Acts and us

George Weigel

The Church’s custom of reading virtually all of the Acts of the Apostles at daily Mass during the Easter season struck me as particularly apt this year, and for three reasons.

First, Acts reminds us that, with the exception of several great public set-pieces (like the first Pentecost), evangelization for the first missionary disciples was a retail affair. The deacon Philip converts the Ethiopian eunuch man-to-man in Acts 8. Peter converts the centurion Cornelius, his family and friends, and thereby begins the mission to the Gentiles, in Acts 10. Paul evangelizes Lydia on the riverside outside Philippi in Acts 16, and builds his local churches by the retail catechesis of families and small groups throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This should strike a chord. We live at a time when the surrounding culture no longer supports the transmission of the faith. To the contrary, as the contemporary experiences of Ireland, Quebec, and Belgium graphically demonstrate, the prevailing cultural climate can asphyxiate once-robust Catholic instincts – especially when Catholic leadership is weak, defensive, unenthusiastic about the Gospel, and seemingly embarrassed by Catholicism’s countercultural claims. In these post-Christian circumstances, the New Evangelization is going to have to unfold one convert at a time.

And therein lies another parallel to Acts. When those conversions take place, they’ll likely do so in the most quotidian circumstances: in random encounters with open hearts in homes, recreational settings, and other everyday venues. U.S. Catholics older than 50 once thought of “mission territory” as places that got glossy full-color photo spreads in National Geographic. Acts alerts us to our true situation: mission territory is all around us – at our kitchen table, in our offices, in our lives as consumers and citizens.

Then there’s the leitmotif of Acts so ably analyzed by Duke University’s C. Kavin Rowe: the original Christian proclamation made for a “world [turned] upside down,” demystifying the powers of the age by announcing that the real lord of history was at work in history, right now, through the death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand of an itinerant Jewish teacher whom the world thought a degraded failure.

The paradox, of course, is that by turning the world upside down, the Gospel helps us see the world aright. How? Because the Gospel lets us see, without the myopia of selfishness or the astigmatism of pride, that salvation history, by working inside history, gives history its true meaning and direction. Acts reminds us that salvation history and what we call “world history” don’t run on parallel tracks. Salvation history – the story of Israel and the story of the Church – is the inner dynamic or core of world history, whether world history recognizes that or not.

Christianity is inherently countercultural because Christians are always called to convert the culture. The great vignette of Paul on the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 reminds us of one evangelical strategy for cultural conversion: appeal to a culture’s noblest instincts and try to demonstrate a deeper foundation for those aspirations – the foundation that comes from friendship with Jesus Christ. It’s not the only such strategy (and it didn’t work out all that well for Paul). But it was one of John Paul II’s favorite biblical metaphors for the Church in the 21st century, and it’s very much worth pondering in contemporary America.

And then there’s the fact that at the end of Acts – the only work of Church history written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – there’s a shipwreck, and what seems catastrophe becomes another opportunity to announce the Gospel and demonstrate a more humane way of life to frightened souls. That, too, should ring a few bells.

There is certainly some shipwreck in the Church today. I’ve already mentioned Belgium, Ireland, and Quebec; I could have mentioned Chile; and I’ve frequently alluded in this column to the wreckage of Catholicism in the German-speaking wastelands of Catholic Lite. Over two millennia, shipwreck has always been a call to a deeper fidelity and a more courageous evangelization. So in 2018, perhaps Acts is calling those with ears to hear to get beyond the food fights of the Catholic blogosphere and engage in some retail evangelization — a challenge, to be sure, but also the bracing vocation into which each of us was baptized.

COMING UP: Homelands and social doctrines

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With hundreds of bishops coming to the Vatican in October 2001 for a Synod, I decided to spend that month in Rome conducting interviews for what would eventually become the sequel to Witness to Hope and the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning. During my conversations, I found a striking similarity among bishops from Latin America, each of whom I asked to name the greatest challenge his local Church faced in implementing Catholic social doctrine in the 21st century.  Without exception as to country, and no matter where the bishop in question fell on the spectrum of Catholic opinion, each of them gave the same, one-word answer: “Corruption.”

That got my attention, because fostering cultures of honesty and trust would seem to be right in the Catholic Church’s wheelhouse, and the Church had been present in Latin America for some 500 years at that point. Yet one by one, the bishops told me that personal corruption, leading to systemic and culturally reinforced economic and political corruption, was the greatest challenge they faced in the new century. It was an answer that helped explain some otherwise puzzling phenomena: like Argentina’s collapse from being one of the world’s 10 wealthiest countries in 1900 to being a perennial political and economic basket case; like Brazil’s inability to realize its potential as a great economic power. There was serious Catholic failure here, and the bishops with whom I spoke were honest enough to admit it.

I remembered those conversations when reading a recent essay in America magazine by San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, “Pope Francis brings a new lens to poverty, peace, and the planet.” In that essay, the bishop had this to say about comparative pontificates:

“This new lens reflects in a fundamental way the experience of the Church in Latin America. Critics of Pope Francis point to this as a limitation, a bias that prevents the pope from seeing the central issues of economic justice, war and peace and the environment in the context of the universal Church. But St. John Paul II certainly enriched key aspects of Catholic social teaching from a perspective profoundly rooted in the experience of the Eastern European Church under communism. Contemporary critics of Pope Francis voiced no objections to that regional and historical perspective.”

I’ve no idea who these “critics” are, but perhaps a few refreshers on John Paul II’s social doctrine would help further the discussion.

First, Karol Wojtyla was steeped in the classic social doctrine tradition of Leo XIII and Pius XI, which he taught at the Silesian seminary in Cracow in the 1950s and which provided the intellectual scaffolding for his own social magisterium when he became pope.

Second, it’s true that John Paul II’s most important contribution to the 21st -century discussion of the free and virtuous society — his insistence on a vibrant public moral culture as the key to living freedom nobly and well, in both political and economic life — reflected the experience of a Poland that remained alive through its culture when its independent statehood was eliminated between 1795 and 1918. But it’s also true that this “culture-first” theme was thoroughly baked into the classic social doctrine, beginning with Leo XIII.

Third, John Paul II’s recognition of the dynamics of post-Cold War economies was not drawn from his Polish experience — the man never had a checkbook and lived largely “outside” the economy — but from intense conversations with western scholars who knew how post-industrial economies work (and don’t), and from whom he was both smart enough and humble enough to learn.

And finally, John Paul II’s social doctrine took failure seriously and tried to learn from it: specifically, the failure of the Weimar Republic in interwar Germany, where an ably-designed political and economic system eventually produced a totalitarian regime, because its moral and cultural foundations were too shaky to support the institutions of freedom when the crunch of the Great Depression came.

So it seems to me that, with John Paul II, a distinctive personal experience refined and extended the classic social doctrine tradition. John Paul was not imposing an idiosyncratic view on the world Church — which is in fact something no pope should do, because the Bishop of Rome is the custodian of a universal tradition, not an intellectual free agent.