In my recent reflections on George Weigel’s book entitled Evangelical Catholicism, we find a challenge issued to all Catholics. This challenge can only be accepted by a Catholic who is willing to reignite the tongue of fire he or she received in Confirmation. As we have seen, as the counter-reformation “cultural” Catholicism entered the 20th century, it became a lukewarm, relativistic form of Catholicism that collapsed against the dominance of the secular culture. The long-term effect was that Catholics became very comfortable in this model, most especially because it appealed little to personal conversion, or public conviction to Christ. As Weigel himself notes, “The cultural Catholicism of the past was ‘comfortable’ because it fit neatly within the ambient public culture, causing little chafing between one’s life ‘in the Church’ and one’s life ‘in the world.’”
The lack of Faith the Church must deal with today grew because, simply put, Catholics were ill prepared to deal with the onslaught that would come through modernization and the cultural upheaval that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. In this regard, the cultural Catholicism that had thrived in the past was built in response to a particular cultural milieu and, in conjunction with certain errant assumptions within the Church, when the surrounding culture radically changed, the culture ended up converting Catholics, rather than Catholics converting the culture. The result has been, at best, a form of lukewarm Catholicism that has languished for decades, a form of Catholicism that has been slowly extinguishing the fire of the Holy Spirit.
In attempts to counteract this trend, there have been reactions by certain factions within the Church that were diametrically opposite, yet in many ways equally ineffective at resolving the problem. These groups took both a liberal progressive form of Catholicism and ultra traditionalist form of Catholicism. With regard to these reactions, Weigel states, “Both of these options turn out, on closer examination, to be variants of the same Counter-Reformation, rule-based, catechetical-devotional Catholicism: the traditionalist camp wants to tighten up and ratchet down the rules, the catechism answers, and the devotions, while the progressives want to loosen the bolts in the name of openness or compassion.” In the end, neither reactionary model has been capable of adequately addressing the situation in the Church today.
As has been pointed out many times, survey after survey indicates that Catholic membership continues to decline and, according to Weigel, it is because many members of the Church have lost their evangelical and pentecostal fire. In either of the reactionary models Weigel presents, he notes that the essence of the problem is ignored when developing a solution. Often, in not addressing the underlying root cause of a problem, the proposed solutions tend to be a more methodological remedy, that is, a reliance on a formula to correct the problem. The implementation of any new solutions based solely on a method to be followed will only yield a further descent into lukewarm, and ultimately irrelevant, Catholicism. For this reason, if there is to be any hope in the 21st Century, he states, “lukewarm Catholicism has no future: submitting to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit is no longer optional.” In other words, for Catholicism to have a future, the fire of the Holy Spirit must once again become the animating principle for all Catholics.
The problem that remains, however, is many Catholics have become comfortable with the cultural Catholicism of their youth, and often resist any change that requires effort. Psychologists have found that most human beings that engage in destructive behavior continue to do so because the unknown and efforts to change frighten them more than the behavior. When challenged to change, a person typically reverts to a “comfort zone” and remains there. In this regard, Weigel admits, “Evangelical Catholicism is in many respects far more demanding than Counter-Reformational, catechetical-devotional Catholicism.” The challenge for today is to get Catholics to purge the “cultural” accretions, and ultimately move out of their comfort zone. In other words, Weigel is challenging Catholics to change at the fundamental and cultural level, a change that is not merely superficial as would happen when offering a method. It is in this light that we see the challenge, as it has been in every generation, that Catholics need to once again become countercultural.
This reflection will be concluded next week.