For more than 30 years it’s been my privilege to explore the Catholic Church in all its extraordinary variety and diversity. I’ve traveled from inner-city parishes to the corridors of the Vatican; from the barrios of Bogota to the streets of Dublin; across the United States and throughout Europe, Latin America, Oceania and the Holy Land. I’ve spoken to Catholics of all states of life and stations in life, from popes and heads of state to cloistered nuns and campus ministers and literally thousands of clergy; with political activists of all stripes and the wonderful people of the parish in which I’ve lived for almost three decades; with modern Catholic confessors and martyrs and with men and women who are troubled in their faith.
The experience has been exhilarating, sometimes exasperating, occasionally depressing; I’ve been immeasurably enriched by all of it, in ways I can never adequately repay. But I’ve tried to make a small down-payment on a large debt with the publication of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books). In the book, I’ve tried to focus what I’ve learned in more than 30 years of Catholic thinking, writing and activism through two prisms: a new interpretation of modern Catholic history linked to a fresh proposal for how we should understand the Catholic possibility in the third millennium, and a detailed program of Gospel-centered reform that will equip the Church for its evangelical responsibilities in a time of great challenge.
The challenge can be defined simply: throughout the western world, the culture no longer carries the faith, because the culture has become increasingly hostile to the faith. Catholicism can no longer be absorbed by osmosis from the environment, for the environment has become toxic. So we can no longer sit back and assume that decent lives lived in conformity with the prevailing cultural norms will, somehow, convey the faith to our children and grandchildren and invite others to consider entering the Church.
No, in our new situation, Catholicism has to be proposed, and Catholicism has to be lived in radical fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. Recreational Catholicism—Catholicism as a traditional, leisure-time activity absorbing perhaps 90 minutes of one’s time on a weekend—is over. Full-time Catholicism—a Catholicism that, as the Second Vatican Council taught, infuses all of life and calls everyone in the Church to holiness and mission—is the only possible Catholicism in the 21st century.
The Evangelical Catholicism of the future is a Catholicism of radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship and courageous evangelism. Evangelical Catholics put friendship with the Lord Jesus at the center of everything: personal identity, relationships, activity. Evangelical Catholics strive for fidelity despite the wounds of sin, and do so through a daily encounter with the Word of God in the Bible and a regular embrace of Christ through a frequent reception of the sacraments. Evangelical Catholics experience dry seasons and dark nights, like everyone else; but they live through those experiences by finding their meaning in a deeper conformity to the Cross of Christ—on the far side of which is the unmatchable joy of Easter, the experience of which gives the people of the Church the courage to be Catholic. And evangelical Catholics measure the quality of their discipleship by whether, and to what extent, they give to others what they have been given: by the degree to which they deepen others’ friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, or bring others to meet the unique savior of the world.
Evangelical Catholics enter mission territory every day, leading lives of integrity and charity that invite from others the question, “How can you live this way?” That question, in turn, allows the evangelical Catholic to fulfill the Great Commission by offering others the Gospel and the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ. Having responded to the Risen Lord’s call to meet him in Galilee, evangelical Catholics go into the world in witness to the Christ who reveals both the face of the Merciful Father and the truth about our humanity.
Strong truths generously lived: that’s Evangelical Catholicism.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.