The following interview with EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel was recently published by the French magazine Famille Chretienne, to coincide with the publication of the French edition of Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st– Century Church. Evangelical Catholicism is now available in English, Polish, and French; Italian and German editions are in preparation.
Famille Chretienne: You say that a revival of the Catholic Church is not possible either by surrendering to the world or by a turning back to post-Tridentine ways and means. Could you develop?
George Weigel: A Church that surrenders to the world at this moment in cultural history would be a Church preaching what the American Jewish scholar David Gelernter has called “ice-your-own-cupcake” religion, and who would be interested in that ? A Church that falls back into the Tridentine catacombs is not a Church capable of asking the world to consider the possibility that it might be in need of redemption, and that the Gospel is the answer to the question that is every human life. So any Catholic “revival” means a rediscovery, by all the people of the Church, of Catholicism’s essentially missionary character.
FC: Could you sum up the main thesis expressed in Evangelical Catholicism?
GW: We are leaving the era of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and entering the era of the New Evangelization, or what I and others call Evangelical Catholicism: the mode of Catholicism that has been born from the reforms initiated by Leo XIII, reforms that were refined by the Second Vatican Council and given an authoritative interpretation by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This evangelical mode of being Catholic is a rediscovery of an ancient truth: that the Church is a communion of disciples in mission.
FC: What are the cornerstones of the reform you are calling for in the Church concerning personal faith?
GW: As Benedict XVI never tired of saying, friendship with Jesus Christ is the beginning of the Church. But that friendship is not for “me alone. “ Friendship with the Lord Jesus inserts me into the communion of his disciples, the other “friends of Jesus, “ who live to offer others the gift of friendship with the Lord that they have been given. The evangelical reform of the Catholic Church is one in which all the people of the Church, and all the institutions of the Church, understand themselves as missionaries and measure the quality of their discipleship by “mission-effectiveness.” The shift in mentality is a shift from the mentality of a Church focused on institutional maintenance to the mentality (and passion) of a Church focused on evangelism – a “Church in permanent mission,” as Pope Francis has called it.
FC: In what sense does Evangelical Catholicism differ from progressive Catholicism and traditionalist Catholicism ?
GW: “Progressive” and “Traditionalist” Catholicism today are two versions of Counter-Reformation Catholicism : One wants a looser Counter-Reformation Church ; the other wants a stricter Counter-Reformation Church. Neither seems much interested in mission.
FC: How do you integrate Pope Francis’s pontificate into your vision of Church reformation ?
GW: Evangelii Gaudium, which I understand to be the “grand strategy” document of the pontificate, is very much an expression of the emerging, dynamic Catholic mentality that I describe in Evangelical Catholicism.
FC: The reform of the Church: can you tell us what it is not and what it is ?
GW: Authentic Catholic reform is always “re-form:” It means retrieving and bringing into the contemporary life of the Church something that has been forgotten or lost. In that sense, ressourcement — the famous “return to the sources” proposed by distinguished theologians of Vatican II, including French giants like Henri de Lubac and Jean Danielou – is the heart of reform. Today, this ressourcement means a recovery of the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19-20.
FC: Could you give us a few guidelines and principles about your vision of the Church reform that you suggest concerning marriage, and the married faithful ?
GW: Marriage-culture and the family are in crisis throughout the developed world. The Catholic idea of marriage and the family is a compelling response to that crisis, and we should have the courage to preach that and witness to it. Happily married Catholic couples and their families are the Church’s best evangelists in the wasteland of 21st century Gnosticism and self-indulgence.
FC: Concerning the role of parish priests, what is the priority?
GW: Preaching, I think. We live in a Gnostic culture in which everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable. The best antidote to that Gnostic “unreality” is biblical realism. So Biblical preaching is an imperative, both to deepen the faith of the Church’s primary missionaries in the world – its people – and to provide them with “lenses” through which to see things clearly – thinks like maleness and femaleness, and the complementarity and fruitfulness built into those realities.
FC: Bishops have a key role in the Church; where do you see the major need and emphasis in their function?
GWL: The primary role of the bishop, according to Vatican II, is to be a preacher and evangelist. I completely agree with that. Bishops who spend 75% of their time in administration are not living the Council’s vision of the episcopate. There is a great model for effective episcopal leadership in John Paul II, as I discuss in Evangelical Catholicism.
FC: Concerning Christian communities – be they parishes, monasteries or religious congregations: how would you define the conditions for their death and the requirements of their blossoming ?
GW: The living parts of the world Church are those parts of the Church that have embraced dynamic orthodoxy, the evangelical imperative of mission, and the authoritative interpretation of the Council proposed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The dying parts of the Church are those still living in “1968,” or those that have retreated into auto-constructed catacombs.
FC: One question concerning European churches and the Synod on Family. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said that whatever Rome decides concerning pastoral care of divorced people, the Church in Germany will choose its own pastoral ways concerning this subject (“the Synod cannot prescribe in details what we have to do in Germany”). What does it reveal?
GW: It reveals that there are significant problems of ecclesiology in Germany. Many of us sensed that before. Now we know. I hope I do not give offense if I also say that there is some remarkable arrogance here : Why does a dying Church think it has the right to dictate to the rest of the world Church? Had German Catholicism successfully met the challenges of the post-conciliar period in its pastoral life, such that it was an evangelically vibrant Church today, that would be one thing. But everyone can read the statistics on German Catholic practice, and they do not suggest that the German bishops and theologians have been notably successful as a “Church in permanent mission.”
FC: Another one about bishop’s conferences (the French bishops are meeting in Lourdes this week for their annual meeting at the very moment when your book is published): There has been a few quarrels these last months about initiatives by services of the French episcopal conference (an invitation to a debate with a partisan of the gender theory, reservations expressed by lay people in charge of the office of family at the bishops conference concerning the Catholic non possumus to same-sex ‘marriage’). Is it a common temptation of bishops conference to create their own orientations and to persuade themselves that they are in charge of defining the Church’s doctrinal approach ?
GW: When bishops’ conferences become overly-bureaucratized they take on a life of their own. That can pose serious problems for Catholic coherence.
— George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.