The Gospel Coalition


Evangelical Catholicism

George Weigel | Review by: Greg Forster

George Weigel. Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. New York: Basic, 2013. 304 pp. $27.99.

For years, many Roman Catholics around the world have been talking about something they call “the new evangelism.” More recently, some have even started talking about “evangelical Catholicism.” George Weigel’s book of that name argues these aren’t just passing ecclesial fads but an important new direction for the Roman Catholic church. He proposes a historical narrative, an intellectual framework, and a specific reform agenda to guide that movement.

No doubt many Protestants will wish to contest this appropriation of the word evangelical. As a practical matter, that ship has sailed. This use of the term has become widespread, and it makes sense to people; Roman Catholics aren’t going to stop using it because we tell them to. Those of us who believe Protestant theology provides the fullest and most accurate expression of the biblical gospel can better advance our cause by entering into dialogue about the underlying ideas.

Three major claims run through Evangelical Catholicism in ways that give shape to its argument and proposed list of reforms. All three claims are ambitious, and a figure like Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., could easily have written an important book about any one of them. In fact, this is both the central feature and the central problem with the book. Its ambitious claims are serious and greatly stimulating; they will provoke deep reflection in any serious reader. However, a book of this length and density simply cannot do intellectual justice to all three claims. Weigel seems to have bitten off more than one book will allow him to fully chew.

The first claim is historical. Weigel argues that for more than a century Roman Catholicism has been undergoing a slow but profound shift from “Counter-Reformation Catholicism” to “Evangelical Catholicism.” Counter-Reformation Catholicism was defined by the encounter with rival religious claims—especially Protestantism—and developed within the context of national cultures that welcomed religion and provided the sociological conditions necessary to sustain and transmit faith in community. This Catholicism served Rome well for centuries, but was eventually undermined by emerging sociological conditions of modernity (such as pluralism and militant secularism). Weigel argues that evangelical Catholicism, beginning with Leo XIII’s reforms and running through Vatican II and the transformative papacy of John Paul II, is the gradual emergence of a new epochal form of Roman Catholicism. Its central priority is making Christianity plausible in a “disenchanted” social world, rather than answering rival religious claims.

This perspective makes Weigel’s book an interesting analogue to recent Protestant discussions about post-Christendom, postmodernism, transmitting the faith to young people, and how to find new and better ways of influencing culture. A key area of similarity is the emphasis on calling all believers to follow Christ in all areas of life. This call leads to holistic engagement rather than oversimplified formulas. In Weigel’s description of evangelical Catholicism, “friendship with Christ” expressed through “truth and mission” provides a central theme that imparts integrity and organization to the often fragmented multiplicity of concerns confronting the modern Christian. That may not be exactly how Protestants would put it, but there are important parallels here to recent Protestant conversations about the gospel and the mission of the church.

I especially appreciated Weigel’s chapter on “lay vocation.” As a growing number of Protestants are also discovering, a recovery of vocation in all of life for all Christians is going to be essential to renewing Christianity in the modern world. The main difference, however, is that Weigel is building on a long period of profound reflection about lay vocation in Roman Catholicism, whereas Protestants largely neglected this critical topic in the last century. Weigel does a masterful job of handling the key issues here, including a helpful section on placing vocation at the center of our understanding of marriage (echoing the recent work of Gene Edward Veith on the Protestant side). I hope Weigel will forgive me if I give this chapter the highest compliment I know how to offer: it could almost have been written by Calvin.

On the other hand, Evangelical Catholicism provides additional evidence that most Roman Catholic political advocates have learned little from the catastrophic failure of the Christendom-based Religious Right model of activism. Echoing too many of his peers, Weigel’s chapter on politics demands a strategy of ruthlessly bludgeoning enemies into submission through “political pressure and financial pressure.” You couldn’t ask for a sharper contrast with the strategic reappraisal now occurring among Protestant activists.

The second claim is theological. Weigel presents an outline for how to link “friendship with Christ” through “truth and mission” to a variety of theological concerns, from revelation and authority to liturgy and sacraments. Protestants will find much they recognize; indeed, on Weigel’s account the transition from Counter-Reformation to evangelical Catholicism seems to involve several major shifts in our direction. Trent has not been repealed, of course, and Weigel is careful never to cross the red lines that still separate us. Catholic religious guilt certainly makes a few notable appearances. But Protestants can celebrate his clarion call that all Christians must study and submit to Scripture as a revelatory authority, his insistence on authentic personal conversion, and his affirmation of lay vocation.

In fact, some key aspects of Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism” are so evangelical that I wonder if they will create tension with Catholicism. He criticizes Counter-Reformation Catholicism for its emphasis on rules and rituals when the real essence of sanctification is sincerely striving for “constant conversion” in all of life. This concern is literally where the Reformation began; it’s a restatement of the first thesis in Luther’s 95 Theses. In fact, it was Luther’s intense consciousness of God’s demand for constant conversion in all of life that forced him to see the bankruptcy of the sacrament of penance. I think the theology of Evangelical Catholicism could be described as an attempt to have Luther’s first thesis without his second one.

Weigel’s third claim, which is the most provocative, concerns ecclesial politics. For half a century, Roman Catholicism has been predominantly interpreted (by adherents and outsiders alike) in terms of the conflict between “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Weigel argues this take misses the real story. Both these groups belong to the old Counter-Reformation paradigm, he claims; the progressives want a looser version while the traditionalists want a stricter one. As they fruitlessly struggle against one another, Weigel says the bigger story is that evangelical Catholicism, which transcends the divide, is eclipsing them both.

Weigel is shrewd to make this claim, since his huge intellectual and practical ambitions cannot possibly succeed if people interpret this book as a mere warmed-over restatement of the traditionalist position. Whether he’s done enough to make the claim plausible, however, is another story. His theological underpinning is mostly uncontroversial, but wherever this book intersects with contested topics—which it does frequently and at great length—it reads like, well, like a warmed-over restatement of the traditionalist position.

The historical connection to the Vatican II council is another complicating factor for this claim. It’s easy to see Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism” as a natural continuation of Vatican II on topics like the doctrine of revelation. But when it comes to topics like liturgy, Weigel is visibly straining to position himself positively toward Vatican II’s progressive reforms while pushing the needle as far back in the traditionalist direction as he can get away with. Worse, in the chapters on religious orders and higher education, Weigel explicitly identifies Vatican II as a turning point where these aspects of Roman Catholic life entered a precipitous downward spiral. This perspective calls his whole historical narrative into question.

The problem here, and throughout the book, is not necessarily that Weigel’s assertions are false. It’s that they are frequently more asserted than argued. Evangelical Catholicism is a stimulating book that will provoke a great deal of edifying reflection in anyone interested in Roman Catholicism or the Protestant-Catholic encounter. A full case for its claims, however, is still waiting to be made.

Greg Forster is the editor of Hang Together and the author of five books, most recently The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God's Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Crossway, 2012).

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