Setting the World Ablaze
The future of the Catholic Church.


LOPEZ: You write that “the best of Christian art, architecture, sculpture, literature, and music has always been theologically informed.” Do we really produce such things anymore? You seem to be hopeful.

: There’s been an awful lot of aesthetic garbage produced in post-conciliar Catholicism, but the silly season is largely over and the tide is turning, if slowly. So, yes, I think the Church still inspires artists of various disciplines to make beautiful things. My friend James MacMillan’s music is one example. Duncan Stroik’s Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College in California is another. Things are a little slow on the literary side these days, but after a century that produced Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Horgan, J. D. Powers, and many other literary luminaries, perhaps Anglophone Catholic letters is just taking a bit of a breather.

The point in Evangelical Catholicism is that, in a world that can’t believe that anything is true and that’s deeply conflicted about what is good, the beautiful may be a privileged window into the true and the good. Something is either beautiful or it isn’t. Pondering why that’s the case opens up a lot of other questions. That’s one reason why the Church’s liturgy should be beautiful, not tacky: The beauty of the liturgy opens up our senses and the pores of our minds so that we can ponder the true and the good as God gives them to us in Word and Sacrament.

: How can Catholicism be both culture-forming and countercultural?

WEIGEL: Catholicism has always formed its own micro-culture. Catholics use a different language, tell a unique set of stories, live in a different time-zone (in which, for example, Sunday is not just a day on which the malls close earlier), perceive life and death according to a distinctive horizon. Once upon a time — say, when I was a boy — that Catholic micro-culture fit rather comfortably within the ambient public culture. That’s no longer the case. There’s real chafing, to put it mildly, between the way we’re taught to live in the Catholic micro-culture and the way “the world” invites us to live.

“The world” sings “I did it my way” and imagines this to be the apex of human aspiration and maturity; the Catholic micro-culture teaches a different ethos, in which conformity to the truths built by God into creation and into us is the royal road to human flourishing. My suggestion, in Evangelical Catholicism, is that the Church best challenges the dominant public culture today, not so much by argument as by demonstrating the human decency of the lives formed in that Catholic micro-culture. Lives lived nobly, charitably, and compassionately can open up the closed windows of a secular world choking on its own exhaust fumes, let in some fresh air, open some new conversations, and make possible encounters with God in Christ. Preaching the Gospel “in the world” begins with living the Gospel.

: What does the state of our culture today have to do with the Cold War?

WEIGEL: Well, we’re not being sent to prison camps — yet. But the structure of the situation is not dissimilar. Catholicism played a crucial role in the collapse of European Communism because a vibrant Catholic micro-culture maintained its integrity and its tensile strength, and eventually proved more supple and enduring than the ambient public anti-culture of Communism. That’s why a lot of the younger and more evangelically assertive bishops of the United States have looked to the example of the Polish bishops under Communism for their inspiration in challenging the soft totalitarianism of the HHS mandate.

: Why do “twenty-first century Christophobes” fear Christ?

WEIGEL: The secular Christophobes of the West fear Christ because they imagine him to be an enemy of autonomy, which they define as the highest of human values. But this rather misses the point: autonomy for what? The sandbox of solipsism, the playpen of self-absorption, can get rather lonely after awhile. When honest secularists recognize that loneliness in themselves, the hand of Christ will be there to lift them out of the sandbox or playpen and into a maturity and happiness built, not from “autonomy,” but from living a commitment to truth and with compassion for others. And that hand of Christ will be extended by the people of the Church, who are, in Pius XII’s wonderful image, Christ’s “mystical body” in the world.

: What are the Emmaus roads to be walked?

WEIGEL: They’re everywhere, as the Risen One is everywhere, waiting to meet us along those roads, to surprise us with his exposition of the Scriptures, and to join us in the breaking of the bread.

: Why does the modern world need “divine mercy” so much?

WEIGEL: Because of its guilt, often unconscious, but there nonetheless. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, by orders of magnitude. Add the new slaughter of the innocents in abortion to the slaughters of the World Wars, the death camps, the Gulag, and all the rest of the politically induced horrors, and you have a world awash in guilt over the cruelty and inhumanity it has visited upon itself. To whom can the sin that produced that guilt be confessed? By whom can it be expiated? By what authority can it be forgiven? The answers to those three questions cannot be Dr. Freud, Amnesty International, or the United Nations. The answer, I believe and the Church proclaims, is the God of the Bible, who comes into the world and into history — first in the people of Israel, and then in his Son — to offer humanity the embrace of the divine love, which alone can heal the brokenness of our lives, our societies, and our cultures.

: How is this “wedding feast of the lamb” business relevant to the daily lives of Catholics and the institutional Church

WEIGEL: Because belief in the wedding feast of the lamb lets us relax a bit. God has already won: That’s the message of Easter. The story is going to end the way God intended from the beginning. If you really believe that, you’re not insouciant about daily life or public life. But you can approach daily life and public life without clenched fists and gritted teeth.

: You write of the need for a pope to have “a deep spiritual capacity to bear the wounds of the entire Church without being bled to death by them.” Does evangelical Catholicism open doors to a Christian mysticism that is foreign to us in contemporary America? One where unity, freedom, love, sacrifice, suffering, and joy have deeper meanings, which we may not feel comfortable feeling or acknowledging, never mind discussing or testifying to?

WEIGEL: Christianity without the Cross is a nice story, but not a true story — it’s certainly not the truth of the world, which is what Christianity understands itself to be. It’s ultimately a mystery, a divine mystery, this cruciform “structure” of redemption and sanctification. And the inability to grasp it, at first, is an old story: that God didn’t provide the kind of redeemer we would have invented is a story as old as the gospels. As Christ’s own townsmen said in scornful disbelief, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” They had another kind of redeemer in mind, and often we do, too.

Moreover, the Cross only makes sense from the far side of Easter: The experience of the Risen Lord is the experience by which the Church, from the beginning, begins to comprehend the cruciform character of the life of the spirit. That’s why the Cross doesn’t overwhelm us; that’s why we embrace it — because we have met the Risen Lord, and can thus embrace the whole of his life, including the radical and complete self-giving and obedience of his death.

: Your book is clearly a challenge to Catholics. Is it also an explanation for everyone? And an open door?

WEIGEL: I certainly intend it that way. I’ve tried to do three things in Evangelical Catholicism, which is, in a sense, the summing up of everything I’ve learned over the past 30 years of my work within the Church. I’ve tried to propose a new, more capacious view of modern Catholic history, so that we can see this evangelical Catholic moment more clearly and understand its character. I’ve tried to suggest criteria for measuring true and false reform in the Church, so that reform doesn’t get confused with deconstruction. And I’ve tried to lay out a program of specific reforms — of the episcopate, the priesthood, the liturgy, consecrated life, lay vocational life, Catholic intellectual life, the Church’s public witness, and the papacy and the Roman Curia — that would help deepen the radical reform that is evangelical Catholicism and bring it to a first maturation.

Evelyn Waugh once said that the Church looks ever so much bigger from inside than from outside. Evangelical Catholicism is an invitation to take a look from inside — and a look at the future.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.