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An invitation to Evangelical Catholicism and Deep Catholic Reform


"A rare book that can transform culture and communities from the inside out." - Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus


As the Catholic Church marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, demands for the reform of the Church were insistent, widespread, and often cacophonous.  But the call for "reform" was usually the end of any agreement among the petitioners.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, "progressive" Catholics have their reform agenda; so do "traditionalist" Catholics.  Hans Kung, who once described Vatican II's task as "reform and reunion," is quite certain that he knows what true "reform" is; so are the publishers of The Wanderer and the editors of The Tablet, although none of them can agree on the specifics of this reform.  The New York Times has its idea of what Catholic reform would look like; so does the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano; so do hundreds of thousands of bloggers and Internet commentators throughout the world.  There the resemblance stops.  The all for reform is virtually universal, while the terms of reform are comprehensively disputed.

Still,there may be one other point of concord.  Among all the contending parties, there is general agreement that 1962-1965 — the years of the Second Vatican Council — were the years in which the problems and promise of twenty- first-century Catholicism took shape.  More sophisticated observers may drive the analysis back a few decades, to the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the mid-twentieth century, from which they rightly trace many of the themes that shaped the Council's deliberations: a new biblical consciousness; a heightened awareness of the importance for theology of history and different philosophical perspectives; the renewal of the Church's worship; a new engagement with public life.  But across the spectrum of opinion, ecclesiastical or secular, it is usually agreed that Vatican II was where twenty-first-century Catholicism began, for good or for ill.

This consensus-within-the-cacophony tends to lose sight of the deeper currents of Church and world cultural history, however.  It is as if the debates over Catholic identity that occupied the Council years and the decades that followed simply began ex nihilo — or began in the forms into which the debate quickly congealed.  This book and the proposals it contains are based on the premise that these familiar analyses, which shed some light on various aspects of the twenty-first-century Catholic reality, are nonetheless analyses on the surface of things.  That means that the proposals for "reform" that come out of those analyses are also, in the main, surface proposals that do not cut to the heart of the imperative of deep Catholic reform.

The deep reform of the Catholic Church has in fact been underway for more than one and a quarter centuries.  It began with Pope Leo XIII.  It continued in one way through the revitalization of Catholic biblical, liturgical, historical, philosophical, and theological studies in the mid twentieth century.  It continued in another, and at least as important, way in the martyrdom of millions of Catholics at the hands of the mid-twentieth-century totalitarian systems.  It was furthered by Pope Pius XII in his teaching on the Church as the "Mystical Body of Christ."  It reached a high-water mark of ecclesiastical drama in the Second Vatican Council.  It was given new impetus by Pope Paul VI in the 1975 apostolic letter Evangelii Nuntiandi, which called the entire Church to a new sense of missionary fervor in proclaiming the Gospel.  And it has been brought into sharper focus by the pontificates of two men of genius, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Many of Catholicism's twenty-first-century struggles — from the sexual abuse crisis, to the radical secularization of Europe, to the contest with evangelical, Pentecostalist, and fundamentalist Protestantism for the Christian future of Latin America, to the challenge of finding an appropriate "inculturation" of Catholic faith in Africa and Asia — reflect the churning of these deeper currents of reform, the resistance they have encountered, and the slow, difficult emergence of a new way of being Catholic: a new "form" of Catholicism.

This new form is in essential continuity with Catholicism's origins and doctrinal development, for otherwise it would not be a genuinely Catholic "form" of being the Church.  But it is also something new.  Perhaps better, it is the recovery and redeployment, in twenty-first-century guise, of something quite old, something that goes back to the first centuries of the Christian era.

It is called, here, Evangelical Catholicism.  Before I unpack that phrase in what follows — both in terms of what Evangelical Catholicism is and in terms of the deep reforms in the Church to which it will lead — it is important to specify what I do not mean by Evangelical Catholicism.

Evangelical Catholicism is not a way of being Catholic that adapts certain catechetical practices and modes of worship from evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostalist Protestantism.

Evangelical Catholicism is not the Catholicism of the future as imagined by either "progressive" Catholics or "traditionalist" Catholics, although Evangelical Catholicism does take from the former the imperative of development and from the latter the imperative of a development — a reform — that follows the essential form of the Church given to it by Christ.

Evangelical Catholicism is not a Catholicism tailored to what appears to be, by contrast to western Europe, the comparatively stronger condition of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Evangelical Catholicism is not simply a response to the sexual abuse crisis that has dominated the world media's coverage of the Catholic Church since 2002.

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.  Indeed, its evolution is closely linked to the emergence of the modern papacy, even as its further development will place demands on a reformed Office of Peter in the Church.

If this is what Evangelical Catholicism is not, then just what is it?

Evangelical Catholicism is the Catholicism that is being born, often with great difficulty, through the work of the Holy Spirit in prompting deep Catholic reform — a reform that meets the challenges posed to Christian orthodoxy and Christian life by the riptides of change that have reshaped world culture since the nineteenth century.  Evangelical Catholicism will be defined in greater detail in the first part of this book, The Vision of Evangelical Catholicism.  The deep reforms to which that vision, embodied in the Church's life, ought to lead is the subject of the book's second part, The Reforms of Evangelical Catholicism.

Evangelical Catholicism
by George Weigel

The Catholic Church believes that it was constituted — that it was given a distinctive form — by the will of Christ himself.  Thus all true Catholic reform is by reference to that divinely given constitution of the Church, a "constitution" in the British, rather than in the American, sense of the term.  Over two millennia of history, authentic, genuine Catholic reform has meant reaching back into that constitution and retrieving aspects of the Christ-given form of the Church.  That is what happened in the so called Dark Ages, with the development of western monasticism.  That is what happened in the so-called Dark Ages, with the development of western monasticism.  That is what happened in the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century (which also had an enormous impact on the evolution of political life in the West).  That is what happened when the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, having taken a hard look at the corruptions that had been one cause of the Reformation, created a form of Catholicism — Counter-Reformation Catholicism — that endured for centuries.  And that is what the Second Vatican Council intended to do, and in some measure achieved.

The challenge today is not only that Catholicism is confronted by hostile cultural forces contending that the Church and its teaching ill serve men and women living in a free, just, and humane society.  That is an old story.  And, to be candid, such New Atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens rather pale in comparison to Nero and Diocletian, Voltaire and Robespierre and Bismarck, Lenin and Mao Zedong.  The challenge today is to recognize the distinctive character of that cultural hostility, which was born of an indifference to biblical religion that mutated in the nineteenth century into the claim that the God of the Bible is the enemy of human freedom, human maturity, and progress in the natural sciences.  In the twenty-first century, this hostility may lead to new forms of overt persecution directed at believers for the simple reason that they are believers.  In the first two decades of the new millennium, however, it has been directed primarily to the marginalization of Catholicism and its reduction to a private lifestyle choice of no public consequence.  In any case, the challenge of the post-conciliar Church is to preach the Gospel in a new, and perhaps unprecedented, cultural situation.

The Western world, the historic homeland of Christianity, has become "disenchanted," in sociologist Max Weber's famous term.  The windows and skylights of the human experience seem to have been nailed shut and painted over.  A modernity (and postmodernity) that owes far more to the Christian civilization of the West than many heirs of the continental Enlightenment are prepared to concede has produced an often-toxic public culture that is increasingly Christophobic, to adopt a term used by an Orthodox Jew and distinguished international legal scholar, Joseph H. H. Weiler.  All of this poses new challenges to Catholicism.  These challenges can only be met by the deep reforms of Evangelical Catholicism: reforms that will reclaim the essential, Christ-given form of the Church while equipping its people and their ordained leaders with the tools to convert a disenchanted and not-infrequently hostile world.

Grasped in its fullness, Evangelical Catholicism invites Catholics (and indeed all who are interested in the Catholic Church) to move beyond the left/right surface arguments of past decades, which were largely about ecclesiastical power, and into a deeper reflection on the missionary heart of the Church — and to consider how that heart might be given expression in the twenty-first century and the third millennium.  Evangelical Catholicism is about the future.  Grasping its essence, however, means learning a new way of looking at the recent Catholic past.  So that is where we shall begin.



weigel George Weigel. "An invitation to Evangelical Catholicism and Deep Catholic Reform." the Prologue from Evangelical Catholicism (New York: Basic Books, 2013): 1-6.

Reprinted with permission from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

The Author

weigel777smweigel5smGeorge Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Among his books are Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Catholic Church, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

Copyright © 2013 George Weigel
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