Evangelizing the Evangelicals

In his new book, George Weigel explicates the historical development of Evangelical Catholicism, a reform begun by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), developed by the renewals of the early twentieth-century, formalized by Vatican II, and authoritatively interpreted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and now expressed with particular aplomb by Pope Francis.

It’s a stunning account, and, for a recent convert like myself, a mark of the ability of Catholicism to retain the abiding and unchanging truths of faith while allowing new expressions—ever ancient, ever new.

As Weigel explains in a recent First Things essay, “Evangelical Catholicism is a Spirit-led development reflecting the cultural contingencies of history, like other such evolutions over the past two millennia,” of which we could identify (1) the Patristic Church, (2) the Medieval Church, and (3) the Counter-Reformation Church. Each was necessary for the demands of its time, each was in keeping with the abiding truth, and each gave way to a new form. The Patristic church, a roughly thousand-year development between the primitive and medieval Church, produced the Creeds, gave us the Fathers, and evangelized the pagans. The 500 years of medieval Catholicism gave us the Cathedrals, systematic theologies, and major religious orders before splintering. In roughly the same length of time—500 years—the Counter-Reformation—“the Church in which anyone over sixty today was raised”—“converted much of the Western Hemisphere … withstood the onslaught of the French Revolution … met the challenges of twentieth-century totalitarianism,” and much else besides.

And yet, “its time has passed.” Led by the Spirit, the Church moves to a “new evolution in … self-understanding and self-expression,” even though, of course, the way the Church expresses and lives itself out never fundamentally alters the “enduring marks” of the Church, namely, “unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.” Despite the constancy of essentials, the new expression and life is, at times, quite dramatically different in feel and language, although nothing really changed. It is the same Church proclaiming the same Faith in the same Lord.

It also presents, I’d suggest, a genuine opportunity to reach out to evangelical Protestants, which, until Palm Sunday, I was.

“Roman fever” is a well-documented Protestant phenomenon, perhaps especially among academics and college students, prompting the common question “Why are so many evangelicals going to Rome?” A good deal of this results from the fact that reason alone is insufficient, always requiring tradition, and as evangelicals look to recover tradition they discover the Tradition. While recovering the past, they also find the sheer enormity and depth of the Catholic intellectual heritage, including its music, art, literature, and poetry, all providing a place to dwell rather than the furious scuttling about of constant reinvention.

While suspicions are not as deep as they once were, in part because of ecumenical cooperation on issues such as abortion and marriage, still many evangelicals have hesitations (to put it mildly) about Roman Catholicism, largely in four categories: (1) the status of the Bible, and how that relates to doctrines about Mary, the Saints, and Purgatory; (2) Papal infallibility (however much this repeats the previous issue); (3) justification and faith/works, and (4) the Catholic thing—statues, mumbled prayers, fish, the Rosary, Swiss Guards, noisy kids in the Mass, an odd inability to sing, and so on.

Don’t underestimate the fourth category. At the evangelical college where I teach, most students have given me a respectful berth about my conversion—everybody knew, no one was surprised, no one asked very much—but before one Honors class a student hesitantly asked if I could explain Marian doctrine, then another question was asked and another, for about an hour. The vast majority of questions related to the fourth category: “What’s the deal with Catholics and drinking?” “Why are people so inattentive during Mass?” “Bingo … what’s with that?” “Why not spontaneous prayers?” “Why are homilies so short?” and so on. Not a single question, not one, about justification, even though in a survey of concerns they would list that objection, but laregely because they know they’re supposed to, not because they really are bothered by it.

Given the history, how could that be? First, the evangelical Protestant world is a mish-mash of theologies, a good many of which are not remotely linked to the magisterial Reformers on justification, which is why there is so much discussion about it, sometimes heated, and a good many evangelicals are not overly tied to Scriptural authority anyway. Second, most people in the pews are not theologians or Church historians, and evangelicals are perhaps particularly concerned to not be bogged down by the past and so not overly worried to distinguish sola fide from sola gratia. Third, young evangelicals are decent people, and many are more concerned with care of the poor then with the finer points of sixteenth-century theological disputes. In other words, I’m proposing that while all would list the four categories of objections, the most alienating and troubling for many is the fourth—Catholicism just seems weird and foreign to the most salient aspect of evangelicalism, which is a committed, personal, meaningful relationship with Jesus. And from the perspective of a young evangelical, Catholics just don’t get this.

One of my students, to use a representative anecdote, was seriously exploring Catholicism. He was attending Mass, was in conversation with a local priest I had recommended, and was hard at work reading the Catechism and some theologians. And he loved what he was reading. Eventually, however, he went to a Presbyterian congregation because, in his words, “the people at Mass were so uninterested and it was a serious challenge to my faith.” On the one hand, this reveals a cultural difference on the point of going to services; I go to Mass, primarily, to receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Everything else is a bonus, but when I was a young evangelical, I was taught that if I didn’t have an experience of God something was wrong, and so I had to express my enthusiasm as proof of my experience. One pastor once told me to “worship hard”—meaning with visible emotion and zeal—so to help others have a similar experience. If this is your expectation, the mumbled prayers, sometimes uninspired homilies and music (oh dear, the music of some parishes! I’ll admit it delayed my own conversion) can be seen as a mark that this is dead, a religion without spirit. Of course, this misunderstands the Mass and is an imperialism of expectations, but culturally it’s a big deal.

On the other hand, it’s also why Evangelical Catholicism has such great missionary potential for drawing in younger evangelical Protestants. I had read Aquinas and Augustine and Athanasius, I had studied with the Jesuits, I had learned the ancient music, I knew the art, I encountered the saints, I was impressed with the commitment to the poor, but until I met Evangelical Catholics for whom, as Weigel puts it, friendship with Jesus Christ was the main thing, I wasn’t convinced. What Weigel describes makes sense to evangelicals, and coupled with the markers of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity is precisely what a good many of them/us are searching for: “in friendship with Jesus Christ, we come to know the face of the merciful Father, for whoever experiences the Son’s power to forgive sins sees the merciful Father, who welcomes home the prodigals and reclothes them with the garments of integrity.”

The Great Commission continues, and as we experience the ongoing contraction of Christendom, the Oneness of the Church will be especially important. Welcoming home those who left will be an enormous task, requiring patience and charity. If I’m right, though, a good deal of this work could be accomplished if we just did what we should be doing anyway, if we just were who we should be—friends with Jesus.

A Church without Christ is not worth having, but a Christocentric Church will bring home its separated brothers and sisters; it will evangelize those who already have faith but wait for its fullness.


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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