Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church
By George Weigel
Basic Books, 2013
291 pages, $27.99
To order: basicbooks.com
Right now, the whole world is focused on Pope Benedict’s resignation and the imminent election of a new pope. Thus, the timing of our greatest observer of the global Catholic Church, George Weigel, could not have been better for the release of his latest book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.
Weigel is best known for his definitive biography of Pope John Paul II. What many people don’t know is that he has written some 18 other books, all of which address in one way or another the state of Christianity — and most particularly of Catholicism.
In my estimation, however, he will be remembered most for this newest entry, not only because of his acute analysis of history, but also because of his keen insights into where the Church is going as she is moved by the Holy Spirit. For example:
“The deep reform of the Catholic Church has been under way for more than one and a quarter centuries. It began with Pope Leo XIII. It continued in one way through the revitalization of Catholic biblical, liturgical, philosophical and theological studies in the mid-twentieth century. It continued in another and at least as important way in the martyrdom of millions of Catholics at the hands of the mid-twentieth century totalitarian systems. … It reached a high-water mark of ecclesiastical drama in the Second Vatican Council. … And it has been brought into sharper focus by the pontificates of two men of genius, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
So where does “Evangelical Catholicism” come in? Weigel puts it this way:
“In the catechetical-devotional Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation Church, the Catholic learned about Jesus Christ through brief catechism formulas that aptly summed up the Church’s doctrine about the Son of God who became the son of Mary. Evangelical Catholicism begins not with knowing about Jesus, but with knowing Jesus.”
As Weigel explains, “Evangelical Catholicism proclaims the great gift of friendship with Jesus Christ, not as one attractive possibility in a supermarket of spiritualities, but as the God-given and unique means of salvation for everyone.”
Weigel proceeds to explain in 10 subchapters how his evangelical vision syncs with getting to know Christ in and through the Church — meaning the sacraments, conversion of life, active participation in acts of charity, communal worship, reading of the word of God and understanding and embracing the Church as hierarchical, with a variety of vocations, all converging on holiness as their goal.
In my opinion, however, the most interesting observation Weigel makes about his book topic is: “Evangelical Catholicism creates its own culture. Because friendship with the Lord Jesus shapes every aspect of a Christian’s life, the friendship is culture-forming.” As such, “Catholicism enters the public square with the voice of reason grounded in Gospel conviction.”
The second part of this book grapples with the reform of the Church. Although Weigel’s ancestry is German, he certainly is no Martin Luther. There is hardly a part of the Church for which he does not have finely honed and thorough recommendations, from the papacy on down, including the Curia, bishops, laity, priests, liturgy — and the list goes on. His advice is sharp and to the point, but also charitable and understanding.
If I could gain entrance into the conclave, I would smuggle in enough copies of Evangelical Catholicism to place one on the chair of each elector, in hopes that they would adopt this masterpiece of Catholic history and thought as a possible guide for the Church’s mission in the centuries ahead.
Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and a research fellow
of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.