The lasting value of Weakland’s memoir lies in his account of deep opposition to Vatican II reforms on the part of much of the curia, the governing apparatus in the Vatican. He connects specific names, memos, and conversations to efforts to sabotage any momentum for change – efforts began before the ink was dry on the council documents.
In his own conflicts with Vatican bureaucrats over such issues as how the Benedictines should pray the daily office, he could always count on support from Paul VI. The understanding between himself and the pope regarding the changes that flowed from the council was often a source of reassurance and confidence [for Weakland].
Things changed dramatically with the election in 1978 of John Paul II, who prized loyalty and obedience, not give and take. He was apparently determined to restore absolute authority to the papacy and tolerated no interference. Weakland’s meetings with him were brief and perfunctory. As the archbishop recalls, John Paul never looked him in eye and often just grunted in response to points made.
Weakland [left] is deeply critical of John Paul’s handling of internal church matters. He sees his papacy as one of retrenchment and centralization, which cut off the spirit of collegiality that had begun to spread in the church. And on the home front, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was transformed. A group that once wrote compelling documents on the economy and on the morality of nuclear weapons was so severely restricted by John Paul’s new rules that it has never since been able to undertake those kinds of broadly consultative efforts.
Weakland faults Paul VI [right] for trying to maintain balance of thought and opinion in his curial appointments, keeping in place some he knew would oppose his ideas for implementing Vatican II. It was his way, Weakland writes, of appeasing conservatives who disagreed with the conclusions of the council. In Weakland’s view, the strategy was deeply flawed and guaranteed that the reforms of the council would never be able to take root.
By contrast, John Paul II [left] brooked no dissent or disagreement. “What surprised me most,” writes Weakland, “was his intolerance of views opposed to his own, especially among theologians, the force with which he reacted to suppress them, and the secrecy of the procedures.” In his required visits to the Vatican, Weakland also realized that John Paul gave considerable credence to conservative critics of the church’s leaders in the United States, who would flood the Vatican offices with complaints. The archbishop from Milwaukee was regularly met by curial officials bearing stacks of clips from the city’s newspaper and texts of articles that he had written.
The tension at the heart of Weakland’s experience is the perennial battle, more explosive in some eras than others, over the extent of hierarchical teaching authority in the Catholic Church. That authority, he writes, is at once “our strongest asset” and “our most burdensome and most confounding belief.”
His memoir ends with a kind of penitential rite for Catholics in which he squarely places himself among the penitents. He sees in the future a need for the church to shed its arrogance, to put aside the notion that it somehow represents the perfect society, to rid itself of the inclination to quickly blame others for its internal problems, and to use methods other than condemnation and “near-infallible” statements to deal with disagreements within the church.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Weakland, the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal, and Homophobia
Gay Bishop Feels “No Diminution of God’s Love”
Weakland and Cutié: Making the Connections