Setting the World Ablaze
The future of the Catholic Church.


‘Lukewarm Catholicism has no future; submitting to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit is no longer optional,” George Weigel writes in his new book, Evangelical Catholicism. We live in a time when “religious faith, commitment to a religious community, and a religiously informed morality can no longer be taken for granted. . . . Evangelical Catholicism calls the entire Church to holiness for the sake of mission.” That mission involves the building up “of the community of the faithful not for the sake of the community but for the sake of a common reception of the mysteries of the faith, which in turn become the fonts of grace from which the community sets about the conversion of the world. The tongues of fire from which the Church is formed thus become the fire of mission by which the world is set ablaze.” This “certainly asks a lot,” but so does Christianity. And, Weigel, in a book that is part history, part analysis, part call-to-action, and all nourishment points out that “it is precisely by calls to Christian greatness based on the grace of God lifting up our hearts, and the fire of the Holy Spirit infusing our efforts, that the Catholic faith has always grown.” Weigel talks about Evangelical Catholicism, the current cultural moment, and more in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luke 18.8] The question comes straight from the gospels, and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus argued that this was the question “that anyone, pope or layperson, would understand to be the most urgent” question facing the Church, at any moment in history. What would the Son of Man find right about now? And what must we do about it? Is it our responsibility — yours and mine and everyone who calls himself Christian — to make sure he finds faith?

GEORGE WEIGEL: The Son of Man, coming as the Risen Lord returning in glory, would find the usual human confusion, in the midst of which he’d also find a lot of faith: some of it remarkably compelling and attractive, like the faith of a John Paul II; some of it full of sheer heroism, like the faith of persecuted Christians in Islamic lands and in China; much of it a bit catechetically unformed, despite various expressions of piety; all of it struggling against the usual enemies — the world, the flesh, and the devil. And he would find a Catholic Church leaving one phase of its history — the Church of the Counter-Reformation, in which the faith could be absorbed by osmosis from the ambient public culture and then sustained by simple, question-and-answer catechesis and devotional piety — and entering another: the Church of the New Evangelization, “Evangelical Catholicism,” in which Biblically literate and sacramentally formed Catholics, who have a clear understanding of their missionary vocation as baptized persons, are offering their families, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens the Gospel: friendship with Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.

: There was a recent book called Catholicism published by Image Catholic and now here you are with your latest book called Evangelical Catholicism. Are these about the same Church?

WEIGEL: Father Robert Barron, author of Catholicism, and I have a very similar view of the Catholicism of the 21st century and the third millennium — a Catholicism that has met the Risen Lord and received from him the Great Commission; a Church that has rediscovered how to introduce men and women to the true and the good through the beautiful; a Church that understands that the truth it proposes is liberating, not confining; a Church that’s a culture-forming counterculture, challenging the culture of the imperial autonomous self to a nobler view of human possibilities under grace; a Church that’s moved beyond the who’s-in-charge-here cat-and-dog fights of the past 40 years; a Church that affirms that everyone has a unique vocation, and that challenges everyone to live his or her unique vocation in an evangelical, mission-driven way.

: Why is Leo XIII, who died more than a hundred years ago, so relevant today?

WEIGEL: We have to widen the historical lens to grasp the nature of this “Catholic moment” in the Church’s 2,000-year history. The evangelical Catholicism being born today is the result of a process of deep reform in the Church that begins, in my view, with the election of Leo XIII in 1878. After the 32-year pontificate of Pius IX ended with the pope battened down behind the Leonine Wall and describing himself as the “prisoner of the Vatican,” his successor, Leo XIII, had two choices: continue to withdraw into bunkers in defiance of an aggressively hostile secular modernity, or figure out some way to engage secular modernity and challenge it to a serious conversation about the human future. If you look at Leo’s tomb in the Lateran Basilica in Rome, you’ll see that he chose the second option: The pope is standing tall, right foot thrust forward and right hand extended, as if to say, “Look, world, we’ve got some things to talk about and we’ve got some proposals to make; are you willing to listen?”

That forward-thrusting stance set in motion certain dynamics that led to the great Catholic reform movements of the mid-20th century: the liturgical movement, the movements of philosophical and theological reform, the reform of Catholic Biblical studies, the development of Catholic social doctrine, new and more scientifically rigorous approaches to the study of Church history. These movements, in turn, set the intellectual framework for the Second Vatican Council, which has now been given an authoritative interpretation by John Paul II and Benedict XVI — both of whom have focused that interpretation through the prism of the “New Evangelization.” So, through that wider “Leonine” lens, we can see that the past hundred-plus years of Catholic reform, including Vatican II, have been intended to prepare the Church for a renewed and revitalized missionary vocation in the 21st century and the third millennium. If John XXIII (who summoned it) was the father of Vatican II and Pius XII was its grandfather (because his teaching is the second-most-cited source in the documents of Vatican II), then Leo XIII (in whose pontificate John XXIII was born) is the Council’s great-grandfather — the man who set in motion the end of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the eventual emergence of evangelical Catholicism.