A Tale of Two Popes

Thoughts on the new book from Catholic intellectual and essayist, George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism

Some may wonder what the point of reflecting on Rome is for a Protestant. At least threefold,I would respond. First, Protestants benefit from a conservative papacy: on public square issues such as abortion, marriage and religious freedom, the RCC has a higher profile and more power – financial, legal, institutional – than any Protestant group. We all benefit from the cultural and legal power of the RCC in these areas. Second, your neighbours probably do not distinguish between Christian groups. A sleazy, morally corrupt RCC is like a sleazy, morally corrupt televangelist ministry: we are all marked with the same brush in the public eye and our task of evangelism becomes that much harder. Third, RC authors often offer more penetrating insights into secular culture than their evangelical equivalents.

 
While away with the Pope of Ealing last week, meeting with the BeeGees to talk about their megalomaniacal plans for the future (‘Today disco, tomorrow the world!’), it seems that Ref21 has become a set for the new Doctor Who series, taken over by time-traveling, endless multiple subdivisional clause smithing Reformed Baptists from 1689. Come back, Davros, all is forgiven. Time to, ahem, ‘Exterminate!’

Thus, in an attempt to return us to the present day, and given the election of a new Pope, it seems apposite to offer a few thoughts on the new book from Catholic intellectual and essayist, George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism. Weigel wrote the book while Benedict XVI was not only Pope but looked set to stay that way for some time; it was published in February, just before the last Pope became Emeritus, as the phrase has it.

Some may wonder what the point of reflecting on Rome is for a Protestant. At least threefold,I would respond. First, Protestants benefit from a conservative papacy: on public square issues such as abortion, marriage and religious freedom, the RCC has a higher profile and more power – financial, legal, institutional – than any Protestant group. We all benefit from the cultural and legal power of the RCC in these areas. Second, your neighbours probably do not distinguish between Christian groups. A sleazy, morally corrupt RCC is like a sleazy, morally corrupt televangelist ministry: we are all marked with the same brush in the public eye and our task of evangelism becomes that much harder. Third, RC authors often offer more penetrating insights into secular culture than their evangelical equivalents. Comparing George Weigel to Rob Bell in such circumstances is akin to comparing Michelangelo to Thomas Kinkade.

Therefore, while I have very serious theological disagreements with Catholic authors, I would suggest that they by and large offer well-argued, well-written and insightful commentaries on the state of the world in a way that is rare in evangelical circles. One can learn a lot from watching a great mind wrestle with a problem, even when one deems the conclusion erroneous; there seems little to be gained from watching a mediocre mind playing ping-pong with the same.

Weigel’s latest is a case in point. Here he offers a program for the renewal of the Roman church. He is himself committed to the narrative of RC history which sees Vatican II as a consistent development of reforms implemented by Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century. It was thus not a sudden shift to a liberalized ecclesiastical and theological openness, and the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not the reactionary attempts to reverse the Council which figures such as Hans Kung have claimed. This version of events is plausible: Humanae Vitae was as much a piece of 60s Roman Catholicism as the Council; it did not emerge from nowhere and was not exactly progressive; and both Wotjyla and Ratzinger were participants in Vatican II. Hans Kung and the journalists at the National Catholic Reporter notwithstanding, the story seems to make sense.

Most of Weigel’s positive proposals are alien to the Protestant mind, focusing on moral reform of the church hierarchy, and liturgical and sacramental renewal. Nevertheless, there are parallels with the situation facing Protestants. As John Owen and other Reformed Orthodox theologians of the seventeenth century learned much from following the Jansenist-Jesuit controversy of their day, Protestants might well find the battle for the soul of Roman Catholicism instructive in ours.

Weigel is clear, for example, that the statement ‘the Church teaches’ is not, in and of itself, sufficient to clinch an argument in the contemporary world; such a statement can only have force within a matrix which focuses on the gospel (as Roman Catholicism understands it) and is manifested in a church with a strong pastoral focus. Bureaucracy and scandal have seriously wounded the RCC’s credibility, as has a thorough lack of theological discipline within the priesthood, the episcopate and various educational institutions. Above all, Weigel pleads for Roman Catholics to understand the times:

The challenge today is to recognize the distinctive character of that cultural hostility, which was born of an indifference to biblical religion that mutated in the nineteenth century into that claim that the God of the Bible is the enemy of human freedom, human maturity, and progress in the natural sciences. (page 4)

This sets the agenda for the discussion which follows and, indeed, the early chapters of cultural analysis are the best. It is a profound observation, rooted in the kind of analysis of the nineteenth century offered by Henri deLubac in his magisterial work, The Drama of Atheist Humanism. DeLubac’s work, though written about the nineteenth century and in the 1940s, seems as apposite today with reference to the New Atheists and the radical postmoderns as anything I have read specifically on these more recent phenomena. To abolish God is to abolish man. DeLubac saw that clearly in the writings of Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Marx; and the latest footsoldiers of unbelief are merely marching to the same tune. Weigel’s response is that Roman Catholicism sets man in context and allows him to realize his true freedom.

Of course, I am in fundamental disagreement with Weigel’s positive proposals on a large number of fronts. Yet he is addressing the same basic problem we face as Protestants: the abolition of human nature and the self-creation of the person, with all of the moral anarchy that implies. Weigel’s answer, simply summarized, is that the RC Church needs to be the RC Church, to have its agenda set not by the culture around but by the gospel as she understands it. I disagree with Weigel on what the gospel is; and I find his uncritical adulation of the previous two pontiffs to verge on naïve sentimentalism; but I also find his hearty disregard for the cool and the trendy and the superficially relevant, from the intellectual to the aesthetic, to be something with which I sympathise. Would that more Protestants were less concerned with the young and the cool and more willing to have, in the words of David Wells, the courage to be Protestant.

Weigel’s work is always worth reading. This book is no exception: its analysis of the contemporary cultural situation is compelling; and it offers a vision for the Roman Catholic Church which, if Weigel’s comments on television this morning are anything to go by, he considers the new Pope to be capable of delivering. That may not be good news for confessional Protestants – the Mass, Mary, the sacramental priesthood look set to remain; and Weigel is decidedly silent on the crass folk superstition that puts Padre Pio and Anthony of Padua ahead of Jesus as the favoured person to pray to (Italy being a long way from the United States – out of sight etc. etc.); but we can still learn from his analysis and his arguments even as we seek to do better and more biblically.

Carl R Trueman is Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. This article is reprinted from the Reformation 21 blog and is used with permission.

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