At the same time that this tremendous energy was flooding the Church, the world around the Church—or at least the European and American worlds—were falling into a post-Christian culture that would present the Church with an incredible challenge but one which we could meet strengthened by these resources of revived engagement with the Word of God and Sacramental Life. The problems that prompted Leo to write Rerum Novarum—the sordid view of the Robber Baron Capitalists that the human person is no more than a tool to be used to make money—threated industrial societies with the grossest dehumanization. Nihilism, the cynical philosophical system that swept away any idea of a moral compass by which the industrialists, the wealthy classes, and the State should be governed in their relationship with the masses, devoured whatever soul remained in Western society after the rise of secularism consequent to the “Enlightenment” and the Revolution it spawned. The emergence of Leninism/Stalinism in Russia and its devaluation of the human individual in favor of the State as well as the rise of National Socialism with its dehumanization of the individual and its repugnant racial ideology were the results of this collapse of humanistic thought.
In the face of this implosion of civilization, Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular had the resources to provide an alternative view in which the human person retained his or her worth as a being and not dependent on the usefulness of the individual to society or to the state. Catholic philosophers such as Paul Claudel, Etienne Gilson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Gabriel Marcel presented philosophies in which the human person, far from being a tool of the State or having no intrinsic value, is the raison d’etre of being, the very center of existence for whose sake and good interest society exists.
The philosophic debate is not over. In the post-World War II period, secularism has espoused and advanced a philosophy in which there is no concept of the common good but in which ethics are guided by self-interest of the individual. The impact of Ayn Rand, the doyenne of this school of radical self-interest, has transformed American society (and not, to my mind, for the better.) American society today would seem to recognize no good that trumps the self-interest of the individual. We are left with a “trickle-down economics” that sees the gap between a rich minority and an ever-poorer and growing majority increasing by the year. In 2009, the average salary of a CEO was 263 times that of the average American worker, a situation every bit as evil as that against which Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum. Americans are obsessed with alleged personal rights whether it is the right to possess firearms or the right to have an abortion. We find our chief form of entertainment in the vicarious disposal of human life through media ranging from movies through television to video games for youth and consider this to be our “right.” We perceive pornography—whether sexual or violence—to be a “victimless crime.” The family is in shreds because “I don’t want to be married anymore” is sufficient cause—again the triumph of the selfish individual—to overturn commitments of marriage and parenthood. Both “the left” and “the right” have bought into this heresy of “it’s all about me and my happiness.”
The antidote to this moral chaos is Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism. It is a revived commitment to a scriptural spirituality in which, as one medieval spiritual text explains: Let the Sword of the Spirit, that is the Word of God, dwell in your minds and in your hearts that all that you do may be done in the Word of the Lord. What has been the genius of evangelical voices throughout the history of Christianity has been this call to “hear the Word of God and put it into practice.” (cf Luke 11:28).
The error that I see Weigel making is not in his vision of Evangelical Christianity but in his understanding of how it is to be presented. He sees it as a bastion against the philosophical/moral chaos of post-modern society. He wants Christians to use their clout to contain and suppress this modern heresy of an “ethics” of self-interest. He falls into the same error our bishops have fallen into these past thirty some years since Roe vs. Wade: change laws and everything will be alright. But if Weigel knew the scriptures himself he would know that the mission God gave to the prophets and Jesus gave to his disciples is to change hearts. It is a far more challenging mission to change hearts than to change laws, but it is the only path that will bring success. I am all in favor of Evangelical Catholicism but it must be, well, evangelical—you know—evangelizing.
I remember thirty years ago I was part of a committee a young priest was trying for form in our parish. It was an evangelism committee—an attempt to evangelize our neighborhood in which many had fallen away from the faith and even more had never had it. At the end of the organizational meeting a wise old nun (yes, an LCWR nun) who had served as novice mistress in her community observed: “ok, fine, but who will evangelize us so that we can go and evangelize the neighborhood?” Yes, who will evangelize us? I think Weigel makes an important contribution to this task but he needs to go back and re-read those scriptures.