Archbishop Weakland’s Perplexing Pilgrimage

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.