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'Catholicism by osmosis is dead'—Weigel hits the nail on the head

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 26, 2015

Reflecting for Catholic World Report on the “smaller, purer Church” that Pope Benedict XVI foresaw, George Weigel makes one of those grand, sweeping generalizations that are so striking because they are so true:

This same judgment—Catholicism by osmosis is dead—and this same prescription—the Church must reclaim its missionary nature—are at the root of every living sector of the Catholic Church in the United States: parish, diocese, seminary, religious order, lay renewal movement, new Catholic association.

Weigel is writing about a prediction that the future Pope Benedict made back in 1969. But the insight is at least equally valid today, in an era marked by rampant secularization and mass exodus from the Catholic Church—most notably in Germany, where Professor Ratzinger was teaching when he made those memorable remarks.

Too often Catholics are categorized as “liberal” or “conservative,” as “traditionalist” or “progressive.” Those adjectives, borrowed from the political world, serve well enough to make rough distinctions, but they camouflage more important divisions. The most important splits within the Church, really, involve not differences of opinion on specific issues but fundamental matters of orientation—answers to the question that Pope Francis addressed in his first series of Wednesday catechetical talks: What is the Church?

Is the Church a sort of spiritual power-plant, from which we can draw current indefinitely, the way we plug appliances into a wall outlet? Or are we partially responsible (if not for generating the juice, at least for maintaining the grid)? Is the Church a powerful institution, whose role in society must be defended at all cost? Or should we focus first on fulfilling God’s law, accepting rejection and even persecution if it comes? Do we expect the Church to serve our needs, or do we expect to serve the Church?

Pope Benedict spoke of a “smaller, purer Church” that would act as a “creative minority,” the leaven in society. Weigel writes that “Catholicism by osmosis is dead,” and offers as a prescription his view of Evangelical Catholicism. My own favorite test, these days, is to ask which way the dominant cultural influence is flowing: is secular society changing the Church, or is the Church transforming secular society?

These are variations on what should be—but alas is not—a theme familiar to all Catholics. The most important dividing line within the Church is the one that separates complacency from missionary zeal. On one side of the aisle are Catholics who think that the Church should adapt, fine-tune a few policies, and thereby preserve her current role in society. On the other side are those determined to change society by bringing new people--preferably by the thousands--into the Catholic fold. As Weigel observes, all the vigor, all the apostolic energy, all the growth in Catholicism is on the latter side.

As we move toward the Synod meeting in October, the bishops of the German-speaking world have formed a powerful bloc to support change in the Church. Viewed from the outside, by the mainstream media, they appear as the “liberals,” the “progressives,” the proponents of bold new initiatives. But that’s a superficial perspective, a dated perspective: the view of the secularized society the Church is striving to change.

Look toward the Synod instead from the viewpoint of the “smaller, purer Church,” the realm of Evangelical Catholicism. Look toward the Synod with the understanding that the Church should not tailor her teachings to the latest secular fashions, but set new, healthier trends. And suddenly the ideas put forth by the German-speaking hierarchy no longer appear bold and new. They look more like the thoughts of aging generals, busily preparing strategies for battles that ended long ago.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mleiberton3126 - Sep. 10, 2015 2:32 PM ET USA

    Does Pope Francis know that there are aging generals in the Church? It is possible that he may himself be one and not know it.