Book Review: We must convert the 21st century

We must convert the 21st century
The Ironies of Modern Catholic History by George Weigel, Basic Books, 122pp, £18.99p
reviewed by Joanna Bogle
Well-researched and readable, George Weigel’s analysis of the Church from the mid-19th century to the present day is an important contribution to the Church’s self-understanding as we move into the third decade of the 21st century.
An analysis of the French Revolution and its aftermath introduces the reader to the era of Gregory XVI and of Lamennais, and then on to Ultramontanism and Pius IX. At issue is the relationship of the Church to a changing world.
Weigel takes an even-handed approach to contentious issues, noting, for example, that Pius IX’s famed Syllabus of Errors “does not quite tally with its frequent caricature as a reactionary, even silly, catalogue of alleged horrors”, even while showing the problems raised by the commitment to temporal power in the Papal States.
But Weigel’s laurels go to Leo XIII who had the courage and vision to write of “new things” in his great encyclical of that name. Weigel notes the figures who shaped the thinking that led to a creative engagement with modernity: Mohler, Rosmini, von Kettler and of course most notably Newman.
The power of truth
This is an energising, even uplifting book. While it is forthright about the mistakes and muddles of policy-makers in the Church, it also reveals an understanding of the realities of history and especially of how ideas and culture shape things. And the author clearly has a deep belief in the power of truth. Thus there is a sort of gentle joy that runs through some of the pages describing the work of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla and Father Joseph Ratzinger during and after the Second Vatican Council, and the pages describing the JPII/ Ratzinger pontificates.
The book is a must-read for every seminarian, for every serious historian and for all Catholics involved in debates on current issues in community and national life, notably the pro-life movement. We do not have a well-educated laity in the West at present: there is profound ignorance, especially about the Second Vatican Council and about the core teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Converting the 21st century
At the turn of the Millennium, John Paul II urged the Church to “put out into the deep”. Weigel urges that the message needs to be understood: we must seek to “convert the twenty-first century world to Christ and to help strengthen the moral and cultural foundations of modernity’s noblest aspirations and achievements”. The italics are Weigel’s, and he sees that millennial call as central to the Church’s relationship with post-modernity and all that lies ahead. Reading this book will help equip Catholics to fulfil that call – and they will enjoy it as a good read, too.



Joanna Bogle, DSG, is the Editor of Faith magazine.

Faith Magazine

March/ April 2020