Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Lutheran Response to Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Lutheran Response to Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism

Article excerpt

Given that a significant band in the spectrum of Lutheran theology has for some time identified itself as "Evangelical Catholic," the first surprise for a reader of that stripe is that George Weigel here claims that epithet for a new paradigm of Roman Catholicism, to replace the Tridentine, Counter-Reformation model. To illustrate the point, the distinguished Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten, in identifying "Lutheran Catholicism" as a "type of Lutheran conviction and theology," recently stated that

   evangelical catholics tend to draw from the traditions they share
   with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They maintain that
   the traditions of the first millennium of Christianity are not the
   exclusive capital of Roman Catholic and the Orthodox. Nathan
   Soderblom (1866-1931), archbishop of Sweden, stated that there are
   three main blocs of world Christianity--Greek Catholic, Roman
   Catholic, and Evangelical Catholic. (1)

This is not to start off with a squabble over ownership of Weigel's titular phrase; it is simply to point out that there are other understandings of this phrase, while acknowledging that Weigel does mention "degrees of communion with the Church that are not identical with the canonical boundaries of the Church" (p. 67), meaning, of course, the Roman Catholic Church. He also says that "evangelical Catholics who adhere to the Gospel ... are in fuller communion with evangelical Protestants who affirm classic Christian orthodoxy than they are with prominent Catholic theologians" who teach heresy (p. 38). It is not clear, at least in this book, what practical significance such "degrees of communion" might entail for the "separated brethren."

This point having been made, let it be said at once that there is much in Weigel's vision of "deep reform in the twenty-first-century Church" (his sub-title) to which an evangelical Catholic of Lutheran stripe can without hesitation sing the Amen. But, before going into some detail with regard to such agreement, including certain limitations thereof, let us consider the principal thesis of Weigel's book. He asserts, "The deep reform of the Catholic Church has in fact been underway for more than one and a quarter centuries" (p. 2). Tracing an arc of reform from Pope Leo XIII to the Second Vatican Council, Weigel argues that "[t]he Counter- Reformation Church, which sought to preserve Catholicism through simple, straightforward catechetical instruction and devotional piety" (p. 15), had by the late nineteenth century proved inadequate to the rising tide of secular modernism dominating the everyday life of the faithful. In that context, Leo inaugurated "a new Catholic engagement" (p. 13) with modernity, a fresh engagement with its "new things," and so began a process that would mature at Vatican II. Weigel is well aware of the wave of heresy and apostasy that nearly inundated the Church in the wake of that Council, in the name of a "spirit" that many attributed to it, above and beyond the actual conciliar documents, ambiguous though some of these may have been. He describes particular areas in need of reform with painfully candid detail, as we now proceed to consider.

Weigel outlines the disastrous effect of modern biblical scholarship upon the authority of the Church's scripture in the minds of believers: "a profound distrust of the Bible: this didn't happen; that's just a metaphor; this is a myth" (p. 75). The secular interpretations of sacred scripture also engender a failure in preaching, as the deconstructive fragmentation of biblical texts renders the testimony of God's Word unintelligible to the would-be preacher, as well as to those who hear the preacher. Therefore, says Weigel,

   biblical literacy and biblical spirituality necessarily [involve] a
   measure of historical-critical deprogramming, for both Church and
   world, having mistakenly assumed that a dissecting approach to the
   Bible is the only intellectually mature approach, have fostered a
   suspicion of Scripture that must be addressed before the encounter
   with the Word made flesh can take place through the Word of God in
   written form. … 
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