In A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic
Archbishop, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, offers an
account of, and an apologia for, his dramatic life. One
reader, a prominent scholar and convert who lives in a very
different pew than Archbishop Weakland's, so to speak,
nonetheless told me that the Benedictine prelate's memoir was
a fascinating education in the theological, political and
personal dynamics that filled the post-Vatican II Church in
America with internecine strife - the results of which are
much with us today. The question is whether Archbishop
Weakland's account of that period is fully accurate.
The archbishop is at pains to defend the U.S. bishops'
conference in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, prior to
what he deems a kind of papal Thermidor - a turning back from
reform (or, as some might say, revolution) - engineered by
Pope John Paul II. The archbishop suggests that John Paul had
little use for national bishops' conferences. This seems an
odd assertion, however, for prior to his papal service, Karol
Wojtyla had spent 20 years as part of one of the world's most
effective episcopal conferences: the Polish bishops'
conference, which lacked the elaborate bureaucratic apparatus
of its American counterpart but effectively re-catechized
Poland under communism, building the moral and cultural
foundations for the Solidarity movement. Moreover, anyone
familiar with John Paul's instinctive reaction when presented
with a problem by a bishop - "Have you discussed this with
the conference? What can the conference do to help?"- will be
further suspicious of the claim that the late pope had no use
for episcopal conferences.
Archbishop Weakland's memoir draws an unfavorable contrast
between his own archdiocesan synod in Milwaukee in 1987 and
the "appearance of dialogue" during John Paul's visit to the
U.S. that same year. In light of that contrast, it is worth
remembering that the faux-dialogue structure of that papal
visit - some putative representative from one or another
Catholic interest group would address the pope; John Paul
would respond - was proposed by the U.S. bishops' conference
itself, which seemed to think that the pope had been too
didactic in his previous visit to this country (the 1979
pilgrimage that led to the famous Time cover story, "John
Paul Superstar"). The 1987 format was indeed clumsy; but that
was not the pope's fault.
As for the preparation of the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral
letter on the economy, which the archbishop also holds up as
a model of "dialogue," at least no small part of the
"dialogue" in the months preceding "Economic Justice for All"
was generated by a lay commission that formed itself outside
the bishops' conference structure under the leadership of
former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. It is true that
the drafting committee for the bishops' economics pastoral,
which Archbishop Weakland chaired, invited a reasonably broad
range of formal witnesses to testify. But then so did the
committee drafting the 1983 peace pastoral - and in both
cases, the result of the process was, if not preordained,
then at least prefigured in the assumptions then regnant in
the relevant staff offices at the bishops' conference.
The archbishop argues that "Dearden bishops" - meaning those
conventionally described as "liberals" after Vatican II -
were more interested in "collegial sharing in ministry" than
the bishops appointed by John Paul II. That may be true in
some cases, but those of us with memories of the period
remember that liberal autocracy (episcopal or bureaucratic)
was at least as large a factor in Catholic life as "collegial
sharing in ministry." Moreover, the archbishop's depiction of
himself as a promoter of episcopal collegiality is not
altogether easy to square with his brutal criticism of New
York Cardinal John J. O'Connor in the course of a glowing
Archbishop Weakland profile in the New Yorker.
As he concedes, Archbishop Weakland's faction lost many of
the battles over Catholic identity and practice from the
mid-1980s on. But was that all politics? Or did it have
something to do with the evangelical vitality of the vision
and experience of Church embodied by John Paul II?
Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and
Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.