A new approach to modern Catholic history

George Weigel

Criticism comes with the territory when you write books, and the best for which any author can hope is intelligent criticism that engages your argument and leads to new insight all around. Alas, that’s too often the exception, especially among the more ideologically entrenched of Catholic intellectuals and reviewers. Thus I’ve been disappointed that, from both the port and starboard sides of the Barque of Peter, several reviewers have either missed the point of, or not engaged the argument about, modern Catholic history that I offered in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church” (Basic Books).

The book begins with an obvious fact: Benedict XVI was certain to be the last pope to have attended Vatican II. That fact led to an equally obvious conclusion: an era in Catholic history was coming to an end. Which conclusion, in turn, led to two obvious questions: When did that era begin, and how should it be described?

It seemed to me myopic to assume or argue that the period in question began with Vatican II. A more sophisticated form of this myopia opened the historical lens wider, finding in the Catholic biblical, liturgical, theological and social action movements of the mid-20th century the antecedents to the Council. But was that going far enough back to get the era into clear focus?

I thought not. For those reform movements themselves had antecedents in the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who abandoned the defensive strategy of Gregory XVI and Pius IX in the face of cultural and political modernity, and who sought to engage these “new things” (as Leo styled his most famous encyclical) in a critical, authentically Catholic way. Leo XIII, I proposed, was the man whose 25-year-long papacy marked the beginning of the era that was coming to an end with Benedict XVI.

And how should that era be described? I suggested that the past century and a quarter was the last, extended moment of Counter-Reformation Catholicism: the mode of being Catholic that came into being, largely through the Council of Trent, in response to the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation and the first stirrings of modern cultural, social, economic and political life. Now, I suggested, Counter-Reformation Catholicism—the way-of-being-Church in which every Catholic over 50 today grew up—was giving way to the Catholicism of the New Evangelization, or what I and others call “Evangelical Catholicism.”

I thought this way of framing modern Catholic history offered a more complete account of the Catholic drama from my grandparents’ day to my grandson’s that was typically on offer. It linked Leo XIII to Vatican II via the reformist movements Leo’s pontificate had set in motion. And it stretched Vatican II and its authentic interpretation into the pontificates of two men, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who as young participants at the Council had helped shape its call to the Church to re-imagine itself as a communion of disciples in mission.

When I explain this out on the hustings, people seem genuinely appreciative: dots get connected, and what seems a fragmented, even indecipherable history begins to display Henry James’s “figure in the carpet:” the narrative thread that ties together a very complex business—which modern Catholic history undoubtedly is. I don’t think this proposal is “idiosyncratic,” as one starboard-leaning reviewer put it; nor is it “odd,” as a brother on the portside had it. It’s not even original, for as I explain in the book, the idea emerged out of a decade of conversation with my friend, Professor Russell Hittinger, who has done important and groundbreaking work on Leo XIII.

My proposal may, however, challenge the comfort zones of those still stuck in Counter-Reformation Catholicism. For my further suggestion is that Evangelical Catholicism is not some 50-yard line between Catholic left and Catholic right, but a vision of Church far beyond those polarities. If that’s “idiosyncratic” or “odd,” then so were John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and so is Francis, the evangelical pope from the far end of the earth.

COMING UP: St. Isidore Online Curriculum expands, will be offered again for 2021-2022 school year

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The Archdiocese of Denver’s online Catholic curriculum, St. Isidore, has been a true blessing to many families with children in grades K-8 who wanted a strong Catholic curriculum this past year but didn’t feel comfortable with their students attending school in person because of the pandemic. This included families like the Buckmeisters and Janisses. 

“St. Isidore has been an incredible blessing for our family this past school year. Not only are the teachers and administrators knowledgeable and accessible but engaging and exceptional in fostering the love of the Catholic faith for our son. Moreover, the online curriculum at SICC was wonderful as it was adaptable for our son who needs to be challenged above his grade level in certain academic areas,” said Kristen Buckmeister, parent of a St. Isidore student. 

“Our girls have benefitted immensely from the SICC curriculum and instruction. They enjoyed the guided learning through creative and engaging subject presentations followed by assignments they worked on their own,” said parent Lisa Janisse. “They felt very connected to their teachers. The religion teacher asked for daily intentions and that made the class very personal. Our children were able to share their concerns and pray for the intentions of other classmates as well. The girls were greatly assisted through two or three live tutorial sessions per day. They would start with prayer and pick up right where the teachers left off. The tutors were very patient and facilitated the group dynamics, so everyone had an opportunity to speak up and learn.” 

This past year, the program was only offered to families like the Buckmeisters and Janisses who were already enrolled in one of our Catholic schools. The students were learning through St. Isidore, but also remained connected to their local school.  However, this year, because of the increasing interest in a strong Catholic online curriculum program, the program is expanding to any interested family, regardless of enrollment in one of our schools. They don’t even have to live in Colorado to participate.  

“Every family has such unique dynamics, and what we learned this year with our virtual program is that Catholic virtual education is a gift of assistance to parents desiring a Catholic virtual option. We’ve learned this year that we can indeed educate well in a virtual setting, and we want to offer that to anyone in our archdiocese, or outside of our archdiocese, who desires an excellent Catholic virtual option for their children,” says Abriana Chilelli, Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal.    

For those not familiar with St. Isidore and its strength as an online curriculum option, Kristen Lanier, assistant organizational leader at St. Isidore, has helped start online schools in public school districts and has been extremely impressed with what St. Isidore offers. 

“I have been blessed to help in the conception and implementation of several remote schooling models and St. Isidore is truly unique,” Lanier said. “St. Isidore’s approach to remote learning blends the very best strategies in virtual education and brick-and-mortar classrooms, all while honoring the gifts endowed to each student, family, and staff member. Students receive a program filled with both flexibility and rigor that provides access to teachers via catered, program-specific lessons, real-time small group guided instruction, and daily meaningful interaction with peers. Mission truly drives this work and it is a gift to watch what the Holy Spirit inspires in our team, students, and families.”

As long as parents still desire an online Catholic curriculum for their students, the Office of Catholic schools wants to help provide it.

“For a lot of parents, this past year has caused them to now see some real advantages of having their children at home learning virtually,” Chilelli concluded. “We’ve heard from lots of parents who want to continue with their children learning at home. We realized the archdiocese could help. We always want to support parents in the formation of their children as they grow in wisdom and friendship with the Lord.”

For more information, visit denvercatholicschools.com/st-isidore-apply today.

St. Isidore is available to:  

Any family enrolled in an Archdiocese of Denver participating Catholic school who may not want to send their children to in-school learning this upcoming school year due to the ongoing social distancing, masking requirements that will be in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as potential virus variants. This program is intended to be a support for local schools and enable those families to remain enrolled at their current school during the pandemic, but receive all curriculum and instruction digitally.  

Any family not enrolled in an Archdiocese of Denver Catholic school who wishes to have the support of the Archdiocese of Denver in educating their children virtually. 

Enrollment deadline is May 23, 2021 at 10 p.m. If you are interested in registering and or want to learn more, please email Sarah.Heaton@stisidoreonline.org