EXCERPT: Will Evangelical Catholics Save the Church?

A nun walks in front of St Peter's basilica at the Vatican ahead of the cardinals conclave on March 10, 2013. Roman Catholic
A nun walks in front of St Peter's basilica at the Vatican ahead of the cardinals conclave on March 10, 2013. Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world will assemble in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel from March 12, 2013 for a conclave to elect a new pope in an unprecedented transition after Benedict XVI's historic resignation. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is adapted exclusively for the Huffington Post from the author's new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.

As the Catholic Church marked the 50th opening of the Second Vatican Council, demands for the reform of the Church were insistent, widespread, and often cacophonous. But the call for "reform" was usually the end of any agreement among the petitioners.

In the first decades of the 21st century, "progressive" Catholics have their reform agenda; so do "traditionalist" Catholics. Hans Küng, who once described Vatican II's task as "reform and reunion," is quite certain that he knows what true "reform" is; so are the publishers of The Wanderer and the editors of The Tablet, although none of them can agree on the specifics of this reform. The New York Times has its idea of what Catholic reform would look like; so does the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano; so do hundreds of thousands of bloggers and Internet commentators throughout the world. There the resemblance stops. The call for reform is virtually universal, while the terms of reform are comprehensively disputed.

Still, there may be one other point of concord. Among all the contending parties, there is general agreement that 1962-1965-- the years of the Second Vatican Council -- were the years in which the problems and promise of 21st-century Catholicism took shape. More sophisticated observers may drive the analysis back a few decades, to the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the mid-20th century, from which they rightly trace many of the themes that shaped the Council's deliberations: a new biblical consciousness; a heightened awareness of the importance for theology of history and different philosophical perspectives; the renewal of the Church's worship; a new engagement with public life.

But across the spectrum of opinion, ecclesiastical or secular, it is usually agreed that Vatican II was where 21st-century Catholicism began, for good or for ill. This consensus-within-the-cacophony tends to lose sight of the deeper currents of Church and world cultural history, however. It is as if the debates over Catholic identity that occupied the Council years and the decades that followed simply began ex nihilo -- or began in the forms into which the debate quickly congealed.

The truth of the matter is that the deep reform of the Catholic Church has been under way for more than 125 years. It began with Pope Leo XIII and continued throughout the various Catholic reform movements -- biblical, liturgical, social action -- of the mid-20th century. It reached a high water mark of ecclesiastical drama at the Second Vatican Council. And this reform has been brought into sharper focus by the pontificates of two men of genius, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Many of Catholicism's 21st-century struggles -- from the sexual abuse crisis, to the radical secularization of Europe, to the contest with evangelical, Pentecostalist, and fundamentalist Protestantism for the Christian future of Latin America, to the challenge of finding an appropriate "inculturation" of Catholic faith in Africa and Asia -- reflect the churning of these deeper currents of reform, the resistance they have encountered, and the slow, difficult emergence of a new way of being Catholic: a new "form" of Catholicism.

This new form is in essential continuity with Catholicism's origins and doctrinal development, for otherwise it would not be a genuinely Catholic "form" of being the Church. But it is also something new. Perhaps better, it is the recovery and redeployment, in 21st-century guise, of something quite old, something that goes back to the first centuries of the Christian era. I call it, Evangelical Catholicism.

It is important to specify what I do not mean by Evangelical Catholicism: Evangelical Catholicism is not a way of being Catholic that adapts certain catechetical practices and modes of worship from evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostalist Protestantism. Evangelical Catholicism is not the Catholicism of the future as imagined by either "progressive" Catholics or "traditionalist" Catholics, although Evangelical Catholicism does take from the former the imperative of development and from the latter the imperative of a development -- a reform --that follows the essential form of the Church given to it by Christ. Evangelical Catholicism is not a Catholicism tailored to what appears to be, by contrast to western Europe, the comparatively stronger condition of the Catholic Church in the United States. Evangelical Catholicism is not simply a response to the sexual abuse crisis that has dominated the world media's coverage of the Catholic Church since 2002.

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. Indeed, its evolution is closely linked to the emergence of the modern papacy, even as its further development will place demands on a reformed Office of Peter in the Church.
If this is what Evangelical Catholicism is not, then just what is it?

Evangelical Catholicism is the Catholicism that is being born, often with great difficulty, through the work of the Holy Spirit in prompting deep Catholic reform -- a reform that meets the challenges posed to Christian orthodoxy and Christian life by the riptides of change that have reshaped world culture since the 19th century.

The Catholic Church believes that it was constituted -- that it was given a distinctive form -- by the will of Christ himself. Thus all true Catholic reform is by reference to that divinely given constitution of the Church, a "constitution" in the British, rather than in the American, sense of the term. Over two millennia of history, authentic, genuine Catholic reform has meant reaching back into that constitution and retrieving aspects of the Christ-given form of the Church. That is what happened in the so- called Dark Ages, with the development of western monasticism. That is what happened in the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century (which also had an enormous impact on the evolution of political life in the West). That is what happened when the 16th-century Council of Trent, having taken a hard look at the corruptions that had been one cause of the Reformation, created a form of Catholicism -- Counter-Reformation Catholicism -- that endured for centuries. And that is what the Second Vatican Council intended to do, and in some measure achieved.

The challenge today is not only that Catholicism is confronted by hostile cultural forces contending that the Church and its teaching ill serve men and women living in a free, just, and humane society. That is an old story. And, to be candid, such New Atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens rather pale in comparison to Nero and Diocletian, Voltaire and Robespierre and Bismarck, Lenin and Mao Zedong.

The challenge today is to recognize the distinctive character of that cultural hostility, which was born of an indifference to biblical religion that mutated in the 19th century into the claim that the God of the Bible is the enemy of human freedom, human maturity and progress in the natural sciences. In the 21st century, this hostility may lead to new forms of overt persecution directed at believers for the simple reason that they are believers. In the first two decades of the new millennium, however, it has been directed primarily to the marginalization of Catholicism and its reduction to a private lifestyle choice of no public consequence. In any case, the challenge of the post-conciliar Church is to preach the Gospel in a new, and perhaps unprecedented, cultural situation.

The Western world, the historic homeland of Christianity, has become "disenchanted," in sociologist Max Weber's famous term. The windows and skylights of the human experience seem to have been nailed shut and painted over. A modernity (and postmodernity) that owes far more to the Christian civilization of the West than many heirs of the continental Enlightenment are prepared to concede has produced an often-toxic public culture that is increasingly Christophobic, to adopt a term used by an Orthodox Jew and distinguished international legal scholar, Joseph H. H. Weiler.

All of this poses new challenges to Catholicism. These challenges can only be met by the deep reforms of Evangelical Catholicism: reforms that will reclaim the essential, Christ-given form of the Church while equipping its people and their ordained leaders with the tools to convert a disenchanted and not infrequently hostile world.

Grasped in its fullness, Evangelical Catholicism invites Catholics (and indeed all who are interested in the Catholic Church) to move beyond the left/right surface arguments of past decades, which were largely about ecclesiastical power, and into a deeper reflection on the missionary heart of the Church -- and to consider how that heart might be given expression in the 21st century and the third millennium. Evangelical Catholicism is about the future. Grasping its essence, however, means learning a new way of looking at the recent Catholic past.