George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism is a masterful work that is, dare I say, fundamental to understanding Catholic evangelization. This work is of such a solid scholarship that it must be considered by both friend and foe alike. For those in agreement, it serves as a foundation stone to understanding the New Evangelization. For those in disagreement, the points made by Mr. Weigel must be carefully refuted prior to suggesting an alternative thesis.
Now this powerful thesis I keep alluding to can be summed up as the paradigm shift from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to that of Evangelical Catholicism. In this transition, Counter-Reformation Catholicism can be understood as the pursuit “to preserve Catholicism through simple, straightforward catechetical instruction and devotional piety.”(p.15) Mr. Weigel does not cast a negative light on this paradigm of the Church for it was exactly Counter-Reformation Catholicism that kept the Church intact from the sixteenth century to modern times.
“Counter-Reformation Catholicism gave birth to innumerable saints as the priesthood and consecrated religious life were reformed. It was the form of Catholicism that evangelized the New World…It was the form of Catholicism that restored some measure of Catholic life to Great Britain, that survived the French Revolution, and that held firm against Bismarck’s anti-Catholic Kulturkampf, and that stood fast against anticlerical persecutors in Mexico. It…planted the Church firmly in the United States against the opposition of both Protestant bigots and Deist skeptics. It was the Catholicism in which a rich, populist devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary accelerated. And it was, in the main, the Catholicism that resisted the communist persecution of the Church, the worst such persecution in history.”(p.15)
Yet, as Mr. Weigel proposes, Counter-Reformation Catholicism “was not a form of Catholicism that could successfully meet the full challenge of modernity, the response to which required more of Catholics than (to take American reference points) memorizing the Baltimore Catechism and wearing the Miraculous Medal.”(p.15)
Why is that? Because as Mr. Weigel states, “Counter-Reformation Catholicism created Catholic cultures (or microcultures) that transmitted the faith as if by osmosis.”(p.15) These Catholic cultures were laid to waste by modernity especially in the turbulence of the 1960’s and, as such, demands a turn of the Church towards Evangelical Catholicism in a manner of “a deeply biblical and sacramental Catholicism that displayed enormous growth in Africa.”(p.16)
This form of Catholicism, Evangelical Catholicism, is extremely counter-cultural as it “does not seek to ‘get along’; it seeks to convert.”(p.19) This conversion of the world is founded upon the “transforming fire of the Holy Spirit”(p.20) and “calls the entire Church to holiness for the sake of mission.”(p.22) This message is not original to Mr. Weigel, but was the core of the late, great Pope St. John Paul II whose predecessors have continued to carry the torch of a mission Church forward.
From this platform, that the Church must embrace Evangelical Catholicism, Mr. Weigel goes into “The Vision of Evangelical Catholicism.” He beings this part by emphasizing the vital importance of Truth while acknowledging that the reference points have changed. For example, “the Church teaches…” no longer carries weight with modern man, but “The Gospel reveals…” demands a response whether that response be positive, skeptical, or even hostile.(p.30) Of course, the two are not opposed for “The Gospel reveals…” must lead to “the Church teachers… but it gets to the latter from a distinctive starting point.”(p.30)
He later goes on, in chapter three, to view and contrast Evangelical Catholicism with Counter-Reformation Catholicism. If one were short on time, skipping directly to chapter three might provide the core of Mr. Weigel’s argument most succinctly since it is in that chapter that he examines the characteristics of Evangelical Catholicism in great detail. Doing so would hopefully then inspire the reader to return to the beginning and digest of the entirety of Mr. Weigel’s thoughts before passing final judgment.
Part two of the book, focuses on the reforms necessary to implement Evangelical Catholicism to the fullest. The areas of reform put forth by Mr. Weigel cover the Episcopate, the Priesthood, the Liturgy, Consecrated Life, the Lay Vocation, the Church’s Intellectual Life, the Church’s Public Policy Advocacy, and the Papacy. While each particular reform put forth by Mr. Weigel should be examined and weighed, he does rightly suggest that there are two criteria from which authentic reform flows: the criterion of truth and the criterion of mission.
“All true Catholic reform is built out from the truth that is Christ and reflects the truths that have been entrusted to the Church by Christ…All true Catholic reform is reform ordered to mission, to the proclamation of the Gospel, to building up the Body of Christ for the healing and salvation of the world.”(p.92-93)
I cannot but reiterate again that this book serves as a “must read” especially for those in leadership positions in the Church and the various evangelistic apostolates. While readers are free to disagree with this or that suggestion Mr. Weigel puts forth, the well articulated presentation he offers in support of Evangelical Catholicism at the very least serves as a basis from which deep thought and discussion can develop in regards to the Church’s mission of evangelization.
I recommend this book to all seeking to better understand Catholic evangelization and with a special emphasis, I recommend this to those in leadership positions within the Church, Academia, and evangelistic apostolates.