It is not so much a matter of reforming the Church as of re-founding it: and re-founding it as a vibrant evangelical movement, not as a clericalist institution.
Can you guess who wrote those words? Was it Martin Luther? Maybe John Calvin? No? Maybe that great paragon of evangelical witness, Billy Graham, right?
The man behind those words is George Weigel—a Catholic’s Catholic. He is the author of Letters to a Young Catholic, The Courage to Be Catholic, and The Truth of Catholicism, and he is regularly featured in the National Catholic Register. He is perhaps most famous for his biography of John Paul II, with whom he had a very close relationship. Weigel may be the leading Roman Catholic public intellectual in the United States, and the quotation is taken from an article in First Things entitled “Downsizing to Grow in Ireland.”
So, what does one make of such a statement from such a thinker? Are leading Catholics becoming Protestants?
The answer, of course, is no. But his statement reveals more than something new about the future of the Catholic church—it also reveals something about ecumenism and the road to unity among those who follow Christ. It’s becoming increasingly evident that this road runs right through the middle of the city. Consciously or not, there is increasing overlap in the statements and actions of Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the public witness of Christianity in the world.
This overlap is most apparent in the public responses to attempts by the state to override basic religious freedoms. Witness, for instance, the strong show of Catholic/Protestant solidarity on issues of education in Canada. Or consider the position held by evangelicals and Catholics on an expansive feature of the healthcare mandate in the United States—where, in effect, the state is attempting to override the right of Catholic institutions to uphold their beliefs on contraception when purchasing health insurance for their employees. This is surprising because it reveals the similarities of Catholics and evangelicals on the question of religious freedom—something which, even sixty years ago, would be difficult to imagine. It is even more surprising that these positions are held with such vigour, even when there is considerable disagreement on the matter between evangelicals and Catholics. In the U.S. case, for instance, the Catholic and evangelical position on contraception differs widely.
But this type of ecumenism is not only found in politics. Increasingly, it is working its way into the wider and deeper vision of evangelism itself. The solidarity on public issues is indicative of a renewed recognition of the reality of an increasingly unchurched—and sometimes hostile—nature of a forgetful West. The recognition of the need to stand shoulder to shoulder on public issues has also caused Christians to re-examine what it is they believe and why the Gospel matters to a culture which is often ignorant of its message.
The “evangelical reform of Catholic advocacy”—the refocusing of the church’s efforts on spreading the good news of Jesus Christ—that Weigel is supporting should be music to evangelical ears. It is what they have been advocating for years and Weigel’s article is evidence of the impact that a few decades of open and frank discussion between evangelicals and Catholics—not to mention instances of vigorous competition in certain places around the globe—has had among the Catholic laity. But it would be unfair for evangelicals to take full credit for this, or to suggest that the movement is driven only (or even primarily) by laypersons. The refocusing on evangelization comes straight from the top. In 2000, John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter aptly entitled “At the Beginning of the Third Millenium.” That letter called for a “new evangelization.” In his letter, John Paul II encouraged Roman Catholics to
gain new impetus in Christian living, making it the force which inspires our journey of faith. Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37).
We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new programme.” The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. (emphasis mine)
His successor, Benedict XVI, has taken up this call and continued it with vigour. In fact, the “new evangelization” is the focus of an ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops—essentially a body which represents “the entire episcopate of the Catholic Church“—in October 2012 in the Netherlands. The text written in preparation for the assembly outlines that our whole lives are to be lived as a witness to the gospel. The effort is intended to go from top to bottom, to cover every square inch of creation, as it were:
In accordance with the mandate of her founder, Jesus Christ, Christians not only are to provide the support of their prayers and material resources to missionaries, namely those who proclaim the Gospel to non-Christians, but are themselves called to contribute to spreading the Kingdom of God in the world, each according to his proper vocations and means.
Compare the notes from the program for the assembly of bishops with the words penned by Steven Garber in Comment, encouraging evangelicals to rediscover the breadth of God’s mission:
Vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission of God . . . The word vocation is a rich one, having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbours, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.
Whether or not it is intentional, there is increasing overlap in the statements and actions of Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the public witness of Christianity in the world—not only in politics, but in all aspects of the Christian life.
None of this suggests that the deep wounds of the church will be healed any time soon. As Mark Noll noted in his survey of Protestant/Catholic relations in 2005, the Reformation is not over. The church is still, as Samuel John Stone’s hymn puts it, “rent asunder by schism.” The contemporary testimony of the Christian Reformed Church—a denominational document intended to reflect on appropriate Christian responses to contemporary issues—suggests that Christians should “grieve that the church, which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope, and spans all time, place, race, and language, has become a broken communion in a broken world.” This continues to be the appropriate posture on ecumenism.
But our grief should be bridled by hope. We should be thankful for these “surprising evidences of unity.” The refocusing of the Catholic church on evangelism is cause for hope not only because it shows that there are areas of agreement between us, but because it brings into sharper focus the areas in which we disagree. There is no doubt that on the Lord’s Supper and other sacraments, on the role of Scripture and church authority, and in a host of other areas, there remains considerable—seemingly insurmountable—space between evangelicals and Catholics. But knowing where we disagree is valuable because it allows us to avoid spending time and energy on knocking down straw men. It is, for instance, more difficult to conceive of the Catholic church as a power hungry institution, or of Catholics as those who mindlessly recite their liturgies while their hearts are elsewhere, once one has read the words which the highest authority in the Catholic church—the pope—speaks about the call to witness to the Risen Lord.
Knowing where we overlap, and where we differ, allows all of us to be more effective witnesses in the public square—on the main streets of the modern world. In short, it allows us to be more effective witnesses to the church’s one foundation: Jesus Christ our Lord.