- - Friday, October 4, 2019

I am like most American moms today. I spend more time in the minivan — driving kids to sports and other activities, running to the grocery store to get yet another gallon of milk — than I do in bed. One thing, though, makes me part of a far smaller crowd: My faith. I am Catholic. An “all in” Catholic. I go to Mass and pray the Rosary daily.

I put myself in “the box” — the confessional — on a weekly basis. I am completely convinced of the saving grace found in the Eucharist, and I want my family and friends — all those  close to me — as well as the people I meet and those I have yet to meet to know the beauty of the Catholic Church and embrace the truths she teaches. This has become much harder over the last year. 

The clergy abuse crisis, not to mention lingering questions about the role current church leaders played in enabling predator priests, remains the “elephant in the room.” How on Earth would anyone want to be part of something so impressively dysfunctional? 

It’s a good thing, then, that God plays a long game. It’s known as “salvation history.” All people should be well-versed in it. George Weigel’s latest book, “The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself & Challenged the Modern World to Reform,” should help. At this particularly wrought moment, his important new work taught me an important history lesson that is helping me continue my own apostolic mission.

Mr. Weigel, one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals and best known for his biography of Pope St. John Paul II, describes his latest book as a “revisionist historiography.” He rejects the received wisdom that “modernity was always the drama’s protagonist and the Church was always the reactive (even reactionary) force” and refocuses readers. 



The arc of Mr. Weigel’s historical drama instead involves “a surprising renewal of Catholic identity and mission, one that reaches back two thousand years to the Church’s founding generation of believers and thereby hears a call not to resist or embrace modernity, but to convert it.” 

True, Mr. Weigel acknowledges, the Catholic Church initially treated the “modern world” like a parent treats a precocious toddler. But that started to change sometime in the late 1800s during the papacy of Pope Leo XIII. The “hurling of anathemas” ended with what Mr. Weigel dubs the “Leonine Revolution.” 

This was “an important step towards a serious Catholic engagement with intellectual modernity.” It ultimately set the stage for Pope John XXIII to open the ecumenical Vatican Council II “calling the Church to convert modernity rather than deplore it.” 

Post-conciliar Catholicism — what most people consider “Modern Catholic History” — had two key protagonists: St. John Paul the Great and his successor, Benedict XVI. Both, says Mr. Weigel, were keenly aware that “converting the modern world necessarily involved a critique of certain aspects of late modernity — a critique, this time, from within.”

At the same time, the church’s missionary spirit was set on fire in St. John Paul’s “New Evangelization.” The church “proposes; she imposes nothing,” wrote John Paul. According to Mr. Weigel, what it has proposed — what it has evangelized — starting with John Paul II’s pontificate is “the conviction that it has been given the truth about humanity and its destiny in Jesus Christ and is solemnly obliged to propose that truth to everyone.”  

Given the countless challenges of today — humanitarian crises culminating at the border, the discovery of the remains of thousands of little ones in the garage of a recently-deceased abortionist, children taught in schools to question and rebel against their own biological sex, trampling of conscience rights — where does the Catholic Church and its evangelizing mission stand?

Has it lost all moral authority because of the recent scandals? Mr. Weigel argues that these challenges can’t be addressed, and the scandals can’t be redressed, by returning to the age of the papal states nor by abandoning all established teaching. 

So what is the solution? For Mr. Weigel, it is simply this: “Ongoing purification and deep Catholic reform.” More specifically, his path forward for Catholicism is “the path of missionary discipleship and public witness to the truths that make it possible to live freedom nobly.” 

St. Teresa of Avila had it right when she said that “God writes straight with crooked lines.” George Weigel’s “The Irony of Modern Catholic History” traces those crooked lines in modern church history and left me more convinced than ever that, wounded as the Catholic Church may be today, it’s still a place — a home, really — where we “moderns” can be saved. 

• Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal adviser for The Catholic Association Foundation.

• • •

THE IRONY OF MODERN CATHOLIC HISTORY; HOW THE CHURCH REDISCOVERED ITSELF AND CHALLENGED THE MODERN WORLD TO REFORM

By George Weigel

Basic Books, $30, 336 pages

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