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Evangelical Catholicism: George Weigel’s Vision of Catholic Reform

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2013

George Weigel, whose biography of Pope John Paul II was brilliant, and whose analysis of Catholic affairs is always incisive, has a theory about the modern Church. Most of us would point to the Second Vatican Council as the starting point of a vast and difficult Catholic renewal, but Weigel argues that a significant “reform of the Catholic Church has been underway since the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII”, which began in 1878. This thesis is developed in his new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, from Basic Books.

There is certainly merit in this analysis, as it was Pope Leo who broke with the defensive strategy which Pope Pius IX and his immediate predecessors adopted against modern culture and politics. Leo began to reposition the Church, which, until his pontificate tended to be an instinctive champion of an old and rapidly disappearing order. Most readers are familiar with this shift at least in the realm of Catholic social teaching, through which Leo emerged as the champion not of the aristocracy but of the working man in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum.

This is not really a review of Weigel’s book, though I think it very much worth reading. Rather, I want describe what Weigel means by his term “evangelical Catholicism”. He outlined this concept under ten basic headings in an article by the same name in the March 2013 issue of First Things. The number ten, of course, is almost inevitably contrived. Someone as deeply aware of Catholic history as Weigel might have just as well come up with twelve headings—as in the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel.

We may gather something of his meaning from the two words themselves. Weigel envisions a reformed Church as a Church which is once again fundamentally oriented to the task of drawing everyone into a deep and unifying friendship with Jesus Christ. “Catholicism” denotes for Weigel the fullness of all that the Church is as the body of Christ extended in the world through time. “Evangelical” denotes the generous fidelity with which Catholics must present Christ, through this Divinely-established fullness, to the world. Because we tend to associate “evangelical” with a sort of Protestant impoverishment of the Christian experience—an emphasis on preaching with little or no incarnational dimension—it is necessary to invest this adjective with a sense of the richness of the Church if we are to understand what “evangelical Catholicism” really ought to mean.

With this in mind, let me enumerate Weigel’s ten points, taken from the ten headings of his First Things article:

  1. Evangelical Catholicism is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. Evangelical Catholicism affirms divine revelation and embraces its authority, which continues through history in the teaching authority of the Church.
  3. Evangelical Catholicism celebrates the seven sacraments as divinely given means of sanctifying life.
  4. Evangelical Catholicism is a call to constant conversion of life, which involves both the rejection of evil and active participation in the works of service and charity.
  5. Evangelical Catholicism is a liturgically centered form of Catholic life that embraces both the ancient traditions of Catholic worship and the authentic renewal of the liturgy according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
  6. Evangelical Catholicism is a biblically centered form of Catholic life that reads the Bible as the Word of God for the salvation of souls.
  7. Evangelical Catholicism is a hierarchically ordered Catholicism in which a variety of vocations are respected.
  8. Evangelical Catholicism is both culture-forming and countercultural.
  9. Evangelical Catholicism enters the public square with the voice of reason, grounded in gospel conviction.
  10. Evangelical Catholicism awaits with eager anticipation the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory, and until that time, Evangelical Catholicism is ordered to mission—to the proclamation of the Gospel for the world’s salvation.

I think every Catholic who reads this list will have his own favorite characteristics in those points which resonate strongly as too long neglected and vitally necessary for renewal. In my own case, for example, the clause “Evangelical Catholicism is ordered to mission” strikes a particularly powerful chord. Weigel begins his explanation of this point as follows:

The Church does not have a mission, as if “mission” were one among a dozen things the Church does. The Church is a mission, and everything the Church does is ordered to that mission, which is the proclamation of the Gospel for the conversion of the world to Christ. Thus mission and mission-effectiveness measure everything and everyone in the Church.

He goes on to say that “those things that need to be changed in the Church, and that can be changed, must be changed for the sake of mission” and “those things in the Church that cannot be changed, because they are of the divinely ordered constitution of the Church, must be reformed when necessary so that they contribute as they ought to the mission.”

All of Weigel’s points describe what he views as the proper tendency of an authentic Catholic renewal already 135 years in the making. In framing the preceding sentence, I have deliberately substituted the word “authentic” for “evangelical” because, while the Church, like the individual soul, is always in need of renewal, it is dangerous to add adjectives to the Catholic title. Any adjective, whether “traditional”, “progressive” or “evangelical” will inevitably be used by some to constrict the fullness of the Church into a particular shape which serves a particular kind of personality. This is not Weigel’s intention and, for my part, I object to the sustained use of all such Catholic modifiers on principle.

Nonetheless, I believe George Weigel’s list of characteristics merits thought, prayer, and discussion. We might well ask ourselves whether Weigel’s portrayal resembles Catholic life as we have come to know it—or have come to take it for granted. If nothing else, these are points for a kind of Catholic examination of conscience, as all of us seek to make the Church more herself, and ourselves more the Church.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 21, 2013 4:53 PM ET USA

    I attempted to correlate in my mind the social changes which occurred in the western world at the time of the transition from Pius to Leo and the answer is fairly plain. The monarchies were dissolved or dissolving and reconfiguring into pluralistic republics, greatly reducing the social authority of the Holy See. In spite of the fact that Vatican II was hardly a “twinkle in any theologian’s eye” these changes arose from the laity, not the clergy.

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