Despite what the world often sees as endless crisis and scandal, a bold new era in the two thousand year history of the Catholic Church is beginning. The curtain is coming down on the institutionally-focused Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation – the church in which every Catholic under 50 grew up – as the curtain rises on the Gospel-focused evangelical Catholicism of the third millennium. More than a century of Catholic reform is now coming to fruition as the living, vibrant sectors of the world’s largest Christian community accept the challenge posed by Blessed John Paul II at the end of the Great Jubilee of 2000: the challenge to “put out into the deep,” like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, in order to invite the post-modern world to friendship with Jesus Christ.
The Gospel-centered Catholicism being born today is, on the one hand, an evolution impelled by the church’s own need to make herself a more transparent witness to her Lord, and, on the other, an essential response to an increasingly hostile environment. As recently as the 1950s, Catholics could reasonably expect the ambient public culture to help transmit the faith to future generations. No more. To live an integral Catholic life today is to be a sign of contradiction. The Catholicism that has a future can’t be a weekend recreational activity, a lifestyle choice. The Catholicism of the future must be a life-changing and life-forming embrace of Jesus Christ, his truth, and his authority: a radical commitment that shapes all of life.
Evangelical Catholicism is thus full-time, full-throttle Catholicism. It’s not sectarian Catholicism, though, nor is it remnant Catholicism. Evangelical Catholicism is not about retreating into enclaves, bunkers, or 21st-century catacombs; evangelical Catholicism is about offense, not defense. Evangelical Catholicism intends to convert the world, beginning with the worlds that surrounds every evangelical Catholic: family, neighborhood, workplace, the public square. Evangelical Catholics go into mission territory every day, know they’re doing precisely that, and welcome the opportunity to offer a deeply confused postmodern world the truth about the human condition that is found in Jesus Christ.
And so the evangelical Catholicism of the future will be a culture-forming counterculture. It will form its own culture, built upon friendship with Jesus Christ, belief in his authority and the church’s authority, sacramental intensity and liturgical beauty, biblical literacy – and a clear understanding that, while everyone in the church has a unique vocation, all those vocations are ordered to mission and measured by mission-effectiveness. At the same time, though, the lives of integrity, compassion, dignity, and charity lived in the culture of evangelical Catholic will be a countercultural challenge to the culture of I-did-it-my-way. And in posing that challenge, Evangelical Catholicism will raise some interesting questions: Is human happiness really found in the sandbox of self-assertion and willfulness? Isn’t there more to life than me, myself and I? Might it be, as Vatican II taught, that we only come to know the truth about ourselves – and thus discover the royal road to human flourishing – through a generous giving of ourselves?
Evangelical Catholicism is emerging from a process of deep Catholic reform that began in the late 19th century, and its flowering will require further reforms in the church. Those reforms, however, will not be cut to the cloth of secular expectation. Rather, authentic Catholic reform will unfold according to two ancient criteria: the truth the church bears (which it knows through its teaching authority, not through New York Times editorials), and mission-effectiveness.
Authentic, evangelical Catholic reform will touch and change every facet of Catholic life: from the episcopate and the papacy to the priesthood and the consecrated life; from the renewal of the lay vocation to a redefinition of the church’s role in public life. But because these reforms will be conducted according to the criteria of truth and mission, they will not deconstruct the Catholic Church, nor will they return it to some imaginary golden age of the past.
The reform of the church will, rather, make Catholicism ever more evangelical – and ever more a sign of contradiction, calling the 21st century world to a nobler vision of human possibility.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Catholic Church. His twenty-first book, “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church,” was published on February 5 by Basic Books.