Monday, May 20, 2013

George Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism


I was recently able to get my hands on a copy of this book, which our local bishop handed over to the rector here. I think it was meant to provoke conversations, so I thought I would try to process some of my thoughts about it in written form. These are more a collection of thoughts rather than an attempt at a coherent book review.


First off, the book is not about dialogue between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, or even about what Catholics can learn from Evangelical Protestants. Weigel states this explicitly fairly early on in the book.

Instead “Evangelical Catholicism” is the word that Weigel uses to describe the form of Catholicism that has been coming into shape since the late 19th century and which is still coming into being. The adjective “evangelical” is chosen because a more effective proclamation of the Gospel to the modern world has been and should be the deciding criteria determining all of Catholic reform.

The first half of the book does a pretty good job of describing  this “Evangelical Catholicism” in broad terms, and his chapter, “Evangelical Catholicism in Profile” provides 10 key characteristics of Evangelical Catholicism. It would be a Catholicism in which a strong fidelity to the truth and the Church’s Tradition is coupled with openness to change and adaptation for the sake of evangelization.

It may come as a surprise to some Protestants (though few modern Catholics) to realize that Catholics can quite self-consciously believe in change. And it is true that for some periods in history, many Catholics did indeed self-identity as belonging to a Church that did not change. This has always been difficult to hold on to once one begins to look at Church history, however. The Church has undeniably been changing, reforming, and developing ever since its birth at Pentecost. This constant change is not random or disconcerting though, because it takes place within a context of simultaneous fidelity and continuity. This continuity is necessary because Catholics believe that our faith and our Church were given to us by Christ.

So changes do and must happen as the Church seeks to be faithful to that deposit of faith handed on to us in the ever-changing circumstances of the world, and changes happen as the Church seeks to continually reform itself in the original image of its divine founder, ever seeking to return to the intentions of Christ and the Spirit who continually guide the Church.

Despite the fact that the book barely mentions Evangelical Protestants, I think that there are a number of things that Evangelical Protestants should find compelling or challenging in Weigel’s description of Evangelical Catholicism. Here are just three of them: 

Firstly, Weigel acknowledges the stereotype that many evangelical Protestants (including my former self) sometimes hold of Catholics and in many ways agrees with some of the pessimistic assessments that some Protestants may hold of some Catholics. Namely, that Catholics are often “cultural Catholics” not in the sense that their rich culture has become permeated with the Christian faith, but in the negative sense that only the remnants of that culture remain long after living faith has ceased.

Secondly, Weigel’s first characteristic of Evangelical Catholicism sounds like the practical (unwritten) creed of much of evangelical Protestantism: “Evangelical Catholicism is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.” (56) His description of that friendship, is of course decidedly Catholic in its ecclesiology: “…this friendship is found in the Church, in the Word of God recognized as such by the Church in the Bible, in the sacraments celebrated by the Church, in the works of charity and service, and in the fellowship of those who have been ‘born of water and the Spirit.’” (59) Despite the clear divergence in ecclesiology, I would think that evangelical Protestants could welcome dialogue with Catholics who are more comfortable than previous generations speaking about their “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ?

Thirdly, he repeatedly points to a renewed encounter with Scripture as one of the key elements of an Evangelical Catholic renaissance. Evangelical Protestants should be heartened to see a form of Catholicism that places a higher value on Biblical (but not fundamentalist) preaching, individual Bible study, and ecumenical efforts to apply the fruits of modern historical-critical scholarship to a renewed proclamation of the Gospel and formation in the faith.

Things I didn’t like about the book: George Weigel speaks with a very confident tone throughout the entire book, and this sometimes came across to me as off-putting. One contributing factor to this may have been that his descriptions of Evangelical Catholicism blended the descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive. Sometimes it seemed to me that it would have helped if he had kept those three categories more distinct. For example, sometimes he used the phrase: “Evangelical Catholicism will” when I wonder if he really meant to say, “(Evangelical) Catholicism should”.

I found it much easier to agree with the first section than the second one. The first section spoke of Evangelical Catholicism in terms of its defining characteristics, whereas in the second section he tried to dive into details. At times I felt that his discussion of the details was more of a space for him to rant about his particular hang-ups or advocate minor changes than a place to systematically think through an application of the previously stated characteristics to the day-to-day life of the Catholic Church. (some other chapters were much better) For example, his discussion of religious life spends far more time describing the details of what he disagreed with than the details of how it should be made right. 

I also found his call for more focus in the Church’s voice on public policy matters frustrating, since it made me feel like Weigel was simply dismissing those Church teachings which he (as someone associated with the American political right) tends to disagree with, (chiefly on economic issues and matters of war and peace). Instead of addressing the topics directly, he claims that focusing on these other issues “dissipates energies that could be better applied in a more focused way.” (228).

Weigel is in many ways apparently a political figure so he had a lot to say in this chapter, and I should say that I agreed with a great deal of it and found other portions at least thought-provoking even if I still disagreed with him, but in this case I felt that the exact opposite is true. The fact that the Church speaks prophetically to both the political left and the political right lends more credibility to its evangelical witness, even if it simultaneously alienates some on both sides. Instead of saying “less is more” and just speaking about fundamental life issues, I can testify that in terms of outreach, I remember finding it compelling that the Church could both confront the materialistic excesses of the secular left without flinching while simultaneously being willing to critique the many excesses of de-humanizing forms of government-corporate capitalism.

All in all, I think Weigel’s book is a well timed reminder. As the Church has engaged in a more thorough dialogue with the modern world, it can sometimes get bogged down in discussions about the difference between learning from and conceding to the broader world. It can be helpful for us to remember that we don’t engage in dialogue with the modern world simply in order to update to a new version of Catholicism 2.0 for the sake of our own consumption. No, as Pope Francis has reminded us, the Church must never become “self-referential.” Instead we engage with the world precisely because we have something incredibly valuable to share with it: Our faith in and saving relationship with Jesus Christ, handed on (Latin: traditio) for 2000 years in the Church!


Update July 30, 2013:

I've just read John Cavadini's review of this book in First Things, and think it is definitely worth passing on. I had Cavadini as a professor at Notre Dame and am liable to still stand back in a freshman-like awe at his ability to express subtle points of theology clearly. His review may sound a bit abstract to those without a background in theology, but his most significant line of critique focuses on an area of concern for Protestant-Catholic dialogue. I may muddle this up, but it seems to me that he is concerned that Weigel by emphasizing the importance of a subjectively experienced encounter with Jesus Christ and speaking of "degrees of communion", unintentionally moves away from a belief in the objective presence of Christ in the Sacraments. For Catholics, this is essential because it is tied to grace.

"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." 


While Weigel would like to emphasize the relative closeness in communion of socially conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, Cavadini also calls Weigel out for his ambiguous usage of the phrase: "classical Christian orthodoxy."

Weigel claims that “evangelical Catholics who adhere to the Gospel. . . are in fuller communion with evangelical Protestants who affirm classic Christian orthodoxy” than they are with prominent dissident (but not excommunicated) Catholic theologians. But surely it is precisely “classic” Catholic orthodoxy on the Church that is the fundamental difference separating Evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

Some more interesting food for thought!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

PMV Journeys

The main circle and PMV stop outside the market in Goroka. PMV's
do not run on time tables, but instead drive in circles aggressively
seeking additional passengers and calling out their route until
every seat is filled. It's not rare for this to take at least an hour for
PMV's about to set out on a longer trip. 
In the last two weeks I spent over 24 hours of cumulative time on the roads of Papua New Guinea, mostly moving into the highlands and back. I was able to go further along the highlands "highway" than I've ever travelled before.

It was a blessing to get out and travel. I definitely do still have a sense of "wanderlust" deep within me, to the extent that I enjoy travelling as much as or more than I enjoy getting anywhere!

Inside of the parish church at Fatima, Jiwaka Province.
I was able to be there for a special anniversary Mass.
 I'm somewhat shy about attracting attention to myself while travelling (although, of course, this is inevitable), so my pictures are somewhat limited. The physical beauty of Papua New Guinea almost defies belief, though. Different areas of the highlands present different types of beauty as the vegetation and landscape vary greatly.

And the cultures vary just as much. The sober seriousness of highlanders at markets along the road contrasted with the relaxed affability one comes to expect here in Madang. 

Throughout my trip random strangers exhibited remarkable concern for my safety and well-being, and being able to speak pidgin with my fellow PMV passengers helped me to feel pretty safe throughout most of my trip. (Public drunkenness, landslides, and rumors of tribal warfare aside!I've heard a great deal about the LNG project that has been the subject of enormous investment and promises to contribute a significant amount of money to the state's annual budget once exports begin next year. My visit to one of the main sites was somewhat anti-climactic, however, as what one mainly sees is barbed wire and large trucks. Nowhere did I see money floating out of the ground. 

The gates to one part of the LNG project at Hides, Hela Province.

The cultural and political ramifications of this single project could fill dozens of blog posts, though. In summary, I now maintain a somewhat anxious attitude about the whole thing. So far it is hard to see the concrete benefits of the millions of kina that have been set aside for local development projects. At times I needed to remind myself of the general sentiments I tried to put down in my last blog post: 'Tis better to pray than to complain'. 



I'm now glad to be back in Madang, though, and I feel ready to dive back into a ready routine again. May God bless Papua New Guinea!



The Cathedral in Mendi town. I stayed in Mendi for a couple
of days. 


along the road between Mendi and Tari.