Evangelical Catholicism - A Review

George Weigel's recent book, Evangelical Catholicism, is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation among Catholics about the new evangelization.  Weigel introduces a new terminology into the discussion that puts a name (and I believe an accurate name) on what precisely defines "new" and "old" evangelization.

The Church has been calling us for some time to embark on a new evangelization, "new in methods, expression, and ardor," and many have enthusiastically embraced this call.  Yet even for those who have earnestly set out to understand the new evangelization, most will admit that there is still quite a bit of haziness about precisely what this means and how it is distinct from the old.

We can better approach an answer to this question if we first ask, Why a new evangelization?  The simplest answer to this question is that evangelization must change because the world has changed.  The goal of evangelization is ever the same - restoring others into communion with the Father through Christ in his Church - but new circumstances introduce new obstacles, and these necessitate new approaches.

It is important to emphasize up front that there are perennial, unchangeable aspects of Catholic belief and practice, but it is equally important to acknowledge that these perennial truths are distinct from their particular time-bound expressions throughout history.  Thus, while we are inheritors of a particular expression of Catholicism, we also sit on the edge of a new historical epoch that demands a new expression, for, as Weigel convincingly argues, the inherited expression is ineffective to transmit authentic Catholic faith in these new circumstances.

COUNTER-REFORMATION CATHOLICISM

The particular expression of Catholicism that we have inherited today is what Weigel terms "Counter-Reformation Catholicism," for its defining characteristics were formed by the Church's response to the Protestant Reformation.  This form of Catholicism, it should be said, was largely an appropriate response and was effective in meeting certain challenges of its day.  But the effectiveness of this expression of Catholicism is dependent on certain other assumptions which do not apply in today's predominant cultural milieu.  These are:

  1. The general acceptance of authority.  Previous generations accepted the legitimacy of authority and consented to its instruction with relative ease.  Authority today is universally viewed with suspicion.  Thus, Weigel rightly asserts, "'The Church teaches...' is language destined to fall upon deaf ears in twenty-first-century cultures of radical subjectivity, in which the highest authority is the imperial autonomous Self" (pg 30).
  2. A culture that, by and large, supports Biblical values.  That this is no longer the case should be easy to ascertain.  But it is no longer even just a matter of being surrounded by an alternative worldview.  The ambient culture is in fact actively hostile toward Christian belief.  Weigel writes, "Catholics cannot walk down New York City's Madison Avenue...without having their 'plausibility structures,' their Christian way of understanding How Things Are and How Things Ought To Be, sensorily assaulted at every turn" (pg 20).
  3. Catholics will absorb their faith as if by osmosis.  This third point is dependent on the first two.  Thus, if certain habits are fostered (devotionals and memorized answers) then the lived experience of Catholicism will be absorbed and fill in the details.  Because these other elements are missing, however, pastoral practice must move beyond the simple re-assertion of rules and proscription of practices that characterize Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

EVANGELICAL CATHOLICISM

Weigel's answer to the new cultural setting we find ourselves in today is what he terms Evangelical Catholicism.  Weigel's assertion that Evangelical Catholicism is the future of the Church is not merely a statement of his personal preference, but is based on the empirical observation that this is the only form of Catholicism that is thriving today.  Counter-Reformation Catholicism lost its ability to speak to the modern world and certain other trends within the post-Vatican II Church have demonstrated themselves to be impotent in producing future generations of believers.  Parishes, movements, and ministries that have demonstrated vitality over recent decades tend to share certain common traits.  Here is my distilled version of Weigel's description that emphasizes those traits which I find to be most distinctive of this new wave of Evangelical Catholics:

  1. Evangelical Catholicism is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.  Counter-Reformation Catholicism tended to emphasize devotions and externals, again under the assumption that the ambient culture would nourish the internalization of these activities.  Evangelical Catholicism promotes friendship with Christ as the starting point and foundation of the entire faith life.  And Evangelical Catholics, having entered into this relationship, strive to base all of their life decisions around faithfulness to this friendship which is the primary relationship in their life.
  2. Evangelical Catholicism is deeply rooted in Scripture. The liturgy and teaching of the Church has always been deeply Scriptural, but it is no secret that a personal familiarity with Scripture among lay Catholics has been a lingering weakness in the Church.  Evangelical Catholics are deeply invested in Scripture and draw from it daily as one part of the dual-core of their devotional life (along with the Sacraments).
  3. Evangelical Catholicism draws strength and vitality from the Sacraments.  Although it was never meant to be this way, the average Catholic experience of the Sacraments in Counter-Reformation Catholicism was one of showing up and being present as the liturgy "happened" around them.  The various liturgical movements (such as those in 19th-century Europe and early 20th-century United States) recognized this trend and sought to overcome the deficiency.  While Weigel accurately expresses the importance of the Sacraments in the life of an Evangelical Catholic, I think he fails to identify what is particularly distinctive about the Evangelical Catholic's experience of the liturgy, namely, that the Evangelical Catholic has embraced the Council's invitation to "full, conscious, and active participation" in the mystical action of the liturgy - the reception of the Word of God, Christ's self-offering to the Father, and the consummation of our union with Jesus in the Eucharist.  The Evangelical Catholic is personally invested in the liturgy in mind, heart, and body.
  4. Evangelical Catholicism is unapologetically missionary.  Weigel's description here distinguishes Evangelical Catholicism both from Counter-Reformation Catholicism and from today's culture.  In contrast to the former, Evangelical Catholics enthusiastically embrace their call to the evangelizing mission of the Church.  And in contrast to the latter, Evangelical Catholics are unapologetic in their proclamation that the hope of man lies only in friendship with Jesus Christ, and furthermore that the Catholic Church is the singular bearer of the full revelation given in Christ.  Introducing others into friendship with Jesus is the first priority of an Evangelical Catholic for, as we saw in #1 above, this is the root and foundation of the entire Evangelical Catholic life.  As Weigel puts it, evangelism "begins not with knowing about Jesus, but with knowing Jesus" (pg 57).  This call to mission is so deeply rooted in the Evangelical Catholic's way of life that he or she "sees every venue of his or her life as an evangelical opportunity" (pg 49-50).
  5. Evangelical Catholicism draws on the riches of the past while embracing new approaches.  Weigel employs an image from the Gospel story of the multiplication of loaves to describe this dynamic, for there Jesus instructed his disciples to "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost."  Thus, Evangelical Catholicism "believes that the Church of the twenty-first century should 'gather up the fragments' across the entire panorama of Catholic history, and then judge them according to the twin criteria of authentic Catholic reform, truth and mission" (pg 102).  This "twin criteria" is a keen insight from Weigel, one that no doubt will resonate deeply with Evangelical Catholics.  These criteria are also to be taken in order.  The first question that will always be asked is, Does this align with the revealed truth of God and His express will?  Assuming it passes this test, the next question is, Will this be effective in advancing the evangelical mission of the Church?  It bears repeating that there are expressions of the Church that are more suited to a particular age, and when a particular expression has lost resonance with modern man, the Evangelical Catholic is comfortable with letting it go.

So what do you think?  Do you agree with Weigel's claim that Evangelical Catholicism is the future of the Church?  Do you consider yourself an Evangelical Catholic?