Evangelical Catholicism, Pope Francis, and the 21st-Century Church

An interview with George Weigel

George Weigel is one of the leading authorities on the Catholic Church in the world. He is the author of more than 15 books, including Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, the two-part biography of Blessed Pope John Paul II, and most recently, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Catholic Church. Weigel has just returned from Rome, where he covered the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Catholic World Report contributor Christopher White recently caught up with Weigel to discuss these events and what they mean for the future of “Evangelical Catholicism.”

CWR: What is Evangelical Catholicism? Is it not just an attempt to rebrand the Church to make it more attractive to Evangelical Protestants who are suspicious of Catholics?

Weigel: Evangelical Catholicism is the form of Catholicism that is being born from a process of deep Catholic reform that began with Pope Leo XIII, that continued in the great Catholic renewal movements of the mid-20th century, and that reached a high point of ecclesiastical drama at Vatican II, which has now been given an authoritative interpretation by John Paul II and Benedict XVI—the Church is to understand itself as a communion (communio) of disciples in mission, formed by friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ and by an ongoing immersion in both Word and Sacrament. As the distinctive “form” of patristic Catholicism succeeded primitive Christianity, and the distinctive “form” of medieval Christianity succeeded patristic Christianity, to be succeeded in turn by the distinctive “form” of Counter-Reformation Catholicism after the fracture of western Christendom, so, now the distinctive “form” of Counter-Reformation Christianity is being succeeded by the distinctive “form” of Evangelical Catholicism. This movement is both internally driven (the Church seeking to be a more perfect witness to her divine Spouse) and a response to the ambient culture in which the Gospel must be preached (a culture now increasingly hostile to the faith). 

CWR: You state that Dei Verbum is the key Vatican II document for the deep reform of the Catholic Church. What do we learn from Dei Verbum that is essential for the future of the Church? 

Weigel: Dei Verbum asserts that what the Church proclaims is true: not just true-for-Catholics, but true, period. That is, the Catholic claim is not just one “narrative” in a supermarket of religious storylines or worldviews; the Catholic claim is the truth of the world, because it is the revelation of the one true God. That is a profoundly challenging and countercultural claim. But it is the claim on which Catholicism stands or falls—and embracing it is the beginning of Catholic mission.  

CWR: In addressing some of the hard questions on life issues, sexual ethics, and the celibate priesthood, you note that we should adjust our language. Rather than beginning with statements like “the Church teaches…”, you suggest we begin first with the Gospel, stating that “the Gospel reveals…” What is the advantage of this? And to a secular audience, won’t such statements still fall on deaf ears?

Weigel: Arguments from religious authority (like arguments from virtually all other forms of authority) fall on deaf ears in a post-modern culture. “The Gospel reveals…” is a game-changer; it’s a startling claim that can shake cynical post-moderns out of the sandbox of self-absorption in which authority-claims fall on deaf ears. 

CWR: You’ve just returned from a long month in Rome covering the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. What is the mood like on the ground in Rome, both from those within and outside of the Church? 

Weigel: Closer to six weeks, actually. The Church was clearly in crisis with the unprecedented decision of Pope Benedict to renounce the Chair of Peter, but the crisis has been weathered and Pope Francis will continue to accelerate the Church’s drive into an evangelical future, while reforming the engine room of the Barque of Peter so that it becomes a contributor to that mission, not an impediment to it.  

CWR: With the election of Pope Francis, the entire world was given a taste of Catholicism as a result of the nonstop media coverage. With the Catholic Church now on everyone’s radar, how can the Church build on this momentum? 

Weigel: I wouldn’t count too much on fickle media momentum; if Queen Elizabeth II or Nelson Mandela had died during the papal interregnum, attention would have quickly shifted to England or South Africa. The momentum on which the Church of the 21st century can build is the revelation during these past six weeks of its own remarkable vitality, manifest in the crowds that came to Rome to say goodbye to Benedict XVI and that welcomed his successor with such enthusiasm, as well as in the oceans of prayer that supported the College of Cardinals in their work.

CWR: You spent some time last year with Cardinal Bergoglio in his home diocese of Buenos Aires. What did you learn from your time down there that will give us some indication of what we can expect from his as bishop of Rome? 

Weigel: We discussed a wide range of topics in an hour-long conversation. What struck me most powerfully was his evangelical commitment: his understanding that the Church had to go on the evangelical offensive in Latin America—and, by extension, throughout the world. I was also interested that he thanked me for writing The Courage to Be Catholic, which I take as a sign that he intends to reform the Church by a process of evangelical purification. 

CWR: In Evangelical Catholicism, you write that “the Office of Peter, then, is both an office of vigilance over the symphony of truth the Catholic Church teaches and an office of supreme pastoral charity in which the symphony of truth is poured out in love.” By even secular accounts, Pope Francis will have no problem carrying out the duties that go along with the latter role. What in your view will be the greatest challenges for him in protecting the teachings of the Church? 

Weigel: Figuring out a way to make the Catholic proposal amidst the regnant cultural Gnosticism—the widespread conviction that everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable—and doing so without taking the edge off those Catholic convictions that challenge Gnosticism at its core (such as our convictions about men, women, and their right relationship) is a huge challenge, not only for Pope Francis but for every teacher in the Church.  

CWR: Perhaps one of Pope Francis’s most important decisions in the weeks ahead will be picking a Secretary of State (presumably replacing Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone). What qualities should he look for when considering potential replacements for Bertone, as well as the rest of the Curia?

Weigel: What the Curia needs above all is a change of institutional culture, so that it becomes a place where talented men and women serve the universal Church for a time before returning to their local Churches, not a place where career-tickets are punched. The men chosen to be Secretary of State and Sostituto (the papal chief-of-staff) should be men committed to that change of institutional culture and to the deep and broad personnel changes that implementing it will require. 

CWR: How will Pope Francis’ papacy differ from his predecessor’s and in what ways will it be similar?

Weigel: I think we’ll see a pope who goes out to the Diocese of Rome far more frequently, and I hope we’ll have a pontificate that allows us to digest the rich magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, without piling on more magisterial material. 

CWR: Besides the sacred Scriptures (and your new book!), what is some essential reading for Evangelical Catholics to add to their arsenal that will contribute to a compelling and attractive witness to Catholicism in the 21st century?

Weigel: Father Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series—the DVDs and the book—is the best introduction to the Church of the future that I know. Every Catholic parish in America should junk its RCIA and adult education programs for a year and adopt “Catholicism” instead. The results would be, I think, remarkable.

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.