The Lay Reform of Church and World

Two volumes recently published by Encounter Books address key issues in the New Evangelization.

The first, Marcello Pera’s Why We Must Call Ourselves Christians, is another effort by a distinguished public intellectual to call our civilization back to its foundational senses. Pera, a philosopher of science, is also an Italian legislator who served for several years as president of the Italian Senate. During his tenure as Italy’s third-ranking public official, he co-authored a book with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Without Roots, in which Pera, the secular philosopher, and Ratzinger, the Church’s principal theologian, found a remarkable degree of agreement on the causes of Europe’s current malaise, which both men traced to a profound hostility to Christian faith and a deep skepticism about moral truth.

In this sequel, Pera develops his argument that a West that has marginalized Christian truth and Christian values is a West that has hollowed itself out and become an empty shell: a shell that will crack under the increasing pressure of demographic crisis, fiscal crisis, and, ultimately, political crisis. Only a renewed appreciation of what Christianity brings to public life, Pera proposes, will suffice to re-construct a West that is imperiled from without by the assault of Islamist jihadism, and from within by what his friend Ratzinger, now the pope and the author of the preface to Pera’s book, calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Marcello Pera is one of the most civilized men I know. For those who have not had the pleasure and honor of his friendship, to meet him in this book is to meet a modern Ezekiel, a watchman appointed to show all with eyes to see and ears to hear the path into a more humane future.

If there is to be a reconstruction of the Christian roots of Western culture, that will most likely come, not from the clergy, but from the Christian laity: fathers and mothers who raise families in the truth, men and women at work in the fields of business, culture, the arts, the academy, the media, and politics. That was the teaching of Vatican II; that was the teaching of John Paul II in his 1990 encyclical on Christian mission, Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) and the 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (Christ’s Lay Faithful); and that is a teaching the Church has yet to absorb.

One of the oddities of the post-Vatican II Church is that its concrete life has often inverted the Council’s teaching on the roles of bishops and priests, on the one hand, and lay Catholics, on the other, in the public square. Bishops and priests were to recover their prophetic role as teachers and formers of the Christian conscience; the laity were to be empowered by their bishops and priests to bring the Gospel into the world. Yet the omnipresence of episcopal conference statements on every conceivable issue of public policy has filled much of the public “space” that was to have been shaped by the witness of a deeply catechized and formed laity, while the phrase “Catholics in public life” has come to mean the likes of Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, none of whom qualifies as minimally catechized, much less deeply catechized.

In Living the Call, philosopher Michael Novak and businessman/ philanthropist Bill Simon challenge their fellow Catholics, lay men and women alike, to take the Council seriously, and to see in the Church both a source of wisdom that can heal our broken culture and an arena of service in which the laity have many important roles to fill—including roles that will free priests and bishops from being overwhelmed by administrative tasks, to the point where their primary roles as teachers and sanctifiers become minimized. Living the Call is no exercise in abstraction, however, for the authors illustrate their proposals with the examples of real-life apostles at work in the Church and the world, examples that both instruct and inspire.

Decadence and democracy can’t co-exist indefinitely. These three authors know that, and in two quite different books sketch a common way beyond decay.

 

George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Steve N.

    For a very long winded but tellingly accurate accounting read: Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn To Decadence, 1500 To the Present, 500 years of Cultural Life”.

  • KA

    Mr. Weigel, you wrote, “If there is to be a reconstruction of the Christian roots of Western culture, that will most likely come, not from the clergy, but from the Christian laity: fathers and mothers who raise families in the truth, men and women at work in the fields of business, culture, the arts, the academy, the media, and politics.” I could not disagree with you more. If there is to be a reconstruction of the roots of Western culture, it will come from the monastery. The Benedictine monks are the roots of Western culture and it is from them that Christian civilization was first built, and will be rebuilt. Those vocations will come from the fathers and mothers you mention. As of right now, these families, my family, are living in the spiritual desert, amongst the ruins of the Church since the council. The reason for hope that I see comes from the new Benedictine monastery being built in Tulsa, Oklahoma at Clear Creek. It is from them and those like them, from their prayer, their sacrifice, that any renewal, any springtime will come.

  • Sam Schmitt

    Maybe it’s a question of “both/and”?

    While the witness and prayer of monks who leave the world is absolutely necessary, you also need laypeople who are working to transform the world “from within.” Without good people running banks, working in factories, writing books, teaching in schools, the culture will not be changed. The Church relies on those who are contemplatives and those who are active.

    As you yourself say, the monks themselves have to come from (lay) families.

  • Tom

    Mr. Weigle, this seem to a statement straight out of the ‘80s. Which laity are you talking about? Those that are in the ½ dozen ”movements” that came from Axis friendly countries, and borrowed from prevailing early 20th century secular political trends (the ‘isms”)? Is it followers of Guru’s with self-defined “radical” ideas that salvation is for all (I thought that was clear from the beginning)? Is it what is said in the new guide for spiritual direction, that in “spiritual council” for lay that there no need for formal payer, because “anything can be prayer” (sic), in direct opposition to what is in the scriptures? Is it those that, to this day, are entranced by teaching of some one that even the Pope called a false prophet? Is this laity, the ones that are made to admire the paintings and skull numbing music of an narcissistic artist, and study his multi volume “secret” catechism? Or is this laity part of well off, self-serving business networks, that influence politics by supporting secular leaders that use underage prostitutes? Which laity are you talking about?
    The more I think about it the more I agree with KA . Traditional order that survived the turmoil’s of the last half century, the Benedictines, The Poor Clares, the Dominicans, the traditional Jesuits and Franciscans, Carmelites, the Salisians and newer orders that follow the same path, like the Sisters of Charity, will be critical in helping the Church bridge the gap into the future. Our role as laity is to support them, in prayer and deeds.

  • Tom

    Note to editor: same post, minus some typos

    Mr. Weigle, his is an assertion straight out of the ‘80s. Which laity are you talking about? Those that are part of the ½ dozen ”movements” that came from Axis friendly countries, and borrowed from prevailing early 20th century secular political trends (the ‘isms”)? Is it the followers of Gurus with self-defined “radical” ideas that salvation is for all (I thought that was clear from the beginning)? Is it what is said in the new guide for spiritual direction, that in “spiritual counsel” for lay that there no need for formal payer, because “anything can be prayer” (sic), in direct opposition to what is in the scriptures? Is it those that, to this day, are entranced by the teachings of some one that even the Pope called a false prophet? Is it the ones that are made to admire paintings and skull numbing music by a narcissistic artist, and study his multi volume “secret” catechism? Or is this laity part of well-off, self-serving business networks, that influence politics by supporting secular leaders that use underage prostitutes? Which laity are you talking about?
    The more I think about it the more I agree with KA . Traditional orders that survived turmoil of the last half century, the Benedictines, The Poor Clares, the Dominicans, the traditional Jesuits and Franciscans, Carmelites, the Salisians and newer orders that follow the same path, like the Sisters of Charity, will be critical in helping the Church bridge the gap into the future. Our role as laity is to support them, in prayer and deeds, it seem to me.

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