1878 And All That

 A church facing many challenges: A young Catholic at the Vatican

George Weigel, the leading public intellectual in the large and (at any rate until Barack Obama’s re-election) influential Roman Catholic Church in the United States, has produced a manifesto for the improvement, both corporate and personal, of his numerous co-religionists. On particular issues it contains a good deal of shrewd analysis as well as clearly focused proposals for what the author terms “deep reform”. But its overall vision, dubbed Evangelical Catholicism, is rather more problematic.  

Indebted to an idiosyncratic reading of modern Church history-the all-important beginning of a new epoch was, he claims, the 1878 election of Pope Leo XIII-there runs through it a serious faultline which threatens its theological coherence and value.  Catholic Christianity turns on the notion of a continuous and divinely underpinned transmission of meaning from the time of Christ’s apostles to the present day. Interrogated at any point in that development, Tradition-spelt with a capital T, since here the word denotes the content of divine revelation as made available in texts and practices-can yield insight that may inspire contemporary religious existence. The concept of Tradition is thus profoundly inimical to a periodisation of Church history which will declare one particular era fundamentally devoid of useful relevance for Christian living. And it is no insubstantial era at that. In Weigel’s presentation, the time we must let fall from consciousness consists of the three centuries that coincide with all early modern and much of modern history, that is, the period from the Council of Trent to near the end of the Victorian age. Weigel is fond of neologisms, so let me suggest that when he speaks in this vein he is suffering from a bad attack of perioditis.    

However, Weigel is much too good a lay theologian to be content with his own thesis, which is crossed in this book by an alternative and indeed antagonistic view, expressed in the recurring metaphor of a “cosmatesque pavement” or, as he sometimes puts it in more conceptual idiom, “the ecumenism of time”. The Catholic doctrine of Tradition mandates a willingness to find divine activity underpinning human productivity-charitable, imaginative, intellectual-in any age. Thus fragments can be quarried to make a mosaic pavement from any point on the trajectory of post-Pentecost time which must, accordingly, be approached all-embracingly, in a universal (“ecumenical”) spirit. This is the correct view, and perioditis’s proper antidote.  

But why, then, is it only a sub-plot in Weigel’s story? It is because he believes the “Counter-Reformation Church” to be excessively concerned with two activities: catechesis and devotion. Their combined effect was to impede the emergence of a genuinely Evangelical Catholicism. Catechesis, meaning detailed instruction in doctrine, while undeniably important, is secondary to kerygma or Gospel proclamation: the life-changing challenge of living on the model and by the power of the Christ-figure, still accessible as he is by his Spirit, from whom the overall Tradition stems. Devotion, the habitual performance of prayer activity with, as its object, the divine realm disclosed in Christ and the figures who co-define him in the Communion of Saints, while perfectly legitimate, is secondary to mission: the active passing on to others of the kerygmatic call to live a Christocentric life which, granted the kind of life Christ lived, must also be a life of charity where moral reason is ennobled and rendered fruitful in practice by the help of divine grace.  

Weigel rates these shifts of emphasis to kerygma and mission as absolutely vital if Catholic Christianity is to recapture modernity (or post-modernity) rather than simply provide a refuge for its own. Hence the significance for him of “1878 and All That”. The ralliement, Leo XIII’s appeal to French Catholics to cease banging the antique drum of monarchical restoration and accept instead the republican form of state polity as there to stay, becomes emblematic of a clearing of the decks as the ship of the Church enters a secular modernity where it can afford neither the carrying of excess historical baggage nor the luxury of crew-members who behave as though they were merely passengers with no active task to perform. The fact that Leo’s public output includes pastoral letters which underline the right (and in certain circumstances the duty) of the state formally to accept Christian revelation (inimical to Weigel’s political liberalism) and others that praise the value of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the archetypical devotion of well-catechised Tridentine Catholics) is not allowed to obscure the radical quality of this putatively new beginning on which so much of Weigel’s historical analysis turns.

These are criticisms of the frame of the Weigel manifesto. But its content could hardly be altogether vitiated if, as I said at the outset, there is so much to admire in his handling of particular themes. He professes a robustly credal Catholicism, bearing witness both to the biblical Word in the great lines of its narrative structure and also to the “ennobling” (a favourite word) power of the sacramental liturgy. And all of this is held within a view of the Church-communion as Christ’s “mystical body” expressed in a Church-society that is governed by episcopal and Petrine (papal) means. That makes it dynamically orthodox. What renders it in addition evangelical is the abundance of reference to Christ as personal saviour and the emphasis on the missionary command to bring others to know this Saviour-Lord. As a consequence his prose will strike those who are merely orthodox as pietistic. But it will ring bells with Evangelicals in the Reformation tradition, a number of whom have abandoned the American mainline Protestant churches for either Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome.  

George Weigel has prescriptions for most of the malaises of the present-day Catholic Church.  He wants younger bishops, selected from a wider pool than diocesan officialdom, and with a primary mission to teach about Christ. He wants priests saved by Evangelical Catholicism from dalliance with temptation and formed to preach biblically and well. He wants a liturgical life sufficiently beautiful in all its media of expression to point towards the transfigured world of the Christian hope. He wants religious orders that think with the Church, not against it, and eschew excessive softening of the asperities of the monastic way. He wants a laity that is principally active in the world, by influencing culture and polity, not in the Church, as glorified office- and altar-boys (or girls). He wants Catholic universities that give equal weight to the adjective and the noun, and, more widely, a Catholic intellectual life to boot. He wants in political life Catholics who strongly affirm the compatibility of the Church’s moral doctrine with public reason. He wants for the papacy a streamlined Roman curia, much of it reduced to the status of a think-tank. It will, however, on George Weigel’s view, have plenty to think about: notably, how to sustain the growth of the Church in the third world, how to reconvert the post-Christian West, and how to meet the challenge of jihadist Islam. 

Considered as a practical programme this has plenty to commend it. It testifies to Weigel’s debt to the two main post-conciliar Popes, John Paul II (whose biographer he is) and Benedict XVI. That these names are the most neuralgic for “progressive” Catholicism in North America and Western Europe gives some indication of the resistance he may encounter, if also of the succour he may obtain.   

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