From the January/February, 2015 issue of Touchstone


Roman Renewal by Leon J. Podles

Book Review

Roman Renewal

Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church by George Weigel

Basic Books, 2013
(291 pages, $27.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Leon J. Podles

George Weigel is not a Catholic restorationist who desires a return to some imaginary ideal period. He tries to go beyond the dichotomy of "traditionalism" and "progressivism" to discern how the Holy Spirit is giving a new form to the Catholic Church. He sees the beginning of the end of the Counter-Reformation form of Catholicism in the work of Pope Leo XIII, work which culminated in Vatican II and its call to holiness for all Christians. Weigel sees the essence of the Christian life as friendship with Jesus Christ, rooted in fidelity to revelation, nourished by the sacraments and liturgy, and leading to a deep conversion of life: "Evangelical Catholicism calls the entire Church to holiness for the sake of mission."

Weigel has specific ideas on how this reform could be implemented in key areas of Catholic life:

The Episcopate: Weigel would like to see a more careful selection of bishops, a selection that emphasizes personal holiness, preaching, and fruitfulness of ministry in potential appointees. He also wants there to be an effective way to remove bishops who fail (as so many notoriously did in the sexual abuse scandals).

The Priesthood: Weigel wants to see the end of clericalism as a caste system. He supports celibacy for priests as a sign of radical commitment, and he calls for better preaching.

The Liturgy: Weigel would like to see a more reverent approach to the liturgy. He dislikes parishes that are "sacramental service stations" and wants to see more rigorous preparation for the sacraments.

Consecrated Life: Weigel is unhappy with the "progressive" women religious who have serious problems with orthodox belief and practice. But he is also unhappy with the Vatican's initial approval of, and later attempt to salvage, the Legion of Christ, which was founded by a sexually abusive, incestuous sociopath, Marcial Maciel. He does not seem sanguine about the possibilities for reform of religious life, apart from a few congregations.

Lay Vocation: Weigel wants a stronger emphasis to be placed on the call to holiness and the work of lay people in the world. He also wants to see more rigorous requirements for participation in the sacrament of matrimony.

Intellectual Life: Weigel is unhappy with the widespread questioning among theologians of the basics of Christian faith and morality.

Public Policy Advocacy: Weigel insists that the Catholic defense of human life is essential. He questions the tendency of the church to equate European social democracy with Catholic social doctrine, and says that the application of Catholic principles to economics is a competence of the laity.

Papacy: Weigel would like to see the Roman Curia reformed and further internationalized.

Contrasting Calls

I largely agree with Weigel, although I wonder if he has gone deep enough in his diagnosis of the problems. Pope John Paul II, whom he admires and holds up as a model, refused to act to curb sexual abuse in the church and approved the work of the diabolical Maciel. The role of religious in the church has changed profoundly over two millennia, and the form it took in the nineteenth century may have been suitable only for that era. The vast and unprecedented growth in the number of religious women in the nineteenth century has been followed by a vast decline. What, if anything, will replace the religious congregations who educated Catholic children and cared for the sick?

It also seems that Pope Francis, and much of the episcopate, differs with Weigel on some important points. Weigel is calling for repentance and conversion and more rigorous church discipline. Francis wants to extend mercy to those who do not repent and convert, and he seems to want to relax discipline in significant ways.

Pope Francis does not want to change doctrine, but he apparently does want a change in discipline and attitudes that would in effect mean a toleration of sexual activity outside of sacramental marriage and an abandonment of the legal defense of the unborn. Putting aside these points of friction, he hopes, will help overcome many people's alienation from the Church and make them more open to hearing the Good News.

Francis hopes that this in turn will lead to conversion and reform of life, but minimalism and legalism are deeply ingrained among Catholics, and many will decide that fulfilling these lower demands is all that is needed to be a "good Catholic." Inclusivity rather than discipleship seems to be the goal of Pope Francis.

Given that the first word of the proclamation of the gospel is "Repent," and that John the Baptist lost his head over the marriage issue, I think Weigel's position is more harmonious with the scriptural approach and justifies his choice of the word "evangelical" to describe his vision of Catholicism. The Good News, because of our sinfulness, is often first perceived as Bad News. •

Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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