerical sexual abuse. The irony is that by flexing its muscles, Rome lost much of its authority.

Some might be tempted to dismiss Weakland’s memoirs as clerical scuttlebutt, but they are not. They tell the story of how forces in the Vatican regrouped and took back the power that the council had shared with local churches and the laity. People are entitled to know that because it is their lives that are at stake.

Weakland is a good and a great man, and if, indeed, his misfortunate behavior was a catalyst for this book, then it would be yet another case of felix culpa—like the sin of Adam—a happy fault that has a happy outcome, the discovery of the mercy of God.