The Reformation Comes to Rome?
The Reformation Comes to Rome?

The Reformation Comes to Rome?

An Evangelical reviews Evangelical Catholicism.
September 6 th 2013
Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church
Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Churchby George Weigel. Basic Books, 2013. 291pp.

George Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism provides very interesting reading for a historian with pietist and Calvinist convictions who happens to teach at the University of Notre Dame. It is also greatly interesting to see a lay American Catholic, known for his conservative political convictions as well as for his comprehensive biography of John Paul II, address the inner life of his church with a mostly apolitical analysis.

The book is partly historical as it charts what Weigel describes a "deep reform" of the Catholic Church that began with Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century, progressed gradually through the first decades of the twentieth century, received a strong impetus with the Second Vatican Council, and then accelerated rapidly under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (the book was written before the accession of Francis I). He depicts the 350 years from the time of Martin Luther to the First Vatican Council (1870) of Pope Pius IX as "Counter-Reformation Catholicism" during which the church featured strict internal discipline, morality defined in legal-juridical terms, and a tight "clerical caste system"—as often as possible abetted by cooperating governmental regimes. Weigel suggests that this stance was necessary for the Church to sail between the disruptive Scylla of Protestantism and the destructive Charybdis of the Enlightenment. But with the altered circumstances of the modern world that Leo XIII intimated and later popes appreciated fully, the Church has been moving toward a program of "evangelical Catholicism."

But history is not Weigel's central concern. Instead, his concern is to spell out what "deep reform" should mean and how "evangelical Catholicism" should take shape in the future. The mixture of history and prescription causes problems, since Weigel sometimes writes as if changes have taken place, or are in process of taking place, when he is actually urging changes that would implement his ideal of evangelical Catholicism. For example, on the question of civil and religious liberty, it is hard to trace a straight line from Leo XIII to John Courtney Murray and the latter's contention that separation of church and state best fulfilled historical Catholic principles. Leo XIII famously cautioned American Catholics against becoming too enamored with the United States' church-state arrangements, and he maintained the stance of Pius IX in calling the papacy "a prisoner of the Vatican" in order to protest the loss of the Papal States. These positions looked backward toward "Catholic Europe" much more than they did forward to the Second Vatican Council and its declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Again, it is hard to see how Weigel's historical scheme properly accounts for much in Catholic history between 1520 and 1890 that in fact showed great creativity, unusual flexibility, or deep spirituality, like the culturally sensitive missionary efforts of the Jesuits from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, the world-wide devotional revival of the nineteenth century, or the outreach to the poor from the likes of Vincent de Paul and Marie of the Incarnation. But historical quibbles ought not dominate even a historian's response to the book, since Weigel's main concern is so obviously his appeal for systemic church reform.

The amazement that grew for me as the book unfolded was how very much of its exposition mirrors so exactly what I also would like to say to Catholic brothers and sisters from my perspective as an evangelical Protestant of Reformed convictions modelled by, say, Abraham Kuyper. The reasons for that amazement are worth spelling out in detail, before mentioning more briefly issues that merit some push back or at least seem to require further discussion.

In one of the very few serious evangelical Protestant assessments of the Second Vatican Council, David Wells wrote in Revolution in Rome about four possibilities he saw coming out of the seismic changes precipitated by the Council. Three of them, from Wells's point of view, were negative: mass exodus from Catholicism by individuals who exploited the Council's stress on human subjectivity by choosing simply to leave; unification between Catholics and the World Council of Churches on the basis of a watered-down theological liberalism; or capitulation to Latin American leftists who spoke of "liberation" but meant "Marxian class conflict." The fourth possibility was that the Council's positive stance toward Scripture would lead many Catholics to acknowledge that historical Protestant convictions charted the right way to go.

George Weigel has not embraced David Wells's fourth possibility as such, but it is a near-run thing. The book's development is almost entirely free of the criticism directed against Protestant evangelicals of the sort that had once been standard in such works (and that is still common in Catholic rhetoric wherever in the world active Protestant movements take in lapsed or inactive Catholics). There is also frequent enough reference to C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and publishing projects like the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible to show that Weigel has benefited from a broad ecumenicity of Christian instruction. To be sure, he does pause to say that "his notion of a Church always in need of purification and reform is drawn not from the Reformation slogan ecclesia semper reformanda [the Church must always be reformed], but from within the Church's deepest inner dynamics." But, otherwise, Weigel's energy is directed to a positive statement of reform that, when assessed from the angle of classical Protestantism, looks more than vaguely familiar.

The most obvious reason for thinking that Weigel is pursuing something like David Wells's fourth option, though conspicuously without pausing to acknowledge that Luther and Calvin got it right, is his presentation of ten "characteristics" that set an evangelical Catholic "profile . . . of the future" and supply "standards for seeking deep reform in the church." Remarkably, six of these characteristics say almost exactly what a Reformed Protestant like Abraham Kuyper would also advocate for a healthy Christian church, whether Catholic or Protestant. Thus, Weigel's first characteristic is a strikingly pietistic affirmation: "Evangelical Catholicism is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ." Weigel does not employ the evangelical Protestant cliché, "personal relationship with Jesus," but his repeated insistence that "friendship" with Christ must be the centre of day-to-day Catholic existence transforms what David Wells feared about the new emphasis on Catholic subjectivity into something that most evangelical Protestants would wholeheartedly affirm.

This first of Weigel's characteristics is worlds removed from the Protestant polemical stereotype of Catholic sacramental theology as working merely ex opere operato—simply by being carried out. Official Catholic teaching has always held that a right disposition is required for sacramental grace to become efficacious, but one of the persistent Protestant complaints about practiced Catholicism has been its apparent formalism, institutionalism, and impersonalism—in other words, the mechanical actions of religion without the engaged heart. For Weigel, "deep reform" means the complete opposite of formal, institutional, or impersonal religion.

Weigel's sixth characteristic describes an additional ideal that accords well with evangelical Protestant Christianity: "Evangelical Catholicism is a biblically centered form of Catholic life that reads the Bible as the Word of God for the salvation of souls." In Weigel's view, the key document of the Second Vatican Council was its dogmatic constitution on the Word of God, Dei Verbum, which he quotes at length on the power of Scripture (and the sacraments) to create and sustain friendship with Christ. He insists, as a consequence, that "daily reading of the Bible" should be the norm for Catholics. His own effective use of scriptural quotations shows that Weigel is already demonstrating a keystone of evangelical Protestant faith (though, of course, honest evangelical Protestants know that with lay reading of Scripture a considerable gap can lie between what we profess and what we practice). Weigel does acknowledge that the Council's teaching about Scripture as an active guide for daily living "has not, in the main, taken place"—primarily because the Church has been too much influenced by the academic practice of historical-critical biblical scholarship. Yet with the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, he sees real hope for a day when Catholics as a whole will embrace "St. Jerome's axiom that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (which happens also to be a chief axiom for the most respected leaders of Protestant tradition).

Four other "characteristics" of Weigel's evangelical Catholicism also sound like goals that many Protestants could also eagerly embrace, though without necessarily the Catholic accents found here. One is "a call to constant conversion of life, which involves both the rejection of evil, and active participation in the works of service and charity"—which sounds like standard Protestant teaching on "sanctification" or what David Bebbington's widely used definition of evangelical Protestantism describes as "activism." Another is Christian life in society as "both culture-forming and countercultural." Still another is activity in the public square undertaken "with the voice of reason, grounded in Gospel conviction." And the final one is eager longing for Christ's second coming, while striving until that time to proclaim "the Gospel for the world's salvation." In this last characteristic, Weigel sums up much of his repeated desire that Catholics, from the papacy all the way down, be engaged in personal evangelism and commit themselves fully to missionary outreach aimed at converting others to Christ.

As if these six characteristics were not enough to cheer the heart of at least some evangelical Protestants, the four characteristics that sound more traditionally Catholic are all inflected in such a way as to bring them closer to what awakened Protestants desire for their own churches. The characteristic of evangelical Catholicism that he lists second affirms the continuing authority of "divine revelation" (which Protestant evangelicals also affirm) "in the teaching authority of the church." But even this last qualification, which ties gospel faith to church structure in traditionally Catholic fashion, sounds at least vaguely Protestant when Weigel calls for obedience to bishops and the pope as a way for the evangelical Catholic to "let go of the imperial autonomous Self and be forged into a true member of the living Body of Christ." Another characteristic affirms Catholicism's seven-fold sacramental system, yet concentrates only on baptism and the Eucharist. About the former, Weigel holds up adult baptism, where "a man or woman has met the Lord, has been converted to friendship with him, and seeks incorporation into his Body and the forgiveness of sins through this first of the sacraments," as the essential "baptismal paradigm" that best communicates the function of this sacrament to begin the journey of friendship with Christ. About the latter, he strongly advocates at least weekly celebration of the Eucharist, but in almost the same terms that important Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, or Thomas Cranmer articulated as well.

Another of his characteristics is liturgically centred worship taking its norms from ancient church traditions and recent liturgical reforms. This is not a common goal among evangelical Protestants, but neither is it completely unknown. His characteristic that sounds the least Protestant of the ten stresses the need for "hierarchically ordered" church leaders, but even that goal is softened when Weigel adds that alongside traditional hierarchy there should be respect for a variety of vocations. That variety includes "the lay vocation," which Weigel defines as "evangelism" of non-believers, but also evangelism of "all those parts of 'the world' to which the laity has greater access than those who are ordained: the family, the mass media, the business community, the worlds of culture, and the political arena, for example."

With these latter four characteristics, Weigel clearly differentiates his ideal from what classically orthodox Protestant reformers would seek. Yet even here, much of the tone and a good deal of substance comes close to paralleling what Protestant ideals like "the priesthood of all believers" and the Christ-honouring potential of all legitimate lay vocations would also affirm.

Once Weigel has patiently defined what he means by evangelical Catholicism, the last three-fifths of the book outlines the specific reforms he hopes can flow from that foundational commitment—for bishops, the priesthood, the liturgy, the vowed religious, lay vocations, intellectual life, public advocacy, and the papacy. Catholics will have their own reactions to the particulars of Weigel's proposals. Readers of all sorts will not be surprised to see him stress sanctity of life from conception to natural death as a non-negotiable foundation of Catholic public advocacy, or to hear him appeal for episcopal discipline against the "many Catholic politicians" who do not follow the Church's social teaching and who, in other ways as well, reveal themselves as nothing but "baptized pagans." Evangelical Protestants will recognize that a Catholic Church reformed according to this program would still be recognizably Catholic, but also that it would come very close to the finest norms of authentic Christian faith they would like to see in their own communions.

Yet questions inevitably remain. For example, is Weigel's vision of "evangelical Catholicism" a faithful reflection—or the best possible distillation—of official Catholic teaching as found, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? As an amateur but appreciative reader of that Catechism, it has struck me that most of what evangelical Protestants want to say about the Christian faith is found in that document, but intermixed with a much more organic tie between the Church's institutional structures and personal faith than Protestants seek, or that Weigel's evangelical Catholicism envisions.

Similarly, Weigel's consistent stress on "friendship with Christ" as the best understanding of the Christian gospel sounds a note that resonates on many levels with the gospel as proclaimed by Martin Luther, Philip Jacob Spener, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Charles Wesley, perhaps George Whitefield, and certainly Billy Graham. But, as the key goal defining the endpoint for deep reform, it also sounds suspiciously like a nostrum designed for hyper-busy middle class Americans frantically seeking personal connection in an increasingly hectic world of economic instability and cyber overload. Without pausing to spell out how "friendship with Christ" might relate to justification by faith; Christ as victor over the powers of sin, death, hell, and the devil; the church as the Body of Christ in the world; or other basic Christian affirmations, doubts must arise whether "friendship with Christ" can bear the weight that Weigel wants it to carry.

And, then, perhaps this is an irrelevant question, but why publish an appeal like this with Basic Books? Perhaps Basic can do a better job at promoting such a volume among Catholics than any religious press—or perhaps by choosing a secular publisher, Weigel hoped to offer a message that all Catholics might consider without having to worry about the place on the ideological spectrum represented by a particular Catholic publisher. But it still seems odd for an intensely Catholic tract aimed at reforming the Catholic Church to not be from a publisher with proven ability to attract a Catholic readership.

It is mostly inconsequential, but perhaps also of some interest to record how I have read this book against the background of experience at Notre Dame. From that experience I would conclude that there are indeed some Catholics committed to deep church reform who already practice something like Weigel's evangelical Catholicism. But it also seems obvious that such Catholics make up only one part of a church that in its U.S. expression includes many other Catholics eager to promote their respective visions of reform. This rainbow of reformers includes Garry Wills Catholics, G. K. Chesterton Catholics, Robert Barron Catholics, Joe Biden Catholics, Dorothy Day Catholics, Sandra Schneider Catholics, Opus Dei Catholics, Oscar Romero Catholics, and many more. As someone who has read several works by John Paul II and Benedict XVI with real appreciation, I hope very much that they have set the church on a path that it will follow, but then I wonder why in some conversations at Notre Dame, I as the non-Catholic seem to have the most positive things to say about these two popes.

One of the great privileges of being at Notre Dame has been to witness what can only be called Roman Catholic Christianity at its best, marked by profound understanding of fundamental Trinitarian theology, strong commitment to the Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon, expert deployment of philosophy in service to theology, deep personal piety, and dedicated Christian commitment to a wide range of social reforms. Examples of what to all appearances look like admirable personal religion supported by admirable family, parish, and social religion also abound.

Yet Notre Dame is also a place where a broad array of often incompatible ideals are proposed for Catholic reform, where cafeteria religion seems pervasive for what Catholics choose to do or believe, where students participate in dormitory masses and standard college dissipations with equal fervour, and where no one seems too concerned about vast stretches of nominal Catholic adherence.

I don't put much stock in what my own experience suggests about proposals for the Catholic future. But I do nonetheless hope that something like Weigel's evangelical Catholicism can prevail within the church, or at least alternatives that are as Christ-honouring, lay-engaging, and culturally comprehensive as Weigel's proposal. If that kind of reform took place, it would display Christianity with a gospel character that evangelical Protestants should long to imitate themselves.

Topics: Religion
Mark Noll
Mark Noll

Mark Noll is retired as a history professor from Wheaton College and the University of Notre Dame. His recent books include A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (2nd ed.) and as co-editor with George Marsden and David Bebbington, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. 


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