Archbishop Weakland Stole More Than Money, He Stole the Faith

Rembert Weakland
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Speak only good things of the dead, the saying goes. The yoga division of The New York Times assumed a veritable Möbius strip of a position to attempt to write a laudable obituary for Rembert Weakland, the disgraced former archbishop of Milwaukee, who died the other day at the age of 95.

It wasn’t entirely successful. The eulogist, one Robert D. McFadden, did have to mention that Weakland “paid” $450,000 as hush money to ward off a lawsuit by his former male lover, who accused him of sexual assault. I have little doubt that Weakland was innocent of that charge. The grown man in question was big enough to take care of himself, and his affair with Weakland was of long duration. 

It was clear, though, that McFadden believed that Weakland’s homosexuality and the breaking of his vows—and doing what Scripture calls an abomination—was a mark in his favor, as was his sly way of undermining everything the Church has to teach about sex, the begetting of children, and family life.

For the eulogy ends with these words:

Archbishop Weakland was the author or co-author of a dozen books on topics including Catholic education and the church since the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In 2009 he published A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop, which discussed church reforms and also addressed his homosexuality. In the 2009 interview with The Times, which was conducted just before the book’s publication, he disputed the Catholic view that homosexuality was “intrinsically disordered.”

“If we say our God is an all-loving god, how do you explain that at any given time probably 400 million living on the planet at one time would be gay?” he asked. “Are the religions of the world, as does Catholicism, saying to those hundreds of millions of people, ‘You have to pass your whole life without any physical, genital expression of that love’?”

I don’t pretend to read the man’s soul, but those do not sound like the words of a repentant sinner. Weakland’s rhetorical question implies that the Church’s teaching is plainly absurd, and it appears that McFadden believes likewise. Neither does he ask the most obvious questions about sexual morality generally. For if Sodom is to be cheered, mere old hayloft fornication after the way of nature must merit a full orchestra blaring out to make the earth shake for joy beneath us. How unutterably foolish it is.

But all is to be passed over, ignored, because Weakland was special. Other men make vows of chastity and keep them. He didn’t. And when the tawdry truth was going to come out, he “paid,” to use McFadden’s verb, nearly half a million dollars to hold on to his comfortable archepiscopal seat. “Paid” is the wrong verb. “Embezzled,” “misappropriated,” or just plain “stole” would be more like it. 

How many thousands of the faithful in Milwaukee gave to the diocese during those years! They thought they were financing diocesan schools, or the upkeep of church buildings, or homes for elderly priests and religious sisters. In actuality, $450,000 of it, at the archbishop’s discretion—the only thing that kept him out of prison—went to a mentally ill gay man, so that Weakland would not be publicly disgraced. 

I am astonished that he would write anything at all, let alone his memoirs, after having done such a thing. Where was the shame? I know of a priest who sinned with teenage boys. When he was found out, he retired in shame to a monastery, and he spent the rest of his life repenting of his sins. He did not put himself forward as an exemplar of anything. He died, I am told, in a state of profound grace.

A sane man, wondering whether a certain moral directive is to be upheld, even against our natural inclination to leave things alone, will want to look at how people who violate the directive behave in other and apparently unrelated regards. 

Weakland was a large-scale thief. Weakland covered up for (mostly) gay priests with an eye for boys. Weakland, sworn by his office to teach what the Church teaches, did his best to undermine it, to sow indifference or contempt whenever the teachings touched upon his own most precious field of sin. Weakland presided over the complete collapse of vocations in his diocese, and it never caused him to doubt his own wisdom. 

Weakland, again at great expense, with ordinary people shelling out the funds, turned the beautiful interior of the Milwaukee cathedral into a modernist nightmare. When people protested—not because they were “conservative” but because they didn’t like what they were seeing—he treated them to the high-handed authoritarianism he and others accused John Paul II of, when if anything the Polish pope’s most serious fault was that he mainly let his brother bishops do what they pleased. And if they said there was nothing scandalous going on in their dioceses, he took their word for it. Not being a pathological liar, he could not imagine it in someone else.

It will be said in Weakland’s defense that he was an advocate for the poor. But talk is cheap, and a vote costs nothing. We have known for sixty years, and perhaps we have always known it, that the collapse of sexual morality is a driver of family breakdown, and that family breakdown, particularly in its form as fatherlessness, is a driver of indifference to the Church, underachievement in school, poverty, and crime. 

And so, I challenge every Catholic who has or who wishes to have a heart for the poor to reject, by your public example, that collapse; to model for others what the family-protecting and marriage-promoting virtues look like; and, whenever the matter is brought up, to say, forthrightly, that precisely because you do care for the poor, you affirm what the Church and the Scriptures and Christian tradition for two thousand years plainly teach. 

That is: marriage is between a man and a woman, not because of social convention but by the will of the Creator from the beginning, as affirmed by the Lord Himself, and as is obvious to anyone with eyes and a reasoning mind; the child-making act is to be reserved for married couples alone because of the very nature of marriage and of the child their sexual union may beget; and children once begotten must never be killed, directly and deliberately, as the fail-safe for hedonism, irresponsibility, and selfishness. 

Nor can there be any compromise with these principles. Mercy for sinners, always; generous and heartfelt mercy. But no mercy for error. We care for the people who have partaken of the poisoned dinner—and who among us born since 1950 has not tasted of it? But we do not make light of the poison. Arsenic is not table salt, and no amount of pretending or looking the other way will make it so. The sins do their deadly work independent of our opinions about them. God will judge how culpable any individual partaker of arsenic is. But the acts have their inevitable consequences.

Nevertheless, he stands before the judgment seat of God, a sinner, as we all are, and we should remember the words of Shakespeare, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

[Photo Credit: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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