LAST WEEK, one of the principal architects of liberal Catholicism resigned in disgrace. Since my very last column was sharply critical of Milwaukee’s retiring Archbishop, Rembert Weakland, for his repeated flouting of papal authority, his lax attitude towards Catholic sexual morality, and his shuffling of abusive clerics, it’s sorely tempting for me and other papal loyalists to do a little victory dance in the end zoneto celebrate the fact that the very icon of the Catholic left, the highest ranking Catholic dissenter in the world, has lost utterly the moral credibility he prized so highly. ($450,000, not 40 silver pieces, was his former gay lover’s blackmail price, payable in church funds. In an irony worthy of Faulkner’s "Snopes" trilogy, that youngish man used the money not to buy a Potter’s Field, but to make a series of Catholic videos, called "Christodrama." I imagine they’ll become collectors’ items on EBay.)
In past years, I’d have considered hiring a chorus of costumed midgets, to caper around the Milwaukee cathedral Weakland recently gutted and uglified, singing, "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead!" But that wouldn’t be very Christian, would it? Not at all.
The truth is that God brings good out of evil. We may hope that these events drain much of the credibility and force from Abp. Weakland’s labors to create a bloodless, suburban, American Catholic Church indistinguishable from dozens of other dying, liberal Protestant bodies. This report and others in recent weeks have shown that Weakland, Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, and other noted left-wing clerics have done no better than East Coast conservative bishops at handling clerical abusesome say they have done much worse. Certainly, the liberal bishops have taken no actions to heterosexualize their seminarieswhich informed churchmen agree is the long-term solution to the crisis in the American priesthood.
Kraft dürch Schadenfreude (Strength through Bitterness)?
But this is no time for grim delight. In Rembert Weakland’s seedy end, there are elements of classical tragedy, of great hopes and talents brought to nothing, to utter wasteabsent a Christian coda of grace and repentance. Rembert Weakland was once considered a leading light in aesthetics and liturgy. An intellectual, a gifted classical musician and graceful writer, Weakland seemed poised to bring new life and energy to the somewhat ossified liturgical and musical traditions of the Church. As a member of the Benedictine Order, the group that helped save Western civilization during the Dark Ages, he was one of the men charged with keeping alive the ancient customs of Catholic ritual and worshipespecially the Latin liturgy and Gregorian Chant. As National Public Radio reported last week, Weakland was one of a tiny group of handpicked men who helped Pope Paul VI design his new Mass, the vastly simplified Roman Rite that emerged in the wake of Vatican IIeven practicing the new ritual with that pontiff in the pope’s private chapel. Anyone reading the relevant document issued by the bishops of Vatican IIwhich called for extensive use of Latin, a preferred place for Gregorian Chant, and a "dignified simplicity" in worshipand looking at the talent, learning, and taste of the men chosen to implement it, particularly Rembert Weakland, would have had every reason to expect a renaissance of worship in the West.
We might have expected some stripping away of the eccentricities and repetitions, the lovely formalities that had accumulated to Catholic worship over the centuries; a more expansive use of the vernacular languages, especially in the readings; and a greater participation by laity newly trained in singing the exquisite Chant and other Church music created over two millennia by the monks and Monteverdi, by Mozart and by Messiaen. The difference between the old liturgy and the new ought to have been as subtle as that dividing Art Nouveau from Art Deco: The same elements, rendered more clearly and more starkly, with a masculine force and focus that attends to the essentials.
And that is what you will see in Rome, if you attend the pope’s Mass todaysince the Holy Father faithfully follows the rubrics and directions given in Pope Paul’s original Novus Ordo Missae, which was, essentially, a faithful balance between tradition and modernity. As the pope says Mass, sometimes facing the altar, with a generous use of Latin, chant, incense and carefully orchestrated ritual, the essential meaning of the rite is preserved:
The priest acts in the person of Christ. Christ acts as high priest, and offers himself as victim to God the Father, in expiation for the sins of man. In the person of the priest, Christ weds himself to the congregation, which stands for the Church, Christ’s mystical Bride. Just as the priest’s sacrificial role in the New Testament theology is a direct outgrowthdown to many of the rituals and prayers usedof the High Priest’s Temple ritual in Judaism, so this matrimonial theology grows directly out of the Old Testament understanding of the Jewish people as wedded to Yahweh. (See the Song of Songs and Hosea for lovely, poetic meditations on this theme in the Hebrew Bible.)
This is why the Church can never ordain women priests. Even in the ancient world, in which every major gentile religionfrom which most of the new Christians cameemployed priestesses or temple prostitutes, the Church resisted massive cultural pressure to employ women as sacred intermediaries. And Church resists the same pressure now. You see, priestesses have never served the same role as priestsjust as a bride never fills the same role as a groom. In every pagan religion in which they served, priestesses served as the female presence that was unitedusually eroticallyto a distant, masculine god. Or she served to incarnate, temporarily, a chthonic, impersonal, pantheistic mother-deitya creator/destroyer goddess like the Hindu Kali. But the Jewish-Christian God is utterly different. While he stands above the universe he created and maintains, he also chooses to enter it, to unite himself to itto the Jews, in the people of Israel, to Christians in the Church, his mystical Bride. So the Church cannot employ priestessesshe has replaced the priestess. Instead of marrying a temple prostitute who stands for the worshippers, we believe that God marries the Church as a whole, and each soul in particular. The priest stands in for Christ, does his work on the altar, enacting this mystical union each time he says the Mass. And it is a marriage, not a lesbian affair.
Nathan Lane Playing a Nun
This marriage between the priest and the congregation, between Christ and the Church, is at the very heart of Catholic theology. It connects to the sacredness of the sexual act, and expresses the very reason why (as we believe) God became a manin order to unite the mass of fallen, weak humanity to himself, in a mystical sacrament of love. In pagan religions and ancient Judaism, the role of a priestone who offers sacrifice was distinctly and utterly masculine. This is true in all the traditional liturgies of the Church, East and West, along with the papal mass in Rome, which dramatically depict Christ’s manhood along with his transcendent Godhood, in the imperfect but sanctified masculine person of the priest. A woman playing at priest is just as absurd as Nathan Lane playing a nun. It’s a drag act, proper to Saturday Night, but not to Sunday morning.
Rembert Weakland didn’t understand this, and now we begin to know why. The Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote in his delightful The Snakebite Letters, a sequel to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters:
"The proportion of gays, active or dormant, is even larger, much larger, among liturgists than among the clergy as a whole. That’s why the new liturgy is so tepid and timid and tedious. Have you ever heard a single congregation anywhere in the world at any time in the last 25 years sing any one of those flat, unmusical ‘responsorial psalms’ with any passion at all? And yet, they keep feeding them this tepid, Laodicean pap, neither hot nor cold.
"They’ve gotten the most powerful and dramatic thing in the worldthe ritual murder of the Son of God to save souls from Hellto sound like a Barry Manilow song or a Rod McKuen poem. ‘There’s Power in the Blood’ has become ‘Listen to the Warm.’ And they haven’t got the foggiest idea that most this comes from messed up sexuality." (p 54).
Now this exchange is from one devil to another, so we shouldn’t expect the comments to be quite fair, much less charitable. But Kreeft’s demon is making an important point, which shouldn’t be obscured by the fact that many chaste men of homosexual orientation serve faithfully as Catholic priests, and may well end up as saints. Snakebite is saying here that the vigorous, sacrificial, commanding aspect of the ritual liturgies makes a certain type of highly sensitive, insecure mangay or straightexcruciatingly uncomfortable. While he may be drawn to the beauty of the rite, he cannot envision himself stepping forth as the man who plays Christ, the high priest and victim, God and man, the bridegroom who offers himself to the congregation in the form of his body and blood. Much better to play the "presider," the focal point of a horizontal "worship community," gathered to celebrate the memory of their beloved, long-departed moral teacher, that nice Jesus man who died so tragically young.
Likewise, straight men are a little repulsed by the average parish liturgy, the product of bishops’ committees led by Weakland and his brothers under the skin. (Weakland was acclaimed as one of the most innovative liturgical thinkers in the U.S..) The original, rather austere Latin text of Pope Paul VI never saw the light of day in this country or most others, before it had been reshaped, molded, defanged and optioned out of existenceLatin entirely purged, the altars torn out and replaced by butcher blocks, incense thrown out along with chant, altar rails ripped upthen piled high with archaisms and innovations such as Communion in the hand and altar girls, which the Vatican accepted as faits accompli.
The goal of these changes? Catholic traditionalists err when they say that liberal Catholics were trying to please Protestants. The sad truth is that, all unconsciously, they were trying to comfort homosexuals and feminists. By transforming the role of the priest from a masculine to a feminine or neuter, they removed a harsh, rankling note from the worship life of people made uncomfortable by the edgy, dangerous presence of the masculine. This gelding of the priesthood saw the priest’s unique liturgical privileges gradually erased, while increasing the focus on his individual personality, and style. Instead of focusing outward and upward, his back to the congregants, leading them in getting the serious business done, the priest today sits haplessly facing the congregation through most of the Mass, looking uneasy, as laymen do much of his work. When he does mount the altar to enact the sacrifice, he is distracted by the gaze of the congregation, who watch the event as they would a devotional play. He doesn’t lead themhe performs for them. (It’s no accident that applauseonce forbidden in Catholic churchesnow frequently echoes there for hymns and announcements.) Then laymen and women march up and hand out the Body and Blood of Christ to other laymen, with little more ceremony than if they were dispensing movie tickets.
As a result, many straight men avoid the priesthood, since they are not attracted to what they see every week on the altar. Others join conservative dioceses or orders, which revive the old Mass or practice the new one with masculine vigorlimiting lay participation to the norms set by Rome, encouraging Eucharistic devotion, even facing the altar instead of the "audience," as Cardinal Ratzinger has recommended. Meanwhile, the "mainstream" seminaries starve for vocations, or accept large numbers of men whose orientation and psychology are better attuned to the passive role demanded in the neutered American liturgy. Consult Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men for the rest of the story.
Which brings us back to the figure of Rembert Weakland. Even as we dissect and reject the liturgical mediocrity he helped foster, and pity him for his soiled, blackmailed, exposed private life, we ought to remember that he is an heir of the Apostles, ordained and consecrated, as Christ did each of his Twelveincluding Peter and Judas. Both those men would betray him at his final hour. But Peter saw his sin, and the bleeding body of his Lord, and begged forgivenessthen went on with greater love than before to lead the entire Church, and die as a martyr. But Judas went and hanged himself. Let us prayreally, praythat Rembert Weakland looks plainly at the flayed, abused body of the liturgy, and repents but does not despair. There is still time for him, and for each of us sinners, to imitate Peter instead.