In his new book, Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel maintains that the Catholic Church is entering a new era in which it must make its case, preach its message, and offer its graces to a civilization in the West that has become increasingly secular and aggressively hostile to the message of Christ and his Church. This, of course, must be coupled with a vibrant and attractive witness on the part of the faithful, the clergy, and the magisterium. For when the former is unmoored from the latter – that is, when faith is without hope and charity – the Church’s message begins to sound like “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” (1 Cor. 13:1)
Reading Weigel’s prescription, my mind gravitated to the work of my good friend, Gregory P. Koukl, with whom I co-authored the 1998 book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. A Protestant, Greg is president of Stand to Reason (STR), an Evangelical ministry that has as its core mission to train Christians, ‘to think more clearly about their faith and to make an evenhanded, incisive, yet gracious defense for classical Christianity and classical Christian values in the public square.”
STR equips “Christian ambassadors with knowledge, wisdom, and character,” defining each attribute in the following way. Knowledge is “an accurate grasp of the foundational precepts of the Kingdom.” Wisdom is “skillful, tactical, fair, and diplomatic use of knowledge.” And character is “a mature expression of virtue, warmth, and personal depth.”
Inspired by St. Paul’s affirmation that “we are ambassadors for Christ as though God were entreating through us,” (2 Cor. 5:20) Greg has composed “An Ambassador’s Creed” that includes several planks relevant to Weigel’s call to Evangelical Catholicism:
- An Ambassador is alert for chances to represent Christ and will not back away from a challenge or an opportunity. . . .
- An Ambassador won’t quarrel, but will listen in order to understand, then with gentleness seek to respectfully correct those in opposition. . . .
- An Ambassador has informed convictions (not just feelings), gives reasons, asks questions, aggressively seeks answers, and will not be stumped by the same challenge twice. . . .
- An Ambassador adapts to each unique person and situation, maneuvering with wisdom to challenge bad thinking, presenting the truth in an understandable and compelling way. . . .
- An Ambassador is careful with language, and will not rely on Christian lingo nor gain unfair advantage with empty rhetoric. . . .
- An Ambassador will act with grace, kindness, and good manners and will not dishonor Christ in his conduct. . . .
- An Ambassador knows that effectiveness requires joining his best efforts with God’s power. . . .
Calling the first Apostles by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1481
In the American context, these planks (or similar ones) are essential to a vibrant Evangelical Catholicism. For we are at a moment in history in which the Church and its message are viewed through media committed to a set of cultural, philosophical, and political categories that are by their nature incapable of communicating Catholicism (or any form of serious Christianity, for that matter).
So, for example, in discussing the Church’s understanding of unborn human life, marriage, economic justice, the death penalty, the nature of salvation, or even the priesthood and the liturgical changes of Vatican II, we are invited to look at these issues through political categories that cannot possibly capture the philosophical anthropology that informs the Church’s views. We are told that the Church is “conservative” on abortion and the priesthood, “liberal” on economic justice and the death penalty, and that Pope Benedict XVI is a “conservative” on the liturgy because he has called for a “reform of the reform.”
Ironically, to use Weigel’s nomenclature, both the “traditionalist Catholic” and the “progressive Catholic” would agree with this account, and leave it at that. But an Evangelical Catholic would view these depictions as an opportunity to correct, clarify, and explain the Church’s teachings, and in the process suggest, in a spirit of charity and friendship, that “liberal” and “conservative” are not theological categories.
However well or badly these terms may reflect political realities in the United States and other Western nations, they are not appropriate when applied to theological questions that concern the most profound issues about human nature and our ultimate end.
So, to provide another example, instead of merely complaining that the HHS mandate impedes the religious liberty of Catholic citizens (which it in fact does), the Evangelical Catholic explains why the Church’s positions on contraception, conjugal love, and unborn human life are rationally defensible. He also lives consistently with these teachings, and thus becomes a living witness of their truth. He does not allow the secularist to categorize the Church’s moral theology as the intellectual equivalent of a personal hobby that has no philosophical or practical heft.
The Evangelical Catholic does not celebrate or lament these opportunities. He engages them, for he sees himself as an ambassador of the Church, taking “every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5). The Evangelical Catholic is always “ready to make [a] defense to anyone who demands from [him] an accounting for the hope that is in [him]; yet [he does] it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:14-16).