"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Poison of Papal Centralization

I can confess now to my earlier Schadenfreude when the news of Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s disgrace broke nearly twenty years ago now and he was found to have been paying off a gay lover from diocesan funds and then lying about the amounts and the sources. (He initially claimed that whatever he took from the diocese was more than offset by royalties from his writings, speaking fees, etc. This turned out to be widely off the mark by a considerable amount, and the lie merely compounded myriad offenses for which, were I running the Church, he would have immediately been put on trial by a regional or national synod of bishops, and deposed from office swiftly if found guilty, as he admits he was.) This was just an extraordinary twist to a much more familiar tale involving him and all his episcopal brothers: the moving around and covering up of sexual abusers in Weakland's diocese of Milwaukee. Both revelations allowed me, for years, smugly to feel that I had two impeccable reasons for writing off this aptly named creature, and I never gave him another thought. With a name and record like his, would one seriously reproach oneself for snickering sanctimoniously?

But my undergraduate readings in Emmanuel Levinas, on the dangers of abstraction and the reduction of unique human beings to a category, and the refusal to engage them face-to-face, have been haunting me a lot lately. So too am I haunted by not always doing what I am forever my haranguing my students to do: to "despoil the Egyptians" as the Fathers counselled, that is to discern where, even in lives of those who have done manifest and notorious, or hidden and banal evil (which is all of us), we might also find glimmers of goodness, even in small ways. Such discernment is necessary to prevent us from demonizing people and turning them into grotesques, as I certainly had done at an earlier point in my life whenever Weakland's name was in the headlines.

My conscience thus doubly pricked, I felt I owed Weakland a read when, early this summer, I found his A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop in the $1 bin at Hyde Brothers, the only truly outstanding used bookstore in Ft. Wayne. So I bought it, figuring that if it turned out to be maudlin self-justifying treacle, I wouldn't begrudge the loss of a mere dollar--not least because I could always recoup great emotional compensation by allowing my children to set the book on fire and roast marshmallows over it.

But I’m very glad I did buy it and read it. His was a fascinating life--growing up dirt poor in Pennsylvania, discovering sophisticated talents for both music and advanced scholarship on the same (he eventually finished his doctorate at Columbia in medieval musicology), and then getting pulled into all the major developments of the Church since the Second World War. He writes in a generally cogent fashion mostly free from excesses either of self-justification or self-abasement. The sketches he gives of many figures--perhaps most clearly Popes Paul VI and John Paul II--are highly revealing and often bemusing--when, that is, they do not make one cringe, weep, or both over their manifest flaws so visible to others if not themselves. (But then, as I long ago learned from Freud, we are all ambivalent half-blind creatures who disguise that by thinking ourselves steely-spined, fervent and zealous always for the truth, and transparently good--while everyone else, of course, is feckless, fickle, opaque, and wicked.)

Weakland spent no little time in official and semi-official Orthodox-Catholic dialogues and encounters, and has interesting things to say about trips to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarchs, especially Athenagoras. He also made a long-sought pilgrimage to Mt. Athos for an encounter between Western monks (Weakland was a professed Benedictine) and Eastern monastics. In this he put me in mind of Basil Pennington's charming book about such meetings, The Monks of Mount Athos: A Western Monks Extraordinary Spiritual Journey on Eastern Holy Ground. 

(Since both Weakland and Pennington's books have appeared there has been a small explosion of interest in the so-called holy mountain. I have noted some of those books on here over the years.)

But I appreciated the book not only for its biographical and historical and ecumenical detail, but above all for its ecclesiological insights of which I was unaware. For those of us who have been arguing for years now against a centralizing papacy. which arguments I first laid out in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, and more recently in my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power, Weakland provides a great deal of evidence for why resisting a centralizing papacy and its curial micro-managers is important to the Church.

For those vanishingly few people today who still want to maintain, in the face of a relentless daily onslaught of evidence to the contrary, that only a strongly centralized papacy will "save us" from, say, the ostensibly wayward teaching of supposedly heterodox hierarchs, then let me dust off a question I've been asking for well over a decade: who, pray tell, appointed and promoted the bishops like--to pluck names at random--Bernard Law? Roger Mahoney? Theodore McCarrick? or Michael Bransfield? or George Pell? or Joseph Hart? or, for that matter, Rembert Weakland? It is, as Freud so clearly saw in his much-maligned and almost entirely misunderstood book Future of an Illusiona peculiarly stubborn feature of certain minds in some religious traditions desperately to hang on to illusions precisely as a species of wish fulfillment. In this case, the wish is quite understandable, indeed commendable: it is to have bishops who are shepherds, not wolves. But imagining the papacy as the only, or best, route to finding such shepherds is now revealed to be perhaps the clearest species of illusion on offer anywhere today.

Weakland--whatever his sins, which I do not for a moment excuse, as I noted above--is useful to us as an important witness to the ongoing pathological and cancerous growth of a centralizing papacy in areas almost entirely ignored by everybody else. Weakland tells a small slice of history of which I was unaware: the pressure, from Pope Leo XIII onward, to turn the worldwide abbot-primate of the Benedictines (which role Weakland filled from 1967 until being made a bishop in 1977) into a micromanaging quasi-papal figure, and the international Benedictine Confederation into a highly centralized body trying to control Benedictine houses around the world. Many times he had to fight various figures in the Roman Curia (some of whom call to mind Congar's acid description of a certain Roman bureaucrat as "an imbecile, a sub-human...this wretched freak, this sub-mediocrity with no culture, no horizon, no humanity") who wanted Weakland to become some kind of hammer, pounding all the world's Benedictine houses into submission on almost invariably tedious points beloved by bureaucrats if for no other reason than to show their own power.

Weakland, to his credit, fought this trend as much as possible, noting that it was not just an attempt at centralization, but also at finding convenient scapegoats: "the Congregation for Religious wants a primate who will carry out their orders and take the blame if things go wrong," he writes. His refusal to go along with this was, he says, a manifestation of a Benedictine "spirit of independence" which some tried to suggest was just disguised "disobedience" to the pope. But Weakland saw through that, and apparently both he and Paul VI also realized that such curialists and their claims were trying covertly to manipulate even the pope to their own ends. (Weakland hints that Paul's character is very much like that revealed in Louis Bouyer's explosive memoirs, where Bouyer notes how often the liturgical reformers tried to claim certain things were desired or demanded by the pope, when the pope had done no such thing--but the climate of secrecy in which they were all operating, usually for no very good reason, allowed for such games to be played.)

Neither Weakland nor I, to be clear, are arguing against papal authority in certain respects. There is an equal if opposite danger afoot here, that of demonizing popes and the papacy, which has not been without its merits in certain extreme and emergency situations, and can still be useful in "calling everyone to dinner" as a colleague of mine once phrased it. But those extreme and emergency situations, largely creatures of revolutionary Europe in the very longue durée from c. 1789 to c. 1918, are completely gone, but the centralized and now paralyzed structures created in response to them, are, alas, with us still.

Today, in a very different era in which we are all finally coming to see how poisonous papal centralization is, and how cancerous its growth, and are finally, belatedly, starting to look for alternate models of local and synodal governance, which I have outlined in very short form here, in slighly longer form here, and in longer form still in the new book, we have people like the flawed Rembert Weakland to thank for fighting this battle avant la lettre even as he was losing other ones with the demons that variously attack all of us.

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