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Some alarm, some praise for Weakland letter

NCR Staff

Some progressive Catholics in Milwaukee have voiced alarm about Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s letter, while other observers praised it as both pastorally sensitive and politically astute.

“His advice seems to be, you’re gonna lose, so lose gracefully,” said Daniel Maguire, professor of theology at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. “I don’t think people here are going to accept that. It’s not the spirit of the Midwest. It’s not the spirit of this diocese, which tends to be very independent.”

“He’s counseling submission, and that’s not helpful,” Maguire said. “Weakland is extraordinarily respected, but he should have just lived out the rest of his time and let the people decide what happens afterward.”

A Weakland spokesperson said some of the archdiocese’s more progressive parishes were distressed by the letter. “They wondered, ‘Is he reeling us in? Is he selling us out?’ ” said Jerry Topczewski in a Feb. 22 interview with NCR.

“The idea was to prepare priests for what is to come and not to live in a world that doesn’t exist,” Topczewski said.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, agreed. “Rather than running away from reality, he puts it right out there and says let’s talk about it,” he said. “I think that’s a wonderful service.”

Reese said Weakland’s analysis about the push for uniformity is accurate, and is unlikely to change even under a new pope. “Anybody who expects the next pope to make revolutionary changes from the policies of John Paul II is naïve,” Reese said. “He’s named more than 90 percent of the College of Cardinals and picked people who agree with him about core policies.

“Progressives have to ask themselves how they plan to live in a church that is not going to change in a direction they would like anytime soon,” Reese said. “Weakland is getting that conversation going.”

Some observers praised the pastoral tone of the letter. “It’s an effort to make peace, not to let the next period be one of internecine warfare. Communal war is in no one’s interests,” said Fr. Andrew Nelson, rector of Milwaukee’s St. Francis Seminary.

Several observers said Weakland’s descriptive approach, outlining trends in the church rather than mounting a defense of post-Vatican II practices, is politically shrewd.

“There are subtexts in the letter,” said Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a professor at Yale. “It’s very clear what the archbishop believes. It probably would have been less effective if he had made a strong argument of his own.”

Maguire said that the timing of Weakland’s letter may actually help progressives. “He’s given them two years to talk about what they want to do,” Maguire said. “Maybe the letter was more revolutionary than it seems.”

Fr. William C. Burkert, pastor of St. Roman Parish in Milwaukee, said he found what he saw as the letter’s emphasis on conformity disappointing. He said that if there is to be resistance to the changes Weakland anticipates it will probably come from laity rather than priests.

“I haven’t worked out my own plan of attack,” Burkert said. “It’s like that movie ‘The Mission.’ I don’t know whether I want to be the soldier who resists or the sacramental person who returns to devotion.”

Farley said she hopes the letter sparks a conversation about the balance between unity and diversity in Catholicism.

“The key question is, how much diversity does a living church need in order to deepen our unity? That goes right to the heart of what it means to be a world church. My concern is that we will shut down that question by matters of power or practical necessity rather than truth.”

Reese said the Weakland letter shows that progressives have to think in long-run terms. “We have to do what the great reformers of the past have done, the Rahners and the Congars,” he said. “We have to do the thinking and the writing that would make a Vatican III possible. Right now I don’t think we’re ready for it.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000