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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Evangelical Catholicism: A NeoCatholic Manifesto Featured

By:   Jesse Russell, Ph.D.
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George Weigel George Weigel
George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church. (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Few men have had as strong an impact on the Catholic Church in America in the past twenty years as George Weigel. Through the efforts of Weigel, Michael Novak, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an entirely new species of Catholicism has arisen. This version of Catholicism has been given many names by both friend and foe. Applying the names of recent heresies, traditionalist Catholics have called it “modernism,” “Americanism,” “liberalism,” and “naturalism.” Leftists Catholics have called it the “religious right,” “theo-conservatism,” “fundamentalism,” or just plain old “extremism.” Those who held this form of Christian living have called themselves “The JPII generation,” “orthodox,” “conservative,” “neoconservative,” or simply just “faithful” Catholics. But everyone involved, whether friend or foe, has recognized that the Catholicism championed by this new movement is something different from the Catholicism that existed for almost two thousand years before it slinked on the scene. There is no problem with this claim, and, in fact, it is identical to the claim made by Catholic leftists: that they are making a new or modern Catholicism. What makes neocon Catholicism different from the left is that its proponents claim that they are presenting the real, unblemished conservative tradition of the Church while, at the same time, radically modifying it.

In his recently rereleased work, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, George Weigel attempts to present a manifesto for neoconservative Catholics or “NeoCatholics” and to draw up a blueprint for “the 21st century Church,” which seems to be both the Roman Catholic Church and, at the same time, an entirely new church suited for “postmodernity,” a term Mr. Weigel uses frequently throughout the work without defining its meaning. Weigel’s book is a colossal and embarrassing failure on almost every level, but paradoxically, it accomplishes its most fundamental task: keeping NeoCatholics NeoCatholic.

One of the deepest underlying questions to which one comes at the end of Evangelical Catholicism is: outside of being an, at times, literal enumeration of things that George Weigel likes, what exactly is evangelical Catholicism? Is it some new religion into which Roman Catholicism has morphed? Is it a repackaging of the Americanist heresy into a form that is now acceptable to an enlightened, liberal Church? Is it the original Catholicism practiced by the Church during apostolic period that had been later corrupted by medieval and Counter Reformation rigidity and stuffiness? The answer is that not even George Weigel knows what evangelical Catholicism is. The book is not about what evangelical Catholicism is; it is about what evangelical Catholicism isn’t.

Evangelical Catholicism is not Traditionalism, and George Weigel wants to make sure the reader is well aware of this truth. In order to accomplish this task, Weigel must make it appear that NeoCatholics are the authentic custodians of Catholic tradition; hence, there is the subtitle of the book, Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church. Yet, as the Catholic Leftist Sean Michael Winters wrote in his review of the book in the National Catholic Reporter, there is nothing really that “deep” about the deep reform that Mr. Weigel presents. Certainly, when he uses the word “deep,” Mr. Weigel is not talking about the depth and rigor of his arguments. Rather, Weigel seems to be suggesting that the deep reform for which he is calling is a return to the “real” tradition of the Catholic Church. There are three key roots that Weigel attempts to highlight as being the basis for the tradition of evangelical Catholicism.

First of all, Weigel attempts to bring a new weapon into the Neo-Catholic arsenal by employing the writings of Pope Leo XIII, in which the sovereign pontiff condemns liberalism, to support liberalism. Weigel footnotes some of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII to support his argument that the Church’s process of liberalization began in the nineteen century. Again, this seems to be further evidence that Weigel is scurrying to head off any defection into the traditionalist camp. If traditionalists can make the argument that Vatican II was the first point at which liberalism and modernism became official Church policy, then Weigel and the NeoCatholics look even more ridiculous when they claim to be conservative when all they are conserving is 50 disastrous years of a 2000 year old institution.

The second “deep” root of Evangelical Catholicism is the censored heretic Fr. John Courtney Murray SJ’s misreading of medieval political philosophy. The argument, drawn from Fr. Murray, which Weigel gives for medieval roots of the separation of Church and state, has two pieces of historical evidence. First, Pope St. Gelasius I made a distinction between royal and priestly powers in regard to the political management of Christendom (in fact, he asserted the spiritual primacy of the pope over the entire world in his famous letter to Emperor Anastasius). Secondly, Gregory VII fought with Henry IV over the lay investiture controversy (in fact, like Gelasius, Gregory asserted the supreme spiritual primacy of the pope over Christendom, making Henry IV literally kneel and accept the Pope’s authority). As a result the Americanist, neocon reading of Dignitatis Humanae (which is probably the most correct since John Courtney Murray wrote the document, which, incidentally, wasn’t liberal enough for him) are entirely part of the Church’s tradition, and the Catholic Church should have a muted, crippled voice in the public sphere. The historical inaccuracy is so bad and logic here is so poor that it is more charitable to suggest that Mr. Weigel is lying than he misreads Fr. Murray who himself is either misreading or lying about the Church’s traditional understanding of the relationship between Church and state.

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The third root is the suggestion, oft repeated by NeoCatholics, that somehow Thomas Aquinas was a liberal or NeoCatholic in traditionalist clothing whose writings are easily reconcilable with contemporary neo-conservativism. According to the NeoCatholic narrative that Weigel references, the story goes that Pope Leo XIII resuscitated Aquinas with Aeterni Patris, the liberal Neo Thomists, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and Etienne Gilson revived the real Aquinas, and Vatican II was the glorious fruit of their efforts. Thus, if the universal doctor of the Catholic Church, who advocated for a monarchic and aristocratic society centered around war and agriculture under the umbrella of the Church’s spiritual authority, is somehow the forefather of the Enlightenment and would happily sit as an advisor to president George W. Bush, then those awful traditionalists are foiled again.

After establishing a rickety and entirely incoherent foundation for his new religion, George Weigel pushes forward into his plan for the Church’s future. For George Weigel, the pope to end all popes was St. John Paul II. It is John Paul’s charismatic personality and deeply emotional prose that paved the way for the New Pentecost. For Weigel, John Paul II was the master shepherd of Vatican II; it was the Polish pontiff who ushered in The New Evangelization. In fact, it is perhaps from the phrase “new evangelization” that Mr. Weigel got the main title of his book. Like John Paul II, Weigel seems to view history as an evolving process; he even approvingly quotes Hegel. Like Hegel’s Napoleon, Weigel’s John Paul II carried the torch or liberty into the New Age. However, there is something curious about Weigel’s use of the former pontiff that carries a different tone from any other of Weigel’s works. While, as in most of Weigel’s writings, John Paul II’s moving and encouraging quotes dot every other page, there is a sense that the magic may be gone. Evangelical Catholicism was originally released in 2013 to perform damage control over the rise of traditionalism under Pope Benedict and was rereleased in 2014 to head off the leftward shift of the Church under Francis—part of the afterward of the 2014 edition is dedicated to filtering Evangelii Gaudium though a neoconservative lens and eliminating any (more accurate) left wing reading of the encyclical. As it becomes clearer that the Church under John Paul II suffered from more scandal, heresy, corruption more than perhaps any other period in Her history, and as it becomes apparent that NeoCatholics like George Weigel manipulated John Paul II’s views on war and economics to their own benefit, Weigel knows that he will not be able to incense his writings with the Polish pontiff’s charism much longer.

Another key point in the book is Weigel’s personalist, sentimental, and Romantic vision of Christian piety. In his work, Weigel presents a key divide between two different ways of living the Catholic life. Both Catholic Leftists and NeoCatholics are liberals in their approach to spirituality, skirting the more stoic, authoritarian approach of traditionalists. Catholic liberals of either stripe are focused on a vital emotive spirituality that is not concerned with the rules or any sort of mortification and detachment from the world; rather it is focused on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ similar to the easy going attitude of many Protestant Evangelicals and New Agers. It is Weigel’s view that the Church must move “beyond” “the catechetical-devotional model” that had been dominant since the Counter Reformation, but this historicist approach is full of problems. Does Weigel not suspect that there might have been a catechetical-devotional model that existed prior to the Counter Reformation? Did Our Lord not catechize? What about the Rosary? Didn’t St. Francis of Assisi practice a catechetical and devotional model? What was St. Augustine of Hippo up to? Is there anything catechetical and devotional about St. Paul’s epistles? Again, Mr. Weigel is either ignorant of the Church’s entire tradition, or he is lying.

It is not so strange that someone as confident as Mr. Weigel presents large sections of Evangelical Catholicism as being literal lists of things he does and does not like and then labeling those things he does like as being “evangelical.” What is strange, however, is that many Church prelates openly expresses their support of Weigel’s opinions and tastes by actively promoting his work. Throughout Evangelical Catholicism, we learn that he likes Spanish and English better than Italian, and these languages should be employed more in the Church—one does not have to wonder what Weigel thinks of Latin. We learn that there are certain parishes in the United States that Mr. Weigel likes, and these should serve as models for every other parish in the entire world. We learn what hymns and even what hymnals Mr. Weigel likes and how they also should be used by every parish in the world. We learn what Mr. Weigel thinks the age limits of Cardinals and bishops should be. We even learn what Mr. Weigel thinks should be done with the curia (get rid of the reactionary Italians). While we do not learn anything about the Church’s tradition or doctrine, we do learn a lot about Mr. George Weigel, MA.

George Weigel is not a scholar, nor is he an especially gifted writer, and, as a popular theologian, he does not need to be. The problem is that he really tries to be one, and his prose suffers as a result. Like a bad English composition essay, there are sentences in Mr. Weigel’s book that are regularly repeated almost verbatim. The reader also has to endure Mr. Weigel’s clumsy and unnecessary neologisms and, on the spot, coined phrases. Despite having received endless praise from other Catholic neocons for his use of the English language, Mr. Weigel still seems unable complete a page of prose without fumbling his way through an incoherent sentence. All of this clumsiness stems from Mr. Weigel’s arrogance; if he were to think in a way that is consonant with the Church’s tradition, not quietly attempt to censor and modify papal documents, and simply teach the truth, Mr. Weigel could be an effective writer and apologist.

In the end, it seems as though there are two possible audiences for George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism. Firstly, there may be some readers who just so happen to be interested in what the Catholic Church would look like if noted papal biographer and tireless champion of the American way of life, George Weigel, were to be in charge. This first group will not be disappointed by the book. The second group consists of those many Catholics suffering from a stormy state of confusion under the erratic and disorienting papacy of Pope Francis. These Catholics may experience a strong temptation to look backward over the past fifty years of the Church’s history and begin to reexamine some of the changes that have gone on and reevaluate their appraisal of some of “truths” they had previously held dear. They may even begin to question the licitness of the Novus Ordo Missae and start drifting away to the dreaded traditional Latin mass. They may wonder if the supposedly “rock-solid” and “orthodox,” “conservative” Catholic clerics, intellectuals, and public figures were, in fact, presenting Catholicism in its fullness. They may wonder if capitalism, liberalism, and the bourgeois ethic really are compatible with Catholicism, and they may begin to look toward what the Church has traditionally taught about politics and economics. For this second group of poor souls, George Weigel’s presentation of “Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church” will be a veritable lighthouse to guide them to the safe and comfortable shores of Evangelical Catholicism.

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Last modified on Tuesday, May 19, 2015