Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church
Basic Books, 2013
304 pp., $27.99
The unexpected resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of his successor, Francis, have lifted into the mainstream conversation scenarios and proposals for the future of Catholicism and of Christianity in general. One of the most promising proposals comes from George Weigel, whose previous books include Witness to Hope, his bestselling biography of John Paul II, and The Courage to Be Catholic. Weigel's new vision for the future of the Church was published just in time for the ecclesial kairos, a week before Benedict's historic announcement, and is prominent not only for its timing and Weigel's stature, but also for the direction he points to: the book is called Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. It is a title sure to tickle evangelical ears.
Weigel's title triggered a memory of the day I took a Norwegian minister on a tour of my hometown, São Paulo. When we came to Praça da Sé, the central square with the Catholic cathedral, there was an outdoor service at which the archbishop was evidently presiding. With the crowd, he sang Sonicflood's worship hit,
I want to know you
I want to hear your voice
I want to know you more
Nevertheless, Weigel makes clear that his vision is not one of raised hands singing Chris Tomlin at Mass. "Evangelical Catholicism is not a way of being Catholic," he states in the prologue, "that adapts certain catechetical practices and modes of worship from evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostalist Protestantism." Evangelical Catholicism in the sense that he intends the term is an interpretation of Catholic history that points to a new era, when the catechetical-devotional model of Counter-Reformation Catholicism will be supplanted by a vibrant, mission-focused Catholicism. "Evangelical Catholicism invites Catholics," declares Weigel, "to move beyond the left/right surface arguments of the past decades, which were largely about ecclesiastical power, and into a deeper reflection on the missionary heart of the Church."
In Weigel's account, the new chapter really began with Pope Leo XIII's rejection of the antimodern stance of his predecessor in the final years of the 19th century. Leo revitalized Thomistic scholarship, fathered modern Catholic biblical studies and social doctrine, and set the course that would culminate in the Second Vatican Council's "restoration of the Gospel to the center of the Catholic Church's life," a restoration which has given authoritative interpretation by "two men of genius", John Paul II and Benedict XVI. From here, Weigel proposes a continuation and a deepening of the New Evangelization project of the last two popes, and he proposes reforms that aim at the Church's institutional life: reforms of the episcopate, priesthood, liturgy, consecrated life, lay vocation, intellectual life, public advocacy, and papacy. These reforms are to be carried out with an Evangelical Catholic spirit that focuses on friendship with Christ and constant conversion of life; affirms divine revelation and liturgy that is both biblically centered and sacramental; and maintains the Catholic hierarchy but with a thrust toward missionary engagement of culture.
From an evangelical standpoint, the term "Evangelical Catholicism" is both illuminating and confusing. It is illuminating because Weigel's manifesto parallels some of the emphases early Pietist leaders—and evangelical leaders more broadly—brought to what they saw as stagnant, ossified Protestantism in the 17th and 18th centuries: a devout life and concern for mission, born out of a Christocentric retrieval of core doctrines of the Gospel. In a similar way, Weigel's Evangelical Catholics seek to bring new life to what they see as Counter-Reformation Catholicism's overly rigid response to modernity, and to do that in a way that rejects both the progressive/liberal tendency to ease Catholic distinctives and the traditionalist longing for an ideal past. Evangelical Catholicism as Weigel conceives of it would bring a forward-looking missionary dynamism to the halls and altars of a complacent institution.
Though Weigel does not place his proposal in a liberal-fundamentalist continuum, it sounds notes similar to the evangelicalism of Billy Graham and John Stott, which sought a middle ground that, in its approach to Scripture and to the culture, was neither liberal nor fundamentalist. Thus, as the Church's emerging response to secularization and modernity, Evangelical Catholicism in some senses mirrors, but does not explicitly borrow from, evangelical Protestantism. The desired result is not a Church that resembles evangelicalism but rather a Roman Catholic Church that is more religiously vibrant, active, and evangelistic. The aim is a renewed Catholicism that counters the challenges of modernity, in the words of journalist John Allen, with "a more robust version of Catholic identity."