There is a great reform afoot in the Catholic Church! Or so says George Weigel, a prolific Catholic scholar and commentator. In Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books), Weigel argues the Catholic Church, since the 19th century, has been reorienting herself ever so slowly from "Counter-Reformation Catholicism" toward a confident, outward-looking, gospel-proclaiming, mission-driven faith. Which is to say, toward something distinctly evangelical.
As someone who joined the Catholic Church during his senior year at Wheaton College after being raised in an evangelical Protestant home, my first thought about Weigel's title was that it was potentially confusing, particularly for those who use the word "evangelical" primarily to designate a particular movement among Protestant Christians originating in the First and Second Great Awakenings in England and the U.S. So right from the outset, let's specify what Weigel does not mean. "Evangelical Catholicism," he writes,
is not a way of being Catholic that adapts certain catechetical practices and modes of worship from evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Protestantism. Evangelical Catholicism is not the Catholicism of the future as imagined by either "progressive" Catholics or "traditionalist" Catholics... Evangelical Catholicism is not a movement within Catholicism, or a Catholic sect, or a new kind of Catholic elite. Evangelical Catholicism is not a substitute for Roman Catholicism.
The 16th-century Protestant Reformers diagnosed the problems of the medieval Catholic Church as theological, as opposed to being merely moral. But Catholic reformers across the centuries (St. Benedict of Nursia, St, Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola, etc) have always believed true Catholic reform comes from a rededication to the teachings of the Church and a reinvigoration of authentic Catholic practice. Thus, Evangelical Catholics are not Catholics who take true Catholicism less seriously, but more seriously.
The Spirit's Preparation
Weigel frequently defines Evangelical Catholicism in contrast to some negative tendencies of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Nonetheless, he insists the Counter-Reformation on the whole wasn't bad. It was appropriate for its time and was actually highly successful at not only preserving the Catholic faith during times of great crisis, but also in fulfilling the church's primary mission of proclaiming the gospel (with the successful evangelization of the Americas as an example. In any case, the cultural, theological, and political situation in which the church finds herself has changed dramatically, and the old ways are no longer sufficient.
But the Holy Spirit has been active, Weigel says, in preparing the church for a new period of her history. Changing demographics, for instance, help to explain the transition toward Evangelical Catholicism. Most of the places in which the church has been growing and thriving of late don't have the historical baggage of European Catholicism: The churches in Africa and Asia weren't around for the papal crowning of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution. Instead, they have been on the front lines of bringing the gospel to cultures that were not a part of Christendom—and have seen many of their brothers and sisters receive the crown of martyrdom in the process.