The Archbishop As Apprentice
[Editor’s Note: The battle over the destruction of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee has become a flash point in the fight for the faith. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a hero of the dissent movement in the United States, leaves a legacy of a diocese with few vocations, "wreckovated" churches, gong-show Masses and declining belief in the deposit of the faith. Since the Vatican intervened recently to defend the rights of the laity against his arrogant actions and halt the destruction of the cathedral, the archbishop has become ever more in-your-face in his opposition. Please pray for him and the besieged faithful of his diocese.]
By R. Michael Dunnigan
The mail truck sped away and a letter flew out an open window. I picked it up and noticed a postmark that looked strangely familiar. The glue on the envelope had come loose and, before I could reseal it and deposit it in a mailbox, I caught a glimpse of the enclosed letter. As I recall, the gist of the letter was something along the following lines.
Chappaqua, July 4, 2001
Just a quick note to extend congratulations from both Hillary and me on your handling of the St. John’s renovation. Maybe congratulations are a bit premature, but I’m as confident as you are that the Vatican will cave and that you’ll prevail in the end. I hope you won’t think I’m flattering myself if I claim my fair share of the credit. After all, your strategy was really just an amalgam of lessons you learned from me.
The first lesson was the power of denial. Remember, denial is the oil that greases the engine of raw power. Heck, sometimes I deny stuff for no reason at all. Just keeps me in practice. Of course, it takes decades to hone your skills to the point where you can stick a world class denial like, "I did not have sex with that woman . . ." But I’ve got to hand it to you, Rembert, you’re not bad for a rookie.
On May 22 you denied flat out that the Vatican had contacted you about the renovation. Things got awkward when the people disclosed a May 22 letter that said the Vatican already had contacted you, but you stayed on message.
You were cornered but you didn’t flinch. I like that! You remembered the basics. When you’re caught, the best means of escape is another denial. So, you admitted on May 24th you’d been contacted, but you denied you’d been told to halt the renovation.
I was so proud. You’re not only a master apprentice in the craft of denial, but you also understand that words have no meaning. So as not to embarrass you, the Vatican avoided using the word command and said instead that it was inviting you to stop the renovation. They made clear that your project probably was illegal under Church law. But you didn’t miss a beat. Because they only invited you to stop, you claimed you had the right to push forward. You know, they say I twisted the meaning of the word is, but Rembert buddy, you positively tortured the meaning of the word invite. The student has indeed surpassed his master! Only you could trumpet the renovation as "a sign of unity" when it is opposed both by the laity below and the Roman authorities above. Bravo!
At first I was disappointed when you admitted that higher Church authorities had contacted you. But then I noticed how you refused to disclose the letter. Excellent form! First you deny you’ve been contacted; then you admit it but deny you have to stop the project; then you try to get the last word by concealing the evidence. Sure wish I could’ve kept that dang blue cocktail dress as secret as you’ve kept that letter. The Vatican had to send more letters to clear up the confusion you’d caused with your denials. By then you’d learned another key lesson demonize your enemies. Just as I dismiss my critics as a vast right-wing conspiracy, you dismiss yours as a small band of troublemakers whose concerns are mere "nuisance" claims. How’d you keep a straight face with that one when you knew that over 2500 Catholics of your flock and many local non-Catholics publicly oppose your plan? I tip my hat to you, pal.
You even got a good shot in against the Vatican. You finally admitted what everyone knew all along—that you had to stop the project—but you called their authority into question, claiming their letter wasn’t really official. That really took me back, back to the time we claimed there was "no controlling legal authority" to stop us from raising money in a Buddhist temple.
You saved your best tactic for last. The Vatican gave its judgment on June 30th. It looked bad for you then, my friend. The Vatican said that it could not approve your renovation, that there were grave problems with your plan, that your plan was illegal under Church law, and that you had falsified Church law in your fundraising materials.
Your old tactics wouldn’t work this time. You couldn’t again claim the letter was unofficial, because now it was signed by a high ranking cardinal. It would be harder to manipulate words, because the letter was a formal "judgment," clearly not just a recommendation. I really thought they had you boxed in. But you astounded me.
I realized then that you are a truly great man. You and I are members of that rare breed who dare to rise above all law. And why not? The law is a liar. Church law says those peasants who took their case to Rome are your equal. What could be more ridiculous? The law says the Vatican authorities are superior to an archbishop. Bull! Nothing matters but raw power and the force of will, not quaint Boy Scout notions of loyalty and justice. How did you deal with the Vatican judgment? You turned the tables by placing yourself in judgment over the Vatican!
You simply asserted that the Vatican was wrong. You didn’t ask the Vatican to consider new evidence or re-evaluate its judgment. How could you? You admitted on June 26th you’d had the chance to submit everything you needed to. No, you simply treated your sobering defeat as if it were a splendid victory.
The Vatican said that grave problems made it impossible to approve your project, but you insisted that they were only "minor" issues and you forged ahead. The Vatican said that St. John’s ancient marble baldacchino was to remain in place, but you set about to dismantle and sell it. In a spectacular Orwellian move, you claimed that the Vatican letter judging your project as unlawful was in fact a go-ahead to continue with it. That magnificent act of brazen defiance made even Carville blush!
I have to confess that I’m a bit envious of you, Rembert. I wish I could’ve turned the Jefferson Memorial into a monument to myself the same way that you’re converting St. John’s into a monument to yourself. I know you intend the cathedral to be your own final legacy, but I hope you won’t mind if I consider it my legacy too. After all, I doubt there’d be a monument to you without the lessons learned from me.