Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, by George Weigel (Basic, 304 pp., $27.99)
G. K. Chesterton famously said that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting: It has been found difficult and left untried.” Historian and political writer George Weigel says that Chesterton’s comment is not quite fair to those who have never had such an ideal proposed to them — a group that, in Weigel’s view, includes a large number of “poorly catechized . . . liturgically bored, [and] morally confused” Catholics. His new book about the challenges and opportunities facing Catholicism today is, in part, an attempt to propose this ideal; it is also a blueprint for the specific institutional reforms necessary to achieve the vision it lays out. Weigel is particularly well placed to undertake such a sweeping task, as he has spent the past 30 years reflecting on and writing about the Catholic Church and chronicling the two Popes who have guided it during that time. The result is a serious and acute work.
The term “Evangelical Catholicism” is meant to encompass both a way of being authentically Catholic and a process of “deep reform” in the Church that Weigel believes is under way and has its roots in the quarter-century-long pontificate of Leo XIII, which began in 1878. The Leonine accomplishment, in Weigel’s telling, was to engage with modernity in a way that his immediate predecessor, Pius IX, the author of the Syllabus of Errors, had refused to do. Leo’s papacy, not the Second Vatican Council, was the beginning of the end of what Weigel calls the “Counter-Reformation model” of Catholicism: a model that relied upon Catholic cultures, sustained by various devotional practices and employing a largely rules-based understanding of morality, to pass on the faith through osmosis. While this model worked fairly well for a few hundred years, it is not adequate to meet the challenges of a secular, pluralistic, “disenchanted” society in which “religious faith, commitment to a religious community, and a religiously informed morality can no longer be taken for granted” and are often at odds with the prevailing culture.
Weigel sees the Church as moving beyond the turf struggles and internal divisions of the post–Vatican II era. The Catholic “progressive” and “traditionalist” camps still locked in a quarrel over the outdated Counter-Reformation model are ultimately equally irrelevant to Catholicism’s future. He warns against the dangers on the one hand of “Antiquarianism,” which imagines an impossible return to a largely non-existent Catholic golden age, and on the other of “Presentitis,” with its thirst for relevance at all costs (though he thinks the latter is much more harmful).
Perhaps aware of the potential pitfalls of appending any kind of adjective to Catholicism while attempting to move beyond old labels, he takes pains to explain what he does not mean by “Evangelical Catholicism”: “Evangelical Catholicism is not a movement within Catholicism, or a Catholic sect, or a new kind of Catholic elite. Evangelical Catholicism is not a substitute for Roman Catholicism.”
It is, instead, a robust and faithful orthodoxy that is prepared to engage with a mostly hostile, even “Christophobic” culture not by watering down its doctrine or presenting its truth claims as one set of options among many equally valid ones, but by affirming belief in divinely revealed truth and an experience of friendship with Jesus Christ. The world, though it often doesn’t know it, is in need of these things, and only Christians who have encountered them through Scripture, liturgy, and the sacraments are equipped to offer them to others. Since evangelization is impossible without confident and committed belief, “lukewarm” and incoherent Catholicism will not suffice for the New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI.
All of this is a challenging reminder for the faithful of what a practicing Catholic ought to be; most of it would probably be objectionable only to Protestant Christians, who would obviously not accept claims about the authority of the Catholic hierarchy, and to the kind of “baptized pagans” Weigel identifies who publicly espouse Catholicism while more or less rejecting much of what it teaches. The more combative portion of the book is its second half: In outlining suggested reforms for the episcopate, the priesthood, liturgy, consecrated life, the lay vocation, the papacy, Catholic intellectual life, and public-policy advocacy, Weigel does not shy away from pointing out the many shortcomings that are currently on display in these spheres. One recurring theme is the need to consider whether certain people and institutions — e.g., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Jesuits, some universities, pro-choice politicians — have ceased to be Catholic in any meaningful sense; and if they have, the need for those with authority and responsibility in the Church to call them to account.
Though the book explicitly outlines a vision for the world Church, its focus is on the West, and in particular the United States. This is only natural, given that it was in the West that many of the important pre–Vatican II intellectual movements and the postconciliar fallout mainly occurred. Still, Africa is mentioned several times as a place where Biblical and sacramental Catholicism is currently flourishing, and Weigel argues that Europeans ought not to be privileged candidates for the papacy and that the membership of the College of Cardinals ought to reflect the growth of the Church in Asia and Africa.
The book’s other suggestions for reform range from a new set of criteria for selecting bishops to an overhaul of Vatican communications to banishing “a number of trashy liturgical hymns” written in recent years. (One that Weigel singles out for particular scorn is “Ashes,” which contains the line “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.” “It is unconscionable that such Pelagian drivel, which would have sent St. Augustine’s head spinning, should be a part of Catholic liturgy,” he comments.)
Weigel sees Evangelical Catholicism as posing a needed challenge to the zeitgeist, which he describes as allegiance to the “the imperial autonomous Self” and adherence to a modern incarnation of Gnosticism. (He contends that the sexual revolution, specifically, is a manifestation of Gnosticism because, among other things, the idea that gender is a social construct — that maleness and femaleness do not exist — is a rejection of a fixed material order and an expression of the belief that reality is infinitely malleable.) Evangelical Catholicism, with its affirmation of the gospel as the standard by which to measure oneself and its emphasis on conveying grace through the ordinary, tangible materials of the sacraments, can provide a compelling counterpoint to these two reigning secular philosophies.
Evangelical Catholicism, says Weigel, must also oppose “the totalitarian temptation to remake human nature by coercive state power” to which Western democracies risk falling prey. He sees this temptation at work in the current push to redefine marriage and asserts that “Evangelical Catholic public policy must name this soft totalitarianism for what it is.” He is perhaps too emphatic on this point. Catholic public officials could reasonably oppose the redefinition of marriage without subscribing to the view that legislation passed by democratically elected officials to alter it constitutes “soft totalitarianism.” It might even be counterproductive for them to describe it in those terms in the public square.
While there is much in it that would displease the people Weigel refrains from calling liberal Catholics, this is not a partisan book. His proposed reforms are meant to advance the Church’s mission of evangelization rather than to address the particular concerns of any group within it.
Weigel’s ability to combine the spiritual insights of a believer with the dispassionate analysis of a historian makes Evangelical Catholicism valuable for Catholics and non-Catholics, of all political persuasions, who care about the Church’s future. Judging by the general ignorance and particular misapprehensions of the nature of the Catholic faith exhibited by the media upon Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that he would retire, there are a great many journalists who could profit from reading it, too.