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Evangelical Catholicism as heir to Leo XIII's 'deep reform' movement

George Weigel calls Catholics 'out of their comfort zone' in this cautiously positive review of his new book

Evangelical Catholicism as heir to Leo XIII's 'deep reform' movement
John Cavadini, First Things International

August 7, 2013

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In his bracing though sometimes problematic new book Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, George Weigel advances a vision for “deep reform” that he calls neither “progressive” nor “traditionalist” but precisely “evangelical.”

“Evangelical Catholicism” is heir to a “deep ­reform” movement begun by Leo XIII—“deep” because a fundamental reform of a centuries-old “Counter-Reformation” model of the Church to one open to engagement with modern culture.

Instead of allowing the Church to retreat in the face of increasing marginalization by the forces of modernity, Leo mobilized the evangelical energy of the Church to affect the ambient culture in ways that were based in the Church’s unique witness to the Gospel. Vatican II was not so much an innovation as a further manifestation of what Leo had already begun.

The twenty-first-century Church will continue true to this reform if its terms of reference become increasingly evangelical, for example, moving from saying “the Church teaches” to “the Gospel reveals” when discussing the faith.

Further, “friendship with Jesus Christ” will be the center of Evangelical Catholicism, not reliance on “canonical status” and the predominantly juridical terms in which Counter-Reformation Catholicism defined its identity.

Evangelical Catholicism “begins with meeting and knowing the Lord himself.” Catholic identity is approached “not primarily through the legal question of canonical boundaries, but through the theological reality of different degrees of communion with the Church,” on the analogy of the degrees of communion used to describe the relative closeness or distance remaining between the Catholic Church and separated Christian communions.

Members of the Church can also be said to exist in different degrees of communion with the Church according to their adherence to Church teaching and their robust friendship with Jesus.

Weigel argues that the twin criteria of truth and mission, the goal of which is sanctification, are the criteria for the reform of all of the vocations in the Church. Truth and mission both bring their gifts to bear, in a spirit of continuing conversion, on missionary proclamation of the truth, building up a culture conducive to Gospel values.

The “deeply reformed” Church becomes an evangelizing presence in the modern world, wherever she finds herself.


There is much to commend in this vision of the Church. If the Catholic reader experiences some feeling of discomfort, the feeling is surely partly due to being called out of the Catholic comfort zone in which one takes one’s religion for granted, as an essentially private affair that places no particularly urgent demands for proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed.

But it is also sometimes hard to distinguish this beneficial discomfort from the worry that, despite Weigel’s disclaimer distinguishing Evangelical Catholicism from Protestant Evangelicalism, the ecclesiology implied in his descriptions of Evangelical Catholicism threatens to leave behind fundamental features of Catholic ecclesiology.

For example: “Evangelical Catholics know that friendship with the Lord Jesus and the communion that arises from that friendship is an anticipation of the City of God in the city of this world.”

Despite the echo of Augustinian language, the theological syntax is foreign to the Augustine of the City of God and to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which invokes his ecclesiology of the totus Christus.

The communion of the Church does not arise from personal friendship with the Lord Jesus, but from Christ’s undeserved, atoning love which, mediated by the sacraments, makes the Church. The Church is the bond of communion, whether it is consciously known in a subjective friendship or not.

Weigel’s account of this friendship and its relation to what constitutes the Church is ambiguous. He says it is “found in the Church” and yet insists strongly that “You are a Catholic because you have met the Lord Jesus and entered into a mature friendship with him—which is to say, in evangelically Catholic language, that the sacramental grace of your Baptism, should you have been baptized as an infant, has been made manifest in the pattern of your life.”

But the truth is, you are a Catholic because you were baptized and thereby made a member of the one Body, espoused into one flesh with the Bridegroom. There is no amount of subjective friendship that can replace or add anything substantial in comparison with this utter gift. Weigel’s formulation reduces this sacramental bond to something merely legal.

Full story: Church as sacrament: A review of evangelical catholicism

Source: First Things

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