weigel-evangelical-catholicismJohn Cavadini’s review in this month’s First Things of George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church offers a new and fair critique of Weigel’s book, one which relates to his concept of the Church. In the book, Weigel tells us that:

Evangelical Catholics who adhere to the Gospel – once again, the truths that God has revealed for our salvation in Holy Scripture and the apostolic tradition – are in fuller communion with evangelical Protestants who affirm classic Christian orthodoxy than they are with prominent Catholic theologians such as Hans Küng, Roger Haight, and Elizabeth Johnson, despite being, canonically, in the same Church with the latter (p. 38).

Yet, as Cavadini points out, it is precisely classic Christian orthodoxy on the nature of the Church (and, we might add, a host of other issues relating to the Sacraments and so on) which separates Catholics even from conservative Protestants. Ironically, Weigel’s bowdlerization of Catholic doctrine, which seems to assign the label of “classic Christian orthodoxy” only to matters on which Catholics and Protestants have historically agreed, simply provides ammunition to his traditionalist critics who may wish to accuse him of downplaying Catholic doctrine for ecumenical reasons, and whom he accuses of being “stuck in Counter-Reformation Catholicism.”

I would like to focus briefly, however, not on the theological deficiencies of evangelical Catholicism (for which I direct readers to Cavadini’s review, which also highlights some of the many good things in the book), but on its social and political implications.

One area in which evangelical Catholicism is notably deficient vis-à-vis the Counter-Reformation Catholicism it critiques is its apparent lack of appreciation for the social nature of religion, and the importance of religion in forming a healthy moral and political community.

Put simply, various strands of Catholic natural law theory agree on two things with regard to religion. Firstly, that religion is an integral aspect of human flourishing. In the language of the New Natural Lawyers, it is a basic human good. Second, because the human person is, as Thomas Aquinas tells us, “by nature a social and political animal,” the good of religion – as with all human goods – must be sought not merely privately, but in community.

Crucially, because shared religion is a basic building block of the community, we cannot not seek it out. We are hard-wired to seek our good, and since a communal religious commitment is an integral aspect of that good, religious unity in society will arise through some means.

The only question is whether that religious unity will be grounded in the truth (as in a Catholic social order), in vague half-truths (as in the quasi-Protestant civic religion that has developed in the United States), or in downright falsehoods (as in the religion of “Man” that sprung up after the French Revolution, Communist state-worship, or the Emperor-worship common to so many nations throughout history). History teaches us that we don’t get to choose a society without a shared religious foundation. The choice is simply between good and bad religion.

None of this should be taken as a claim that Catholics and Protestants (and those of other religions) cannot co-exist peacefully. As neighbors, we can love one another, care for one another, and learn from one another. As Christians, we can pray for – and with – one another. As custodians of the tradition of Western ethics, we can stand together in opposing threats to the sanctity of human life, and distorted ideas about the nature of human sexuality. But we cannot build a healthy social order simply on being against things – even evil things like abortion or sodomy – and the extent to which groups who do not share a religion can form a moral and political community is at least somewhat limited.

It seems to me – to return to the theological theme with which I began – that proponents of evangelical Catholicism cannot escape from these facts. This explains why Weigel, who wishes to affirm – without shelving his own Catholic beliefs – that Catholics experience a kind of deep religious communion with evangelical Protestants, is, as Cavadini’s critique suggests, forced to replace the traditional Catholic concept of a social communion with Christ through the Church with the classically Protestant concept of a subjective personal communion with the person of Jesus.

Thus, for Weigel, the Christian faith of the individual is a “fundamentally personal encounter” which “begins with meeting and knowing the Lord himself” (p. 57). Whatever merits this position has, it is very different from the classical Catholic idea of faith. The very first question the Priest asks a candidate in a Catholic baptism has nothing to do with their personal relationship with Jesus. It is: quid petis ab Ecclesia Dei? (“what do you ask of the Church of God?”), to which the response is, “Faith.” Only later, after the imposition of the Priest’s hands on behalf of the Church, and having been signed with the Sign of the Cross repeatedly, is the candidate asked to make a personal profession of faith.

Because the Church is a society, our views about the nature of ecclesial communion will naturally affect (and be affected by) our views on the nature of political communion. If we see faith as first and foremost a private, personal encounter with the divine, then we are likely to adopt a view of something like the First Amendment to the US Constitution as not just politically expedient, but as a religious and moral ideal. Religious liberty to adhere to our own private, personal faith (rather than religious unity or adherence to religious truth), becomes the highest good of the political community, because we no longer believe that religion is fundamentally communal. Indeed, religious liberty itself becomes a kind of shared religion. Particular religious beliefs may still be seen as instrumentally socially beneficial insofar as they motivate people to do good things, but religion will not be seen as an aspect of the common good. Society, in such a case, inevitably lapses into materialism, because while individuals may be brought out of themselves by service to the community, the community itself is not directed toward any good that transcends its own collective self-interest.

My argument is not that the Catholic Church should return to the confrontational political stance it adopted during the Counter-Reformation era, a stance excessively concerned with legal form over theological substance (no traditionalist has ever been able to explain to me what the point of a state constitution establishing Catholicism is unless it is a recognition of the fact that, prior to the state itself, the Catholic religion simply is part of what organically constitutes a particular body politic). Rather, I wish to point out that Counter-Reformation Catholicism at least recognized that religious pluralism is a social problem, and attempted to articulate solutions to this problem, however inadequate we might judge them to have been. If the concept of evangelical Catholicism (which does have many things to commend it) is to pass muster, it too must honestly confront this problem. Some “deep reform” is needed if evangelical Catholicism wishes to conform not only to classic Christian orthodoxy on the nature of the Church, but also to the finer strands of Catholic social and political thought.