Rembert Weakland’s Oprah ecclesiology

His autobiography exemplifies the narcissism and immaturity of much Church leadership in the years since Vatican Council ii.

Probably the most telling passage in Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland’s autobiography A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church concerns an apparently trivial incident in late 1977. The newly arrived archbishop of Milwaukee was cleaning out his predecessor’s files when, at the back of a cabinet, he came across dusty copies of psychological and sociological studies of American priests published five years earlier. He took them home, read them, and “resonated” to the insight that immaturity was one of the most serious problems of clerics.

“To be honest,” Archbishop Weakland writes, “I had to recognize that same immaturity in myself. In addition, I was becoming concerned that narcissism was equally a problem among the clergy; again, I could see this in myself. For us priests self-centeredness seems to have come with our mother’s milk, and was later re-enforced by being treated as the favorite among our siblings because of our priestly vocation.”

Having thus unburdened himself, the author drops the subject—consciously at least. But the whole of his book shows the immaturity/narcissism patt ern at work in the author’s career; indeed, the book itself is a signifi cant part of it. Here are the memoirs of one of those self-centered, narcissistic priests, who, having risen to the highest levels of the American hierarchy at a crucial time, faltered tragically there.

In 2002 Archbishop Weakland retired under a cloud following the disclosure that he’d had an affair with a man 20 years his junior to whom he paid $450,000 from archdiocesan funds to settle a lawsuit without publicity. The editor of this magazine already has expressed well-founded indignation regarding his book (George Neumayr, “Pilgrim’s Regress,” CWR, July 2009). Yet A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church needs to be read by faithful Catholics: not, God knows, to be persuaded by it but to learn from it. It’s like studying photographic negatives—reality reversed, dark turned into light, light into dark. In these plodding pages it becomes clear how some prominent and not-so-prominent people in the Church went disastrously wrong in the last 40 years and why correcting the harm they did is so difficult now.

Hearing that Archbishop Weakland was planning an autobiography, I naturally asked myself: why? Given the circumstances of his leaving office, wouldn’t silence be in his and everyone else’s best interests? His answer (or the most cogent one anyway, since he gives several different answers in two different places in the book) has to do with his “concept of the Church’s nature as a communion of believers on a faith journey…. My story affects everyone else’s story and thus, at least in part, belongs to them.”

What on earth does that mean? In the finest of American autobiographies, The Education of Henry Adams, the author says nothing about the most emotionally searing event of his life—the suicide of his mentally disturbed wife—on the grounds, apparently, that there are things a gentleman simply doesn’t talk about. But times have changed, and we live in the age of Oprah, not Henry Adams. Cutting through the churchy jargon, Archbishop Weakland’s rationale for writing makes sense in light of his statement that disclosure of his affair with Paul Marcoux and his homosexuality was liberating for him: “The tension between being myself and trying to be a bishop in an image I found outmoded ceased.” Writing an autobiography—as a favor to the rest of us, he says—is still another self-regarding exercise in liberation. That’s how Oprah ecclesiology works.

Rembert Weakland was more intelligent than most bishops of his day and his sexual foibles were atypical, but he was a representative American bishop all the same. Usually, he notes, he’s called a “Jadot bishop,” a reference to the late Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate in the United States from 1973 to 1980, who did so much to reshape the American hierarchy along “pastoral” lines—pastoral in this instance meaning more permissive, less concerned about orthodoxy and discipline, more open to voices of diversity and liberal dissent.

But Archbishop Weakland prefers the designation “Dearden bishop,” and in this he’s correct. Cardinal John Dearden was archbishop of Detroit from 1959 to 1980. As the first post-Vatican II president of what was then called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference (now, the USCCB), he gave the Church in America the national episcopal conference in its modern, bureaucratized, activist form, as later he was to give it the notorious, left-leaning Call To Action Conference of 1976. His influence is visible in the careers and leadership styles of a generation of American bishops with names like Bernardin, Quinn, Roach, and Malone. It persists even now via the old-boy patronage system in the hierarchy.

From one point of view, Archbishop Weakland’s rise in the Church is an ecclesiastical Horatio Alger story. Brains, musical talent, and a knack for pleasing superiors propel a boy who grew up in dire poverty during the Depression onto the Benedictine fast track. Study in Rome, advanced musical studies at Juilliard in New York, and election as an archabbot in 1963 follow in quick succession. In 1967, he became Abbot Primate of the worldwide Benedictine order. Ten years later, at the early age of 50, archbishop of Milwaukee. How much higher might he have hoped to go?

At this point it’s useful to recall that there are two radically different versions of the story of American Catholicism in the four decades after Vatican II. Which you subscribe to tells much about where you come down on many key issues in the Church.

The first version sees these years divided into two sections. The first, starting with the council’s close in 1965 and continuing until 1978, was filled with turmoil and dissent. Rectories, convents, and seminaries emptied. New vocations to the priesthood and religious life fell precipitously. After the brave gesture of Humanae Vitae in 1968 and the violent reaction against it, Pope Paul VI grew increasingly weary and depressed. The Church seemed to be rushing toward collapse. But 1978 brought the election of John Paul II as pope, and collapse was averted.

Version number two divides this era the same way, but sees the two periods very differently. In this view, the years from 1965 to 1978 were in many ways a golden age when heroic figures battled reactionaries over the renewal of Catholic life, by and large (except for setbacks like Humanae Vitae) emerging on top. Then came 1978, the death of Paul VI, the election of John Paul II. Suddenly the emphasis in Rome was on thwarting renewal—a project that continues to this very day under Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Weakland subscribes to this second version of history. As Abbot Primate in Paul VI’s Rome during the post-council years he was a Vatican insider and, in his own sphere of influence, an important player in renewal. He returned to America in 1977 as archbishop of Milwaukee full of hope. Under John Paul II, however, a new ice age set in—an age of authoritarianism, centralization, and repression. From being an insider, the archbishop suddenly found himself part of the “loyal minority.”

Many things that happened in the postconciliar era are best understood in light of Archbishop Weakland’s diagnosis of immaturity and narcissism among the clergy (to say nothing of women religious), both those who left and those who stayed. The pre-Vatican II formation system produced many admirable priests and religious, but its rigid structures and rules also produced many who proved to be ill-equipped for the fluid and ambiguous ecclesiastical situation immediately after the council.

In these years, for long stretches of time, a fundamentally adolescent spirit dominated the much-heralded American Church. Significantly, Archbishop Weakland reports that “sexual awareness”—apparently he means awareness of his homosexuality—arrived for him at the advanced age of 45. Many other priests and religious were similarly late bloomers for whom sexual self-discovery and sexual experimentation belatedly became pressing issues in their lives.

A major feature of this adolescent ecclesiastical scene was the tyranny of psychologizing, reflecting the sickly mindset memorably described by Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. As the infatuated archbishop of Milwaukee fretted over his relationship with Paul Marcoux, he found solace in the ministrations of a “sage” Jesuit confessor and a psychologist, who showed him that loneliness lay at the heart of his sexual obsession. The psychologist presumably was simply doing what psychologists do—finding psychological explanations for things—but, if Archbishop Weakland is reporting him correctly, surely that Jesuit confessor would have done better to point out  that sacramental absolution requires a firm purpose of amendment—in this case, breaking off his sexual involvement once and for all.

When the archbishop did finally get around to that, it was by way of a mawkish letter to Marcoux in August 1980—a letter any schoolboy (or schoolgirl, for that matter) might have penned. Thereafter, on the “rebound” from Marcoux, he spent several more years seeking “an intimate relationship with another.” And what, one wonders, did the sage Jesuit say about that?

One of the peculiarities of people who accept version number two of the last 40 years is their consistent failure to face up to the implications of the empirical data of decline. When Archbishop Weakland arrived in Milwaukee, the archdiocese—though already having experienced a decade of decline—still had 700,000 Catholics, over 300 parishes and missions, 547 active diocesan priests, 3,872 sisters, and 216 brothers. Seven new diocesan priests were ordained that year, and Milwaukee’s two diocesan seminaries had 115 students. By 2002, when he stepped down, there were 695,000 Catholics, 224 parishes and missions, 246 active diocesan priests, 2,601 sisters, and 56 brothers. One new diocesan priest was ordained that year, and the one remaining diocesan seminary had 21 students.

Many other American dioceses suffered similar declines in these years. It would be unfair to blame Archbishop Weakland and the other bishops exclusively for what happened. But quality of leadership obviously played a part. In that context, there’s something inescapably bizarre about his self-congratulatory reflection (while waiting for a news conference on May 31, 2002 at which he would make a public apology to Milwaukee Catholics for the Marcoux affair): “I knew that my 25 years as archbishop had been good years that could not be taken from me.” Taken from him? This is the voice of narcissism.

There’s much to dislike about this book and the self-portrait it provides. The author is humorless, eager to settle scores with people who had the temerity to cross him, quick to fix blame for his missteps on somebody or something else (as when, explaining the $450,000 payoff to Marcoux from archdiocesan funds, he inexplicably complains of feeling “hemmed in by the Church”—as if it were the Church’s fault!). On the level of substance, it’s deeply regrettable that a member of the Catholic hierarchy should consider himself entitled to distance himself from Catholic teaching on issues like homosexuality and women’s ordination. More liberation for Rembert Weakland, one supposes.

Archbishop Weakland is a gifted man in many ways. In joining the Benedictines and becoming a priest he undoubtedly was moved by a desire to serve God and his people. Over the years he’s devoted time and energy to many good causes, although, as his book makes clear, he’s also been a partisan of causes that are not good. He has a keen critical eye for other people’s motes while regarding his own beams with indulgence. Curial officials often subjected him to second-guessing, which he found infuriating, but seldom gave him useful guidance, much less correction. This is how nervous parents mishandle troublesome adolescent sons.

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church exemplifies in sometimes tedious detail the narcissism and immaturity of much Church leadership in the years since Vatican Council II. The book is well worth reading, but with a note of caution constantly in mind: Caveat lector. There’s an important story here, but not quite the one the author thinks.


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About Russell Shaw 262 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).