The Fall of the Archbishop

Archbishop Rembert Weakland was a distant if familiar villain in my early teenage years. In the vestibule of the parish office where we held our Legion of Mary meetings, our liberal priests would put old copies of the newsletter of the Womens’ Ordination Conference, National Catholic Reporter, and other publications of the Catholic left that featured Archbishop Weakland as a hero fighting against the tyranny of the Vatican. He was for dialogue on such issues as the female role in the leadership of the Church, social justice, and the democratization of Church power so that the laity would have “more of a voice.” He was, in a real sense, the official spokesman of the Catholic Left for more than two decades.

As the years went by, I began to realize that this liberal icon had some very unlikely credentials for a progressive clergyman. He grew up during the Depression in Pennsylvania and was educated by Benedictine monks in the finest of Catholic liberal arts traditions. Later, he himself became a Benedictine monk and was further educated in scholastic theology in Rome. A notably talented musician, he was then sent to get a doctorate in music at Julliard, where he did his dissertation on Ambrosian chant. He was instrumental in piecing together that remarkable work of medieval music and drama, the Ludus Danielis (the Play of Daniel), a 13th-century proto-opera first performed in the cathedral of Beauvais, France. He would later advocate for the complete vernacularization of Church music, even in the monastic context, even though he forgot more about Gregorian chant than most contemporary experts ever learn. He ascended to the position of abbot of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, later to be chosen in the tumultuous aftermath of the Second Vatican Council as abbot primate of the entire Benedictine Federation. It was only after all this, in the twilight of the papacy of Paul VI, that he was tapped to be Archbishop of Milwaukee in 1977. And it was in this position that concerned American Catholics grew to either love or hate him.
So when a friend lent me Archbishop Weakland’s recently published autobiography, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop, I was intrigued to learn what made someone like that tick. I was also well aware of his disgraceful fall from power in 2002, when it was revealed that he had been blackmailed into giving almost half a million dollars to a man with whom he had a homosexual relationship in the late 1970s. Neither that nor his coming out as homosexual interested me in this book, however, and I chose not to tie his theological views to his sexual misbehavior.
What really fascinated me was the question of how a man so well-formed by the best of what the traditional Church had to offer could so violently reject it in his mature years. How could he look back nostalgically on his training in Gregorian chant, serving hushed low Masses on side altars, and strict monastic discipline and conclude for the younger generation: “Good for me, but not for thee”? Really, I was looking for the story of the American Church in the last 70 years, and the story behind the forgetfulness that is the order of the day when it comes to the history, tradition, and culture of our Catholicism.
I can by no means delve deeply into the man’s psyche in this essay, but I can say, after reading the story of his life cover to cover, that the impression I got of the archbishop was that of an embittered company man on the outs with the present board of directors. In other words, in all that Archbishop Weakland writes, the supernatural is completely absent, and God seems to work as a mechanism reflecting what is popular with the masses or what is acceptable to the latest scholars that the archbishop finds fashionable.
For example, Archbishop Weakland is quick to criticize the theology of others for lacking a scriptural foundation (an accusation he hurls against Thomas Merton) yet fails to take Scripture seriously when it talks about the role of women in the Church or the injunction to “have no other gods before Me.” On the whole, the book reads like a lament of a middle manager who rose quickly under one CEO, but whose rising star sank once new management (in this case, Pope John Paul II) came into office. Thus, his dreams for the Church were thwarted by people who did not “get” Vatican II or simply disregarded its more progressive tendencies. Throughout, there is no real hint of submission or the possibility that he may well be wrong. The Church is merely a function of his own ideas that need to be implemented, no matter what the cost.
One of the sadder anecdotes in the book is of his visits to Benedictine convents in the wake of the Second Vatican Council as abbot primate. He was saddened by the fact that the nuns often did not understand the Latin of the office, and he was uneasy that the nuns acted with “excessive infantilism” toward their superiors. He also lamented such practices as the use of the grill to conceal the nuns from the outside world, and he viewed the parlors for visiting the cloistered women as places that were “dark, dreary, and uninviting.” His solution to all this was to “educate” the nuns, including an education in psychology. Those familiar with the work of Dr. William Coulson with the Immaculate Heart Nuns in southern California in the 1960s know how devastating such experiments proved to those religious communities. For these liberals, however, in order to save these communities, they had to destroy them.
In general, then, Abbot Weakland’s main concern was to prevent his monasteries from becoming “museums of the past.” He was all for the complete removal of Latin and Gregorian chant from the daily offices. He was fully behind the modernization of monastic discipline and the jettisoning of the idea that monks were “separate from the world.” And the lust for “dialogue” — with the Orthodox, Protestants, Buddhists, and other non-Catholics — was central to many of his projects as well. Quoting one colleague, his worry for the Benedictine order was that it would become a “backwater or antiquarian survival — a sort of coelacanthus of the Church.” For Archbishop Weakland, the whole Church — even the guardians of tradition, the monks — had to move forward or die.
Pope Paul VI proved to be quite generous in granting Archbishop Weakland everything he desired, in spite of the strong reservations of some of the more conservative members of the curia. The end of the salad days for Weakland came with his appointment as archbishop of Milwaukee and the ascension of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, known to history as John Paul II, to the Throne of St. Peter. From then on, according to his telling of it, Archbishop Weakland received only headaches from the Vatican, often caused by complaints from “closed-minded” parishioners of his own archdiocese (he mentions Catholics United for the Faith by name). For Archbishop Weakland, John Paul II purged the American hierarchy of the more “open” elements and shut down dialogues on the role of women in the Church, abortion, artificial contraception, and other issues dear to liberal ideologues.
Archbishop Weakland’s pages on Pope John Paul II are almost unreadable for their near puerile bitterness toward a man who didn’t “get him.” The late pontiff apparently surrounded himself with “yes men” who “never challenged” his views; he was “rigid” and did not know how to read the “signs of the times.” The most interesting accusation may be that the pontiff’s theological thought was not sufficiently “based on scripture [sic].” He opines that he was “too much of a free spirit” to be a bishop under such a “forceful and unbending pope.”
All the same, my question still stands: What makes such a prelate tick? Why did Archbishop Weakland choose the trajectory that he traveled?
I think the key lies in the idea of the company man. One gets the sense that the archbishop only values the Church as an institution; he has little concern for what that institution teaches so long as it syncs with his own views. In other words, preservation of tradition — that which formed him as a youth and brought him to the heights of ecclesiastical power — means very little to him if his hatred of “authoritarianism” is not placated.
This would explain why Archbishop Weakland saw such things as convent grills as unfortunate anachronisms, and why he feared that his order would be out of the loop in terms of the “advances” being made in the outside world. The content of Catholicism mattered very little, as did the idea that there is a sacred deposit of Faith with which the Church is entrusted in the form of doctrine, Church structure, liturgy, and piety. What matters is that the People of God are free to pursue a “life in the Spirit,” free from the constrictions of those who would hold them back in their continual dialogue with the modern world.
But many of these same People of God are turning away from the liberal program that Archbishop Weakland advocates and toward the “authoritarian fundamentalism” of the current and previous pontiffs. In the end, it may be Rembert Weakland — a fallen monk, a disgraced archbishop, and an intransigent dissenter — who will be the coelacanthus of the Church.


  • Arturo Vasquez

    Arturo Vasquez is a writer and independent researcher in New Orleans. He blogs regularly at Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

    Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

    Email subscribe inline (#4)

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...