FEBRUARY 5, 2013 4:00 A.M.
An NRO Interview
‘Lukewarm Catholicism has no future; submitting to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit is no longer optional,” George Weigel writes in his new book, Evangelical Catholicism. We live in a time when “religious faith, commitment to a religious community, and a religiously informed morality can no longer be taken for granted. . . . Evangelical Catholicism calls the entire Church to holiness for the sake of mission.” That mission involves the building up “of the community of the faithful not for the sake of the community but for the sake of a common reception of the mysteries of the faith, which in turn become the fonts of grace from which the community sets about the conversion of the world. The tongues of fire from which the Church is formed thus become the fire of mission by which the world is set ablaze.” This “certainly asks a lot,” but so does Christianity. And, Weigel, in a book that is part history, part analysis, part call-to-action, and all nourishment points out that “it is precisely by calls to Christian greatness based on the grace of God lifting up our hearts, and the fire of the Holy Spirit infusing our efforts, that the Catholic faith has always grown.” Weigel talks about Evangelical Catholicism, the current cultural moment, and more in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luke 18.8] The question comes straight from the gospels, and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus argued that this was the question “that anyone, pope or layperson, would understand to be the most urgent” question facing the Church, at any moment in history. What would the Son of Man find right about now? And what must we do about it? Is it our responsibility — yours and mine and everyone who calls himself Christian — to make sure he finds faith
LOPEZ: There was a recent book called Catholicism published by Image Catholic and now here you are with your latest book called Evangelical Catholicism. Are these about the same Church?
WEIGEL: Father Robert Barron, author of Catholicism, and I have a very similar view of the Catholicism of the 21st century and the third millennium — a Catholicism that has met the Risen Lord and received from him the Great Commission; a Church that has rediscovered how to introduce men and women to the true and the good through the beautiful; a Church that understands that the truth it proposes is liberating, not confining; a Church that’s a culture-forming counterculture, challenging the culture of the imperial autonomous self to a nobler view of human possibilities under grace; a Church that’s moved beyond the who’s-in-charge-here cat-and-dog fights of the past 40 years; a Church that affirms that everyone has a unique vocation, and that challenges everyone to live his or her unique vocation in an evangelical, mission-driven way.
LOPEZ: Why is Leo XIII, who died more than a hundred years ago, so relevant today?
WEIGEL: We have to widen the historical lens to grasp the nature of this “Catholic moment” in the Church’s 2,000-year history. The evangelical Catholicism being born today is the result of a process of deep reform in the Church that begins, in my view, with the election of Leo XIII in 1878. After the 32-year pontificate of Pius IX ended with the pope battened down behind the Leonine Wall and describing himself as the “prisoner of the Vatican,” his successor, Leo XIII, had two choices: continue to withdraw into bunkers in defiance of an aggressively hostile secular modernity, or figure out some way to engage secular modernity and challenge it to a serious conversation about the human future. If you look at Leo’s tomb in the Lateran Basilica in Rome, you’ll see that he chose the second option: The pope is standing tall, right foot thrust forward and right hand extended, as if to say, “Look, world, we’ve got some things to talk about and we’ve got some proposals to make; are you willing to listen?”
That forward-thrusting stance set in motion certain dynamics that led to the great Catholic reform movements of the mid-20th century: the liturgical movement, the movements of philosophical and theological reform, the reform of Catholic Biblical studies, the development of Catholic social doctrine, new and more scientifically rigorous approaches to the study of Church history. These movements, in turn, set the intellectual framework for the Second Vatican Council, which has now been given an authoritative interpretation by John Paul II and Benedict XVI — both of whom have focused that interpretation through the prism of the “New Evangelization.” So, through that wider “Leonine” lens, we can see that the past hundred-plus years of Catholic reform, including Vatican II, have been intended to prepare the Church for a renewed and revitalized missionary vocation in the 21st century and the third millennium. If John XXIII (who summoned it) was the father of Vatican II and Pius XII was its grandfather (because his teaching is the second-most-cited source in the documents of Vatican II), then Leo XIII (in whose pontificate John XXIII was born) is the Council’s great-grandfather — the man who set in motion the end of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the eventual emergence of evangelical Catholicism.
LOPEZ: Are there any elements evangelical Catholicism has learned from American evangelical Protestants?
WEIGEL: I think there are some important things that evangelical Catholicism can learn from evangelical Protestantism throughout the world: the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (“friendship with Jesus” being perhaps the key theme in the preaching of Pope Benedict XVI); the absolute centrality of Baptism in each of our lives; the determination to see every place we go as “mission territory.” From the evangelical Protestant encounter with Scripture, Catholics can also learn to read the New Testament again with the eyes of faith: not as an ancient text to be dissected, but as a living book that describes God’s ways in the world with remarkable salience for our own times and lives.
LOPEZ: Is an evangelical Catholicism realistic when “the Catholic vote” and so much of what we see from Catholics today has very little to do with the surrender to revealed faith you suggest the world needs?
WEIGEL: Well, let’s begin by noting for the umpteenth time that there isn’t any such thing as “the Catholic vote.” There are voters who self-identify as Catholics, but their degree of Catholic commitment and practice varies widely, and their voting patterns tend to mirror their commitments. Regular, weekly-Mass-attending Catholics skew heavily Republican; once-a-year Catholics skew heavily Democratic; and the scale slides in between — the once-a-month Catholic is more likely to vote Republican than the once-a-quarter Catholic. So it really makes no sense to talk about a “Catholic vote,” any more than it makes sense to talk about a “gender-gap” in our electoral politics. The “gap” in the latter is between married women and single women; the “gap” among Catholics is between practicing Catholics and occasional Catholics.
As for “realism,” I’m not suggesting that evangelical Catholicism is one possible way of being Catholic among a dozen other options; I’m saying, quite frankly, that this is the Church of the future. Cultural Catholicism — Catholicism based on the fact that your grandmother was born in County Cork or Guadalajara or Palermo or Krakow — is not going to make it when the ambient public culture is toxic, anti-Biblical, Christophobic. The only Catholicism with a future is a robustly evangelical Catholicism in which deeply converted disciples are formed for mission and empowered to meet the challenge of that hostile culture. As for its being hard, well, it’s always been hard. But the experience of dynamic, evangelically Catholic parishes, dioceses, campus ministries, seminaries, renewal movements, and religious orders is that, if you preach it and live it, they will come — because it’s true, because it’s compelling, because it’s exhilarating, and because we learn to live the truth of our humanity there by living it in conformity to Christ.
LOPEZ: You call people “baptized pagans” in this book. Who are they, and isn’t that a wee bit harsh?
WEIGEL: Well, to get down to specific cases, I can think of several members of Congress and senior administration officials who fit the bill. These people self-identify as Catholics, and they may even go to Mass with some regularity. But they are leading lives of such theological and moral incoherence (by, for example, supporting Roe v.Wade or agitating for “gay marriage” or defending the HHS mandate while ignoring its threat to religious freedom) that their communion with the Church is seriously damaged.
The politicos aren’t the only problem here, of course. There are aging, tenured members of theology departments at prestigious Catholic universities whose teaching and writing make clear that they are in a defective state of communion with the Church, because they deny what the Catholic Church teaches to be true. The entire fracas with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is, in fact, about precisely this: Is the LCWR living in communion with the Church, or is it living (and propounding) what amounts to another faith — indeed, another religion? We know that there are schismatics in the 21st-century Church: people who are, in a formal, canonical sense, living outside the legal boundaries of the Church because they have broken communion with the Church by breaking its canon law (think of the Lefebvrists). What I’m suggesting with the, admittedly provocative, term “baptized pagans” is that the Church has a much bigger problem than the tiny and marginal Lefebvrist sect, because there are a lot of people who are still inside the canonical boundaries of the Church but who aren’t in communion with the Church in any other meaningful sense. And it’s the job of all Catholics — but especially the Church’s pastors — to call those “baptized pagans” back to living in the fullness and integrity of Catholic faith.
LOPEZ: “When Catholic public witness fails to persuade on . . . fundamental questions, evangelical Catholics must understand that those failures are not compensated for by modest victories on other fronts.” What do you have in mind here?
WEIGEL: What I have in mind is when a Catholic conference director, having gotten his clock cleaned on a “gay marriage” vote in his legislature or a vote to regulate the abortion industry in his state, announces that, while that’s too bad, he looks forward to working on some social-service project with the people who just cleaned his clock. That kind of, oh-well, what-the-heck, we’ll-try-again-tomorrow attitude is badly mistaken. It assumes that all issues are equal, and they’re not. The right to life, the nature of marriage, and religious freedom are first-principles issues. When we lose on those issues, we risk losing the constitutional order (which is, after all, rooted in the way things are, as that pint-sized political realist James Madison understood), and we should make our unhappiness with those legislators who vote the wrong way very, very clear.
I have been a longtime supporter of tuition tax credits, vouchers, or some other device to make Catholic schools more available to at-risk kids. Catholic bishops and lobbyists should be able to work across the aisle on issues like this, where there may even be support among people who are otherwise wrong-headed on core Catholic issues. But we can’t do the wink-and-nod routine on the core issues, for doing so suggests that we’re not really serious about them. Moreover, if we really believe that a legislator is putting his or her soul in peril by supporting the culture of death rather than the culture of life, we ought to make that clear to him or her. Finally, tuition tax credits or other devices to make it possible for more at-risk kids to attend Catholic schools aren’t going to be worth much, over the long haul, if the Leviathan state decides that, for state accreditation purposes, Catholic schools have to teach, let’s say, that “gay marriage” is just the same as any other form of marriage.
LOPEZ: “In a cultural environment where all authority is suspect and the notion of divine authority is thought to be a psychological hangover from the postmodern world,” you write, “the claim that the divine authority is transmitted in an unbroken chain of apostolic succession through the bishops of the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome seems literally incredible.” And yet, you continue “that is what the Catholic Church believes, and that is what Evangelical Catholicism must proclaim, explain, and live.” You’re a serious person; serious people listen to you. They even let you on NBC. How can you claim such a thing? How can you believe that? What makes you so sure the Catholic Church is true?
WEIGEL: The key question is, as always, “Who do you say that I am?” as Jesus put it to the disciples when they were strolling through Caesarea Philippi. If I embrace Jesus as what he says he is — the way, the truth, and the life — then it seems reasonable to think that Jesus would have wished his followers, the Church, to be preserved in that truth. Catholics have always believed that that truth is preserved by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the “apostolic succession”: the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, who “succeed” the apostles, the original witnesses to Jesus, the Risen Lord, as Christ’s witnesses in the world, and as the authoritative teachers of the Church.
Americans accept that nine unelected lawyers wearing strange black costumes and sitting on a dais in a faux-temple make authoritative judgments about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Some people think that tenured Ivy League faculty members and Hollywood starlets make authoritative judgments. Is it any stranger for me to believe that the Church’s bishops, heirs of a tradition that is 2,000 years old, can and do make authoritative judgments?
I’m also a student of history and theology, and my work in those disciplines has demonstrated to my satisfaction that, while the process by which the Church, through its authoritative teachers, makes up its mind as to what’s “in” and what’s “out” — what’s truly Catholic and what isn’t — is often complicated and messy, it has proven itself over time. And that, I think, is an indicator that the Holy Spirit is at work in the process.
Finally, I see what has happened to Christian communities that have lost any sense of a teaching authority anchored in, and responsible to, Scripture and the Church’s settled tradition: They crumble in the face of a hostile culture, or they simply become expressions of the culture rather than the Gospel. That’s a cautionary tale, and, at least along the via negativa, it’s another argument for the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself as guided by authoritative teachers in the apostolic succession.
LOPEZ: Why would any rational faithful person accept a priest as a middleman? Why can’t I go to God directly? Why are the sacraments so important?
WEIGEL: In the Catholic understanding of these things, a priest isn’t a middleman in the way a car salesman is the middle man between you and the vehicle you want to acquire. The Catholic priest is an icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ: a flawed icon, often, but an icon nonetheless. As icons, in eastern Christian theology, are not merely representational, but “make present” the reality they display, Catholic priests “make present” the priesthood of Jesus Christ. It’s Christ who baptizes, Christ who hears confessions and forgives sins, Christ who makes himself really present under the forms of bread and wine so that his people can feed on him and be more closely bound to him — Christ, working through the Church’s ordained priests.
You can, of course, go to God direct, any time, all the time. “Practicing the presence” is an old spiritual discipline. You can also “go to God” daily — as evangelical Catholics should do — in the Bible. But if you are “going to God” in the fellowship of the Catholic Church, you also do that through the sacraments that Christ himself left the Church as a privileged means to “go to” him, and through him to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. The sacraments are the contact point, the border, between the Church in this world and the Church that already lives in glory, in the light and love of the Trinity. In fact, “border” isn’t quite the right word, for it’s more like a membrane than a border: It’s permeable. In the sacraments of the Church, we live “in the Kingdom” in a special way; we live in anticipation of what will be when God finally gets what God intended all along, which is the salvation of the world and of history, described by the visionary St. John as the wedding feast of the lamb in the new Jerusalem.
WEIGEL: There are many evangelically vibrant parishes and campus ministries in the Catholic Church in the United States. But in Western Europe, for example, where the ordinary expressions of Catholic life (such as parishes and campus ministries) are moribund, the juice, the energy, is often found in Catholic renewal movements and new forms of Catholic community. John Paul II thought of these movements as the “charismatic” fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Of course, these movements and communities eventually have to be integrated into the normal patterns of Catholic life (parishes, dioceses, etc.). But at this particular moment in Catholic history, and throughout the world, the new movements and communities are where a lot of people are rediscovering, or just plain discovering, the whole truth of Catholic faith.
LOPEZ: How is wanting to be tolerant and make sure those men and women who identify as homosexual have the same rights as everyone else “an attempt to remake human nature by means of law and to endorse that re-manufacture by coercive state power”?
WEIGEL: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who is quite probably the most intellectually accomplished bishop in the history of Catholicism in the United States, put this brilliantly in a January column in his archdiocesan newspaper: “Sexual relations between a man and a woman are naturally and necessarily different from sexual relations between same-sex partners. This truth is part of the common sense of the human race. It was true before the existence of either Church or State, and it will continue to be true when there is no State of Illinois and no United States of America. A proposal to change this truth about marriage in civil law is less a threat to religion than it is an affront to human reason and the common good of society. It means we are all to pretend to accept something we know is physically impossible. The Legislature might just as well repeal the law of gravity.” Now, in a culture where the idea that some things just are has become severely attenuated, this is, as the disciples once remarked of something Jesus said, a “hard saying.” But it happens to be true. And if the state successfully asserts its capacity to redefine reality in the matter of men, women, and marriage, where does its capacity to redefine reality stop? Why not redefine the parent-child relationship, or the doctor-patient relationship, or the priest-penitent relationship, or the counselor-counselee relationship? Why not redefine citizenship as adherence to the state’s redefinition of reality?
LOPEZ: How can it be true that all Christians are called to holiness? Isn’t that just for saints?
WEIGEL: Sanctity is every Christian’s human and Christian destiny. It’s our Christian destiny, because that’s the vocation into which we were baptized: the vocation to be holy as he, the Lord, is holy, for we are his by being baptized into him — into his body, the Church. It’s our human destiny because it is by being conformed to the pattern of Christ’s life of self-giving love that we embrace the truth about ourselves, which is that we are to make our lives into a gift for others, as life itself is a gift to each of us. That is the “moral structure” of the human condition. And this truth, which John Paul II believed we can discern from reason, is both powerfully displayed and radically confirmed by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Saints, C. S. Lewis reminds us, are simply people who can live comfortably, not nervously, with God. So, if you want a seat at the wedding feast of the lamb in the new Jerusalem, you’ve got to become the kind of person who’s comfortable there, in that company.
LOPEZ: How does the sexual revolution have anything to do with the Incarnation of Christ? Does this assertion just feed the conventional notion that Catholics are obsessed with sex — specifically with saying no to it and taking all the fun out of it?
WEIGEL: In a culture of Abercrombie & Fitch ads, MTV, and HBO soft-porn channels, it’s rather a hoot to suggest that it’s the Catholic Church that’s obsessed with sex. The culture is obsessed with sex. But it’s a very weird kind of sex, a kind of disembodied sex, in which there is neither commitment nor fruitfulness. In that culture, the ancient Christian conviction that, as the Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender once put it, Christians only make love with people to whom they’ve made promises can sound dreadfully old-hat. But is a life of one-night-standing really all there is?
The Incarnation teaches us that God takes our enfleshment very, very seriously because human flesh and blood became the material by which the Son of God entered history. Our embodiedness is not a toy we “own” and “use” and “play with,” and when we treat it like that we do a lot of damage to ourselves. If you doubt that, ask any college counselor — even one who’s thoroughly irreligious — who’s trying to help young people caught in the trap of addiction to online pornography.
LOPEZ: You write that “the best of Christian art, architecture, sculpture, literature, and music has always been theologically informed.” Do we really produce such things anymore? You seem to be hopeful.
WEIGEL: There’s been an awful lot of aesthetic garbage produced in post-conciliar Catholicism, but the silly season is largely over and the tide is turning, if slowly. So, yes, I think the Church still inspires artists of various disciplines to make beautiful things. My friend James MacMillan’s music is one example. Duncan Stroik’s Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College in California is another. Things are a little slow on the literary side these days, but after a century that produced Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Horgan, J. D. Powers, and many other literary luminaries, perhaps Anglophone Catholic letters is just taking a bit of a breather.
The point in Evangelical Catholicism is that, in a world that can’t believe that anything is true and that’s deeply conflicted about what is good, the beautiful may be a privileged window into the true and the good. Something is either beautiful or it isn’t. Pondering why that’s the case opens up a lot of other questions. That’s one reason why the Church’s liturgy should be beautiful, not tacky: The beauty of the liturgy opens up our senses and the pores of our minds so that we can ponder the true and the good as God gives them to us in Word and Sacrament.
WEIGEL: Catholicism has always formed its own micro-culture. Catholics use a different language, tell a unique set of stories, live in a different time-zone (in which, for example, Sunday is not just a day on which the malls close earlier), perceive life and death according to a distinctive horizon. Once upon a time — say, when I was a boy — that Catholic micro-culture fit rather comfortably within the ambient public culture. That’s no longer the case. There’s real chafing, to put it mildly, between the way we’re taught to live in the Catholic micro-culture and the way “the world” invites us to live.
“The world” sings “I did it my way” and imagines this to be the apex of human aspiration and maturity; the Catholic micro-culture teaches a different ethos, in which conformity to the truths built by God into creation and into us is the royal road to human flourishing. My suggestion, in Evangelical Catholicism, is that the Church best challenges the dominant public culture today, not so much by argument as by demonstrating the human decency of the lives formed in that Catholic micro-culture. Lives lived nobly, charitably, and compassionately can open up the closed windows of a secular world choking on its own exhaust fumes, let in some fresh air, open some new conversations, and make possible encounters with God in Christ. Preaching the Gospel “in the world” begins with living the Gospel.
LOPEZ: What does the state of our culture today have to do with the Cold War?
WEIGEL: Well, we’re not being sent to prison camps — yet. But the structure of the situation is not dissimilar. Catholicism played a crucial role in the collapse of European Communism because a vibrant Catholic micro-culture maintained its integrity and its tensile strength, and eventually proved more supple and enduring than the ambient public anti-culture of Communism. That’s why a lot of the younger and more evangelically assertive bishops of the United States have looked to the example of the Polish bishops under Communism for their inspiration in challenging the soft totalitarianism of the HHS mandate.
LOPEZ: Why do “twenty-first century Christophobes” fear Christ?
WEIGEL: The secular Christophobes of the West fear Christ because they imagine him to be an enemy of autonomy, which they define as the highest of human values. But this rather misses the point: autonomy for what? The sandbox of solipsism, the playpen of self-absorption, can get rather lonely after awhile. When honest secularists recognize that loneliness in themselves, the hand of Christ will be there to lift them out of the sandbox or playpen and into a maturity and happiness built, not from “autonomy,” but from living a commitment to truth and with compassion for others. And that hand of Christ will be extended by the people of the Church, who are, in Pius XII’s wonderful image, Christ’s “mystical body” in the world.
LOPEZ: What are the Emmaus roads to be walked?
WEIGEL: They’re everywhere, as the Risen One is everywhere, waiting to meet us along those roads, to surprise us with his exposition of the Scriptures, and to join us in the breaking of the bread.
LOPEZ: Why does the modern world need “divine mercy” so much?
WEIGEL: Because of its guilt, often unconscious, but there nonetheless. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, by orders of magnitude. Add the new slaughter of the innocents in abortion to the slaughters of the World Wars, the death camps, the Gulag, and all the rest of the politically induced horrors, and you have a world awash in guilt over the cruelty and inhumanity it has visited upon itself. To whom can the sin that produced that guilt be confessed? By whom can it be expiated? By what authority can it be forgiven? The answers to those three questions cannot be Dr. Freud, Amnesty International, or the United Nations. The answer, I believe and the Church proclaims, is the God of the Bible, who comes into the world and into history — first in the people of Israel, and then in his Son — to offer humanity the embrace of the divine love, which alone can heal the brokenness of our lives, our societies, and our cultures.
LOPEZ: How is this “wedding feast of the lamb” business relevant to the daily lives of Catholics and the institutional Church
WEIGEL: Because belief in the wedding feast of the lamb lets us relax a bit. God has already won: That’s the message of Easter. The story is going to end the way God intended from the beginning. If you really believe that, you’re not insouciant about daily life or public life. But you can approach daily life and public life without clenched fists and gritted teeth.
LOPEZ: You write of the need for a pope to have “a deep spiritual capacity to bear the wounds of the entire Church without being bled to death by them.” Does evangelical Catholicism open doors to a Christian mysticism that is foreign to us in contemporary America? One where unity, freedom, love, sacrifice, suffering, and joy have deeper meanings, which we may not feel comfortable feeling or acknowledging, never mind discussing or testifying to?
WEIGEL: Christianity without the Cross is a nice story, but not a true story — it’s certainly not the truth of the world, which is what Christianity understands itself to be. It’s ultimately a mystery, a divine mystery, this cruciform “structure” of redemption and sanctification. And the inability to grasp it, at first, is an old story: that God didn’t provide the kind of redeemer we would have invented is a story as old as the gospels. As Christ’s own townsmen said in scornful disbelief, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” They had another kind of redeemer in mind, and often we do, too.
Moreover, the Cross only makes sense from the far side of Easter: The experience of the Risen Lord is the experience by which the Church, from the beginning, begins to comprehend the cruciform character of the life of the spirit. That’s why the Cross doesn’t overwhelm us; that’s why we embrace it — because we have met the Risen Lord, and can thus embrace the whole of his life, including the radical and complete self-giving and obedience of his death.
LOPEZ: Your book is clearly a challenge to Catholics. Is it also an explanation for everyone? And an open door?
WEIGEL: I certainly intend it that way. I’ve tried to do three things in Evangelical Catholicism, which is, in a sense, the summing up of everything I’ve learned over the past 30 years of my work within the Church. I’ve tried to propose a new, more capacious view of modern Catholic history, so that we can see this evangelical Catholic moment more clearly and understand its character. I’ve tried to suggest criteria for measuring true and false reform in the Church, so that reform doesn’t get confused with deconstruction. And I’ve tried to lay out a program of specific reforms — of the episcopate, the priesthood, the liturgy, consecrated life, lay vocational life, Catholic intellectual life, the Church’s public witness, and the papacy and the Roman Curia — that would help deepen the radical reform that is evangelical Catholicism and bring it to a first maturation.
Evelyn Waugh once said that the Church looks ever so much bigger from inside than from outside. Evangelical Catholicism is an invitation to take a look from inside — and a look at the future.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.