But who do you say that I am?
This question, from an obscure Nazarene carpenter to an even more obscure Galilean fisherman, has proved to be the world’s most important query. How you answer it has profound implications for how you will lead your life. And, as C. S. Lewis pointed out some 50-plus years ago, Jesus left us with only three options: He was either a pathological liar, a deranged lunatic, or the Lord of the universe.
For those who answer with Simon Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” a life of radical discipleship is required, particularly in this new millennium. So argues George Weigel in Evangelical Catholicism. The task of Roman Catholics in the 21st century, as he sees it, is “proclaiming the lordship of Jesus Christ and the possibility of life-transforming friendship with him.”
While Weigel is nowhere near the end of his career, this book is, in many ways, a culmination. Evangelical Catholicism draws on his acclaimed biography of Pope John Paul II as well as some of his other works, such as The Courage to Be Catholic and Letters to a Young Catholic, highlighting many of the themes Weigel has developed over the past quarter-century. The end result is Weigel at his best, situating our present moment within the context of the last century, and laying out an agenda for Catholic reform and mission in the future.
Weigel marks the beginning of Evangelical Catholicism with the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903). The ensuing development of the liturgical movement, and the renewal of biblical scholarship and Thomistic philosophy, reached maturation with the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, and blossomed fully during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the true champions of Evangelical Catholicism are the multitude of priests of the John Paul II generation; the university students at places as varied as Texas A&M, Princeton, and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; religious sisters in Nashville and Ann Arbor; and young professionals gathering in parishes from Soho, London, to Midtown Manhattan.
In contrast to a Counter-Reformation Catholicism that taught truths about Jesus, this new era of Catholicism centers on knowing Jesus. No longer content with the question-and-answer format of a Baltimore Catechism, it finds its source and summit in Word and Sacrament; no longer at home in an ambient Christian culture, this Catholicism is both countercultural and culture-forming. It demands of its adherents a fundamental choice: to follow Christ without counting the cost, or to be swept up in the relativism, subjectivism, and nihilism of what Weigel refers to as our postmodern cult of the “imperial autonomous Self.”
Evangelical Catholicism isn’t a new church, but a new cultural expression of the timeless truths of Christ. Its adherents embrace faith and reason, Scripture and tradition, church authority and individual conscience, liturgical prayer and personal piety, and holiness and mission above all else. For, ultimately, the church in the new millennium must undertake what John Paul II called “The New Evangelization,” presenting the Gospel (perhaps for the first time) to those whom Weigel describes as “baptized pagans.”
G. K. Chesterton famously quipped that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” For far too many, the Christian ideal simply hasn’t been found. Weigel suggests that an entire generation has never even heard the Gospel proclaimed, let alone seen it embodied: “the poorly catechized, the liturgically bored, the morally confused.” For these, “when Evangelical Catholicism is proposed, it is more often embraced enthusiastically than rejected as impossible to accept.” And that’s the key to conversion, as Weigel sees it: The church must propose the truths of Christ and man, and invite all to see what the Gospel reveals about both.
Opposed to Evangelical Catholicism are two groups of dissenters: liberals who reject what the Gospel reveals, and reactionaries who think the cultural forms of Counter-Reformation Catholicism were, themselves, divinely established. But for Catholic life going forward, both of these alternatives are sociologically and theologically desolate. No one dedicates his life for the trivial truths of liberal Catholicism; and a Catholicism that can’t engage modernity can’t propose St. Paul’s “more excellent way.”
Weigel believes that understanding our cultural moment will prompt reforms within the church, and he outlines a detailed plan of action for renewal: (1) Priests, bishops, and popes should more fully embrace their identity as alteri Christi and their role as heirs to the apostles to teach, govern, and sanctify; (2) Catholic liturgy should form a sacred space in a counter-cultural time, allowing beauty to serve as a special on-ramp to friendship with Christ; (3) lay Catholics should embrace vocations in the world but not of it, joyously live out Christian marriages, and “take possession of their unique responsibility as lay agents of the church’s mission to the world”; (4) Catholic scholars should embrace the symphony of truths of faith and reason, to think with the church; and (5) Catholic public officials should allow these saving truths about God and man to guide their policy decisions, remaining sensitive to the difference between first principles and prudential considerations.
Evangelical Catholicism has its limitations. Notwithstanding the recent papal resignation, Weigel’s suggested reforms for the Vatican bureaucracy will cause many a reader’s eyes to glaze. One might quibble with his suggestions for liturgical music reform (we should sing the Mass, not sing at Mass). And he doesn’t devote enough attention to Catholic intellectual life in secular disciplines, especially the social sciences. Acknowledgment of the role evangelical Protestantism has played in fostering Evangelical Catholicism also would have been welcome.
Still, this book deserves to be read by any serious thinking Christian. Evangelical Catholics are not blind to the manifold failings of the church, but they know and love it too much to give up on Christ’s bride. Though protected by the Holy Spirit, the church is composed of sinners, constantly in need of renewal by a more radical discipleship of Christ. As Weigel notes, “Evangelical Catholicism calls the entire Church to holiness for the sake of mission.” John Paul II and Benedict XVI both knew this. The next bishop of Rome will as well.
Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of Public Discourse.