Be Not Afraid – Be VERY Not Afraid

Along with John L. Allen Jr., Francis X. Rocca, David Gibson, Robert Moynihan, Edward Pentin, Rocco Palmo, and our own Robert Royal, few Americans are more steeped in Vatican affairs than George Weigel. As the official biographer of John Paul II and as a prolific writer of books and columns, Mr. Weigel may have a claim to being dean of American Vaticanologists, although there are some in the “faculty” who have their ears closer to the Roman ground.

None though is as willing to step forward present a Power Point prophecy of the Church’s future. In his new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, Weigel writes:

Throughout the Western world. . .we can no longer sit back and assume that decent lives lived in conformity with the prevailing cultural norms will somehow convey the faith to our children and grandchildren and invite others to consider entering the Church.

It’s one of many bold and true assertions, and maybe too bold. Mr. Weigel is certainly right in suggesting that Catholicism as a “leisure-time activity” is as dangerous as it is pointless. But in further suggesting the days of this kind of cafeteria Catholicism are at an end may be a stretch:

Full-time Catholicism – a Catholicism that, as the Second Vatican Council taught, infuses all of life and calls everyone in the Church to holiness and mission – is the only possible Catholicism in the twenty-first century.

Somehow I can’t picture the staff at The National Catholic Reporter cleaning out their desks or the folks at Catholics for Choice shuttering their operation. And they are merely the most extreme cases. You don’t need pollsters to tell you how generalized the Catholic disarray has become. More than a dozen years into the twenty-first century, the stormy horizon is heterodox as far as the eye can see.

But this does not mean that Mr. Weigel fails to hit the mark; only that his evangelical passion somewhat outpaces his ambition. And, really, readers of this column are mostly people for whom the light of Christ is already ablaze in their lives, and the question becomes: How much of the secular world can faithful Catholics continue to tolerate?

There’s an interesting point that’s among the themes of Evangelical Catholicism, namely that whereas once one could be genuinely Catholic by absorbing, if you will, the larger culture (in Catholic France and Italy, for instance, or in some American Catholic communities), today’s meta-culture is so poisonous that Christians are forced to break with it, because it has become for all intents and purposes anti-Christian.

For one brought up, as I was, in a Protestant milieu, and as one who has many friends who have lately affiliated with one or another Evangelical dispensation, George Weigel’s use of terminology more often heard in those communities, such as “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” provides a kind of unaccustomed tingle. But, of course, it’s just such professions of faith that are at the heart of evangelism, and since Jesus is Lord and is our Savior, we’d better get comfortable with saying it just that way. Christianity intellectualized (which word I haven’t space here to unpack) too often creates distance between us and Christ.

Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism is a book in two parts. There’s the historical and evangelical part (defining a new version of renewal), which is what I’ve touched upon so far. And there is a much longer section – what’s promised in the book’s subtitle – devoted to a program of reform: of the episcopate, the priesthood, the liturgy, the consecrated life, the lay vocation, intellectual life, public policy, and even the papacy. It’s an agenda that’s nothing if not bold.

Highlights concerning policies and popes: Once the Vatican ruled states and chose kings; now the Church must be all about moral witness on life issues.

Agreed, but what about the “Catholic” politicians who are anti-life? A really deep reform, one not mentioned by Weigel, would be the denial of Communion to or even excommunication of some dissidents.

On the papacy: the pope shouldn’t be a manager but a Christian witness.

Agreed, but by some accounts our recent peripatetic papal pilgrims were lousy managers, which is partly why we’ve witnessed so much scandal – and so much dissent.

Listen, this is a provocative book. It’s just speculation on my part, but it’s as though Mr. Weigel is saying to the hierarchy: Look, there are things that need saying, and if you fellows haven’t the sense or the guts to say them, I will. Because somebody has to speak up.

But questions remain: Who will lead? We’ve had, by the grace of God, two astonishing popes in John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose wisdom Weigel connects with that of Leo XIII. But who is the next Wojtyla, the next Ratzinger, the next Pecci? Surely the program depends upon the person. 

Will the kind of “deep” reform George Weigel is proposing be taken up by the American Church or at the Vatican? With Benedict XVI at the helm, his “hermeneutic of continuity” may certainly be seen a brake on the speed forward of the great ship. But it may not yet be a true course correction. The Church is a great battleship that takes a long time to turn in the water.

Sitting as I do on the board of a pontifical charity, I can tell you that one sometimes fears the institutional Church isn’t concerned so much with braking and yawing as it is with steaming full speed ahead.

POST SCRIPTUM: Todays Vatican announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, makes starkly immediate the necessity of a new pope who is both a holy man and a superb administrator. As always, let us pray that the participants in the upcoming conclave will be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 



Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).