Left Without Words: The Problem of “Evangelical” Catholicism

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of words” (Socrates). If you define a word in a certain way you make claims about reality. Our postmodern culture has stirred us to come to terms with the fact that words do not have stable meanings but exist in a flux that drives them in one way or another depending on the interests of their users. Such appears to be happening to the word “Evangelical”.


A Short History of the Word Evangelical

There was a time when the word “Evangelical” meant something like this: in biblical terms, it was defined around the “evangel” (i.e. the Gospel) as expressed in Scripture. Historically it has referred to the 16th century Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical Revivals of subsequent centuries. Doctrinally, it has pointed to Christian orthodoxy, focusing on the formal principle of Biblical authority (Sola Scriptura) and the material principle of justification by faith alone (Sola gratia and Sola Fide). Experientially, it has majored on the need of personal conversion resulting in a transformed life. Religiously, it has distinguished itself from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Liberalism. From John Wycliffe (doctor evangelicus) to Carl Henry, from Martin Luther to John Stott, from Pietism to the Lausanne Movement, there has been a loosely defined, yet shared meaning of the word which was also accepted by non-Evangelicals. It is true that Evangelicals have always discussed the minutiae of what Evangelical really means, of its ins and outs. There are entire bookshelves that are dedicated to these important, at time fierce, debates. Yet the word has retained a rather stable meaning that has fostered common identity and a sense of belonging, well describing a “Christian family” throughout the centuries and in our global world.

We are now witnessing a new attempt to get a handle on the word “Evangelical” in order to give it a broader and different meaning.

Evangelical Catholicism and the Current Genetic Modification

The recent book by George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism (New York: Basic Books, 2013) attempts to re-engineer the word by overlooking its Biblical focus, by severing its historical roots and replacing them with other roots, by changing its doctrinal outlook, by staffing its experiential ethos differently, and by renegotiating its religious content. In other words, this is a genetic modification of a word.

The basic thesis of the book is that Evangelical Catholicism (EC) is a qualifier of present-day Roman Catholicism as it stemmed from the magisterium of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), was expounded by Vatican II (1962-1965), found its champion in John Paul II (1978-2005), and was again reinforced by Benedict XVI (2005-2013). It is a new account of the word Evangelical. Whereas previous scholarship referred to this time in Catholic history as marked by “ressourcement” (i.e. re-appropriation of sources: Scripture and Tradition) and “aggiornamento” (i.e. update of approach, not of doctrine), Weigel calls it “Evangelical” Catholicism.

According to Weigel, Evangelical is a qualifying adjective, not a noun. The noun which carries “thick” meaning is Catholicism. Curiously, what used to be termed as “Roman Catholicism” is now shortened to “Catholicism” alone. All the Roman elements of Roman Catholicism are nonetheless part of EC: sacraments, Mariology, hierarchy, traditions, papacy, devotions, etc. To this “Catholicism” Weigel adds the adjective “Evangelical,” which is essentially the manner in which one seeks to express his faith. EC is a full orbed Roman Catholicism practiced with strong impetus and missionary zeal. Catholicism is the doctrinal and institutional hardware, while “Evangelical” is the sociological and psychological software. While doctrine deeply remains Roman Catholic, the spiritual mood is called Evangelical.

The Tip of the Iceberg

The major genetic modification surrounding the word “Evangelical” is just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger plan. The whole book mirrors the on-going attempt to change the meaning of words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary. “Conversion”, “evangelization”, and “mission” are some examples.

Take conversion for example. It used to be a catchword for Evangelical witness. Evangelicals used it in pointing out the time when they were “not” converted and the time when they “got” converted by trusting in Christ. According to EC, “conversion” is an on-going process instead of a once-and-for-all experience. We stand in permanent need of being converted and that fits the “sacramental” Roman Catholic view of the Christian life whereby we depend on the sacraments of the Church from beginning to end. EC deconstructs the Evangelical meaning of the word conversion and reconstructs it by saying that it is a life-long process that fully occurs in the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church. We use the same word but mean different things.

Evangelicals may think that EC is Evangelical in the historical and theological sense, but it is not. It is Roman Catholicism that takes the sociological and psychological “Evangelical” zeal and embodies it into the traditional Roman Catholic faith. EC is a brain transplant of the word “Evangelical” and is aimed at radically re-programming it. It implies that the old use could not stand on its own and that it makes sense only if it is attached to Roman Catholicism. Of course, we operate in a free-market world of words in which some groups seek to modify the meaning of terms. This is inevitable; however, such revision must be noted and carefully measured.

We started with Socrates and we end with Virgil. In the Aeneid, we are told how the Greeks captured the city of Troy after a long but fruitless siege. The story of the Trojan horse tells us how an apparent victory turned out to be a devastating defeat. EC may appear to be an Evangelically friendly project and we may want to embrace it. In actual fact, it is an intellectually courageous attempt to re-define the meaning of “Evangelical,” maintaining the same spelling but infusing it with new, Roman Catholic meaning. Such an infusion, I’m afraid, fails to serve the Evangelical movement.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 1st April 2013

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