If true wisdom is anything, it is the ability to judge current situations within an historical context: “to know the age in which one lives.” Such historical contextualization is often crucial to the moral assessment of one’s “life and times.” For example, we would be at a loss to assess adequately the disordered state of contemporary sexual mores without discovering their roots in the cultural and sexual revolution of the late 1960s.
Consequently, it is always a valid question for Christians to ask themselves: What age or moment of the Church are we living in?
There was, of course, the apostolic age, followed by the patristic age with the duty incumbent upon it to solidify our creed, and plumb the depths of our understanding of the Trinity as the Three in One, and of Jesus as at once fully human and fully divine.
There were subsequently the ages of Christendom, and New World evangelization. Throughout her history, the Church was at all times accompanied by holy men and women especially designated by God to call the Church to holiness and reform: Gregory IX, Francis of Assisi, Catherine o f Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Vincent de Paul, Therese of Liseiux, Faustina Kowalska—saints who understood the age in which they lived.
What is the moment in which we, the Church, find ourselves a decade and a half into the twenty-first century?
It’s been a bit over thirty years since John Paul II first proposed that the Church engage in what he termed a “new evangelization.” A recent Synod of Cardinals convened precisely to discuss the topic of the “new evangelization” would seem to confirm that this nuclear concept s till informs the times in which we live as committed Cath olic Christians. Is this assessment correct? Does the age of ‘new evangelization’ properly name this current era of the Church?
If George Weigel’s analysis is accurate in his latest publication Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, then the answer must be affirmative.
As Weigel reads history, the era nearest to us as Catholics, but which has already come to a close, is the period known as the Counter-Reformation. In the aftermath of Martin Luther’s heretical attempts at bringing about reform in the Catholic Church in the mid-sixteenth century, genuine and faithful manifestations of reforms appropriate to the times began to take shape in the pontificate of Pope Pius IV in 1560. How long this counter-reform endured in a fruitful manner for the Church is a matter of historical debate, but according to Weigel, a counter-reformation brand of being Catholic (with its attendant practices and internal culture) endured in most of the Church until the mid 19th century. By that time, however, counter-reform Catholicism was failing miserably.
Then Pope Leo XIII entered the scene, a reform Pope in his own right. Weigel sees in the reforms of Leo the beginning of a new age of Catholicism, evidenced as such only decades later in the workings of the Second Vatican Council. Writes Weigel:
"If Leo XIII, the last pope of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, is the starting point for understanding the deeper currents at work in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Catholicism, then Vatican II and what has happened since can be properly understood, and in depth. The Second Vatican Council brought to a moment of high drama the dynamic process begun by Leo’s reforms: the process of moving Catholicism beyond the Counter-Reformation."
According to Weigel, something very new was afoot in the pontificate of Leo XIII; that something, he affirms, “was nothing less than the end of an era…and the birth of a new moment in Catholic history: the era of Evangelical Catholicism.”
Weigel’s thesis is thought provoking and deserving of serious scholarly attention. It lends meaningful and credible content to an understanding of the present age of the Church.
To understand one’s age is to place it in historical context. It is to remember. Pope Francis wonderfully reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium, 13 that for the Christian, historical memory is of such significance that it is, in fact, sacred and, therefore, liturgical. And it is to be found at the heart of every Christian life:
"Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call 'deuteronomic', not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore…The believer is essentially 'one who remembers.'"
Careful students of history know that it is precisely the loss of historical memory that can be cataclysmic for any people of any age. The metaphysical cynicism of Friedrich Nietzsche was fueled in large part by the widespread historical ignorance he despised in late 19th century European academia (particularly its ignorance and dismissiveness of the history of ideas).
Many a “proudly post-modern” individual of today, unencumbered by the “moral taboos” of yesteryear, forms part of some of the most historically ignorant generations ever to walk the planet. They are consequently also among the most humanly disintegrated and self-alienated. In the age of Evangelical Catholicism, it is to just such as these that we must propose the possibility of understanding one’s existence in the context of: a cosmos providentially created by an eternally loving Supreme Being; a metaphysical dimension of reality that transcends the material; and a perennial and compelling conception of what constitutes a ‘good’ human life, of what it means to attain authentic human flourishing. To just such as these, we must then bring the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).