For a tree to thrive, it must be pruned. Jesus himself said that the Father will prune the living branches of the vine (the Church) so they can produce more fruit. He also promised that this same Church would contain wheat and weeds – saints and sinners – in every age. Today we find old and new problems, which bring ancient and fresh challenges for a Church that desires to set the world on fire with the love of Christ.
George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church may prove to be an important work that proposes a particular lens through which to see the Church. He analyzes universal and local problems in the Church (principally, crises of faith) and offers solutions (namely, ongoing personal conversion).
What exactly is Evangelical Catholicism? It is not a version of Catholicism, but the core identification of the Church with the work of the Holy Spirit, which brings deep reform in the Church. The goal is not to “get along” in the world, but to bear witness to the truth and facilitate conversions. Evangelical Catholics are not afraid of being labeled bigots, but desire to accurately portray biblical morality as a source of true freedom both in daily life and the public square. They are counter-cultural, embracing the Church’s unique way of life and live with dual-citizenship in this world and the heavenly kingdom. Amidst today’s post-modern culture, Evangelical Catholicism creates a Church that thrives. Such thriving occurs when members begin striving for holiness and embody ongoing conversion to Christ, in particular by living Christian selflessness. In a word, “holiness converts.”
Evangelical Catholicism embraces authority in the Church as from Christ against the reign of the “Imperial autonomous Self.” It embraces the Church, not as a business with the Pope as the universal CEO and the Bishops as branch managers, but as the mystical Body of Christ where Bishops teach, sanctify, and govern. It is a liturgically centered form of Catholic life, embracing the ancient and the new, inasmuch as both approach worship as a privilege and a response due to God, not therapy or entertainment. Part I can be a bit repetitive at times but certainly allows the reader to grasp what is at stake and what is needed to steer the Barque of Peter heavenward.
The author argues that the needed deep reform flows from the heart of Evangelical Catholicism: personal knowledge of Christ. Thus, it lives from the foundation of divine revelation, Scripture and Tradition. It also depends on both Word and Sacrament for nourishment, because it is the same Christ who is the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures that comes to us through the Sacraments.
The One Church, says Weigel, exists in different modes throughout the ages. The Church of the 21st century requires a particular kind of focus, one which cannot flourish simply by appealing to authority or merely emphasizing morality in legal-juridical terms (as was often the case with the Counter-reformation Catholicism of the recent past). Weigel argues that Pope Leo XIII began to reform and transition the Church into a new era, a transition that continued through each successive pope down to Benedict XVI (the last of this transitional phase). The Second Vatican Council was also part of the “dynamic process begun by Leo’s reforms.” Interestingly, this book was published shortly before Pope Francis was elected. So as Weigel discusses how Benedict’s successor can revitalize the Church, the reader can judge if these called-for reforms have begun to take root.
Part II details specific areas of reform – the episcopacy, the priesthood, the laity, the consecrated life, the intellectual life, public policy advocacy, and the papacy. Weigel presents the big picture with specific examples, which may leave the reader looking for omitted aspects at times. Yet, the reader will likely gain wisdom from this author’s commentary infused with catechesis, and will even possess a handbook if he desires to help implement the deep reform in the Church which Weigel advocates.
Out of its epicenter of friendship with Christ, Evangelical Catholicism lives by the mission of Christ, of which “it is not permissible for anyone to remain idle,” according to John Paul II. Here, Weigel lays out a road map, an instruction manual, or better yet, a pruning kit to help grow the great Tree of Life, the One Church of Christ.