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Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church
Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church
George Weigel
Basic Books, 2013
304 pp., $27.99

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René Breuel


Evangelical Catholicism

The Christian future at a crossroad.

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But the term Evangelical Catholicism is also confusing, and in some cases, perplexing to evangelical Protestants. On the one hand, Weigel uses language that will strongly appeal to Luther's descendants: he extols the example of ministries "flourishing because pastors are preaching the Gospel without compromise"; he proposes changing the terms of reference from "the Church teaches" to "the Gospel reveals"; he supports the Second Vatican Council's "intention to put the Gospel at the center of Catholic life and to build out from that center a reformed Catholicism: an Evangelical Catholicism that [has] the capacity to propose the good news of Jesus Christ to a disenchanted world."

Yet, before our deacons book trips from Colorado Springs to Rome, a closer look at Weigel's blueprint for reform undermines some of the initial enthusiasm. While Weigel's lifting of the category of "Gospel" even above traditional Catholicism's main organizing principle, "Church," seems theologically fruitful, his understanding of the Gospel will seem deficient to many Protestants. He mentions "salvation" or that Jesus is "savior" in the book a few times, but these are usually passing glances, and nowhere is soteriology an object of Weigel's "deep reform." The central issue of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, which is the article by which the Church stands or falls according to Luther, is simply not addressed, nor are the doctrines Catholicism has developed to coach its medieval and Counter-Reformation understandings of salvation, like the indulgences, purgatory, the treasury of the saints, masses for the dead. (Are these still valid for Evangelical Catholicism? Are they valid but now peripheral?) It is a telling omission on the part of a Church statesman of the stature of Weigel. He may have understood his project as one of "deep reform" of Catholic institutional life, not of its theological vision. In any case, this superficial engagement with the doctrine of salvation is not just a peripheral gap for a proposal which seeks to retrieve the Gospel. To many evangelicals, it will be a sign that the biblical Gospel is yet to be fully retrieved.

Still, the Evangelical Catholicism of Weigel and others will be a most welcome development to reform-minded evangelical Protestants—one which they will encourage and occasionally partner with. Weigel himself recognizes that, in many respects, his vision has not been fully realized in the Roman Catholic Church. This is the case especially in the contexts that have not shaped Catholicism as a purposeful minority (as in the United States), or where there isn't a growing evangelical presence modeling an alternative Christianity that may even land Sonicflood on the archbishop's lips (as in Latin America), but where Catholics are still an unrivalled majority haunted by memories of long-gone dominance (as in Italy and elsewhere in Europe).

Weigel's manifesto also deserves careful reading from evangelical leaders because he takes on many of the concerns an evangelical would voice—"the phenomenon of the baptized Catholic pagan," for example, would give way to "constant conversion of life"—and because Weigel himself raises a flag of cooperation between evangelically minded Protestants and Catholics, who are "in fuller communion" with each other than with theologians with unorthodox views. These elements may lead evangelicals to conclude that the most fruitful course of action (though the temptation to condemn from a distance or to assimilate uncritically are always present) is a critical cooperation which celebrates the project of recentering the Church around the Gospel, and which in love and out of lucid and sincere self-criticism, humbly calls Catholics to a still clearer understanding of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the first days of Francis' papacy, there is a sense of hope mingled with anxiety. Many challenges lie ahead. But if growing numbers of Catholic leaders embrace Weigel's vision, evangelicals will cheer them at every step.

René Breuel is the founding pastor of a church in Rome, Chiesa Evangelica San Lorenzo, editor of wonderingfair.com, and author of the forthcoming The Paradox of Happiness.

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