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Rembert Weakland, former archbishop of Milwaukee and the first American to serve as primate of the Benedictine Order, passed away earlier this week at the age of ninety-five. He had a remarkable ecclesiastical career: abbot of St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania at age thirty-six, primate of the world’s Benedictines at forty, and archbishop of Milwaukee for twenty-five years, from 1977 to 2002. He was also one of the most destructive, imprudent figures in recent Catholic history.

Weakland catapulted to fame with a defiant act that had implications for Catholic life all over the world. In 1966, Paul VI, “disturbed and saddened” by a deluge of requests for monastic orders to use the vernacular, issued Sacrificium Laudis, which made it clear that he would not grant such permissions. Paul complained that such requests ignored clear teaching from the pope and from the Second Vatican Council (which said: “In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office”). The pontiff stressed the importance of tradition in monastic life:

Those prayers, with their antiquity, their excellence, their noble majesty, will continue to draw to you young men and women. . . . On the other hand, that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, and from which is removed this melody proceeding from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns—we speak of Gregorian chant—such a choir will be like to a snuffed candle, which gives light no more, no more attracts the eyes and minds of men. . . . Allow us to protect your interests, even against your own will.

Of course Paul did not protect the monks’ interests in the end. He allowed the candle to be snuffed out—by Weakland. Just after the document was issued, the primate of the Benedictine Order, Benno Gut, presented it at the general Congress of Abbots in 1966. The other abbots revolted. They made the theme of their congress liturgical reform and the adoption of the vernacular. Paul VI, suspecting this was a revolt merely against Gut, promoted the primate to the curia, named him a cardinal, and hoped the situation would settle.

Rembert Weakland was elected primate to take Gut’s place, and moved to Sant’ Anselmo, the Benedictine house in Rome. He made it clear to Paul VI that he had no intention of listening to papal or conciliar authority, and requested an audience with the pope himself to tell him so. In his memoir, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, Weakland reports that during their meeting, the pope wasted hardly a moment before rolling over and submitting: 

The pope said he had been surprised by the negative reaction of the abbots to his document Sacrificium Laudis. . . . He felt he had been wrongly informed, hoping that by publishing this document before we met he could save us much time and discussion. He said quite directly that he was impressed by the arguments for the vernacular—uniting the community and making sure that the new and younger generation could pray in a comprehensible way—and had told the various curial offices to grant all the permissions the abbots requested.

In other words, once he smelt a whiff of opposition from his subordinates, Paul pretended he had never actually meant the things he had written. Just a few weeks afterward, Weakland directed the monks at Sant’ Anselmo, who had prayed together for centuries, to split their prayer lives into six different language groups in order to “unite the community.”

The Benedictines also had to come up with new music immediately, a gargantuan problem for which Weakland—a trained musicologist and former concert pianist—came up with unsatisfactory solutions (in arriere-pensee he wrote of his own work, “I agree with those monks who hold the opinion that we could have retained more Gregorian chant than we did.” Easy to say after the candle had been snuffed out). But he knew more about the problem of inventing new Church music than anyone else did, and so after taking a wrecking ball to a 1500-year tradition of Benedictine prayer in Latin, he was summoned to a new task: that of providing new music for the Roman Catholic Church in America. The line he spoke at the time, to justify casting aside Church music from Gregorian chant to Mozart, was, “False liturgical orientation gave birth to what we call ‘the treasury of sacred music,’ and false judgments perpetuated it.” The modern Catholic church music he left us speaks for itself. Even Weakland confesses that “the music that emerged lacked quality and became more and more banal.” Oh well. Onward with the renewal.

In 1977, Weakland was appointed archbishop of Milwaukee. One of his early acts was to take a lover, Paul Marcoux. In his memoir, excusing himself, he notes that he “missed the ready companionship of my fellow Benedictines.” Things with Marcoux went south after a few months, and Weakland sent him a letter shoving him off and moving on to better things, or, as he puts it in A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: “Somewhat on the rebound, I was caught up over the next few years in an effort to find an intimate relationship with another.”

As archbishop, Weakland courted not only lovers but controversy. A good specimen of his pastoral finesse is the op-ed he wrote for the Catholic Herald in 1988, distinguishing between pedophilia and ephebophilia and defending the practice of keeping serial sexual abusers in ministry: “Sometimes not all adolescent victims are so ‘innocent’; some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise. (We frequently try such adolescents for crimes as adults at that age.) Pastorally, such cases are difficult to treat.” These comments caused an uproar, making it evident that Weakland and his cronies were completely unserious about protecting children from priests. In his memoir he still attempts to justify it all, saying that his tolerant attitude toward ephebophilia “grew out of my experience in Europe and my travels around the world.” 

At the end of his tenure as archbishop, Weakland’s lover Marcoux returned, alleging not only a relationship but that Weakland had raped him. Weakland had the diocesan lawyers pay him $450,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement. In what is probably the crown jewel in his tiara of effrontery and entitlement, he manages to blame this situation on his meager compensation as archbishop: “There was another way I felt hemmed in, held hostage by the Church. . . . I . . . never had monies sufficient for purchasing anything substantial of my own. . . . The fact was that as a bishop there was no way for me to take care of an extraordinary personal need. I had to fall back on my dependency on the Church.”

There you have it—he had to raid the collection basket because he had no money to pay for his personal “needs,” like burning through half a million dollars to buy the silence of a former lover accusing him of rape.

The culmination came in 2008, when Weakland was called to explain, in court and out of it, the Milwaukee archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse cases. He claimed that he did not know that sex with minors was a crime; he also acknowledged that he shredded evidence of it. He claimed that it was the “common view” that sexually abused “youngsters” (his term) “would not remember or they would grow out of it.” Asked why he placed abusers in parishes without informing parishioners or police, he said simply, “No parish would have accepted a priest unless you could say that . . . he’s not a risk to the parish.”

Weakland’s career leaves me aghast that the Church manages to form and promote people like this. But it is still worth contemplating—especially in his memoir, which is a personal record of great historical events and a fairly convincing account of much that went wrong with the Church in the latter half of the twentieth century, told from the perspective of a proud vandal who did as much damage as anyone. 

Weakland remains relevant today, his struggles leading us into larger issues facing the Church. His lifelong argument with John Cardinal O’Connor, for instance, was indicative. “I see the Church more and more becoming a counterculture,” O’Connor said, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Weakland replied: “I was more driven to involvement, without fear, in the world’s problems. I saw much to be reconciled between the Church and our American contemporary culture.” 

This explains much about Weakland. He consistently attempted to align the Church more closely with conventionality. Much of his personal behavior makes sense from this standpoint. From the age of forty he was, in contemporary American terms, the CEO of the Benedictine corporation, and then of the archdiocese of Milwaukee; and yet, as he points out, he didn’t even have so much as half a million dollars in the bank for his “personal needs.” His CEO contemporaries like Donald Trump spent quite a bit on nondisclosure agreements and kept going—Weakland felt he was entitled to the same. Should the Church be reconciled to contemporary culture, or does it have some other kind of character? Your answer to this question will determine much about the way you see Weakland, and the way you see the world.

John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res, the Paideia Institute’s online journal. He is working on a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, for which he is seeking a publisher.

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Photo by Simon Pi licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped. 

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