OBSTACLES TO THE FAITH
Plenty of leading Catholic intellectuals, pastors, and pundits have invested considerable energy during the last several decades in diagnosing the discontents of secularism. Perhaps the leading example is emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who treated his papacy almost like a global graduate seminar in the role of faith in a postmodern, democratic, and secular world. Any future study on the subject will almost certainly have to take into account four cornerstone speeches Benedict delivered over his eight years in office, all of which, in one way or another, pivoted on the topic: Regensburg, Germany, in 2006 (assuming one can get past the opening lines about Islam, the speech is really directed at the West); the College des Bernardins in Paris in 2008; Westminster Hall in London in 2010; and the Bundestag in Berlin in 2011.
Although many Catholic figures, albeit generally at lower levels, similarly have thought a good deal about secularism, it’s safe bet that few have spent more time actually talking to secularists than Bishop Robert Barron. In some cases, those exchanges come in person or during media segments, but most often Barron’s dialogues have come online, especially in the comments section of YouTube, where he’s been willing to log countless hours patiently replying to criticism, answering questions, issuing intellectual challenges, recommending further reading, and generally trying to keep lines of communication open.
As a result of that experience, as we’ve already seen, Barron has identified three distinct groups he’s trying to engage within the vast secular cauldron.
Barron is well aware of the depressing statistics from the Pew Research Center’s most recent study of the religious landscape in America, which found that nearly one-third of American adults (31.7 percent) say they were raised Catholic, and among that group, fully 41 percent no longer identify with Catholicism. The implication is that a startling 12.9 percent of American adults are former Catholics, and if ex-Catholics formed their own denomination, it would be the second largest in the country. Meanwhile, just 2 percent of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism from another religious tradition. No other religious group in the country had such a lopsided ration of losses to gains.
Drilling down into the Pew data, it’s clear that no every ex-Catholic walked away from the same reasons. Some joined another, often more progressive mainline Christian church; others embraced a generally more conservative Evangelical or Pentecostal denomination. A few joined other religions entirely. Likely the largest chunk, however, was absorbed into secularism, joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. It’s that group which Barron sees as the first target of his evangelizing work, and that of his Word on Fire ministry.
“I’ve always said that lapsed Catholics are my first target,” Barron told me. “But a lot of them are lapsed because they’ve been drawn, knowingly or not, into the secularist ideology.”
During a press conference in Los Angeles in 2015 to introduce him as a new auxiliary bishop, Barron gave a similar answer when asked to name the biggest problem the Church faces.
“It’s the massive attrition of our own people,” he said. “I don’t know how more people don’t that, as problems go on in the Catholic Church. Let’s face it, the vast majority of people that we baptize, confirm, educate, and catechize do not stay in the Church. It’s an illusion to say, ‘They’re all coming back.’ To be quite frank, people don’t realize that. Our number one focus should be on how to reengage Catholics who have fallen away.”
Until very recently, in causal conversation Catholics never really found themselves spelling out the word in order to make clear whether they were talking about “nuns” or “nones,” but such are the shifting plates of American religion in the early twenty-first century. That same Pew study found there are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States, and this group – colloquially called the nones – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants. Only the number of Evangelical Protestants remains larger.
Moreover, if present trends continue, time would seem to be on the side of the nones. Millennials, for instance, show much lower levels of religious affiliation than older generations. Fully 36 percent of young millennials (between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34 percent of old millennials (ages twenty-five to thirty-three). Those nones, by the way, are increasingly likely to describe themselves in secular terms. The last time Pew did such a study, in 2007, 26 percent of nones said they were atheists or agnostics, but that share had gone up to 31 percent by 2015.
For Barron, that booming cohort of the religiously unaffiliated is his second target audience, with the initial aim to persuade them at least to set aside some of their prejudices and give the argument for faith a more sympathetic consideration.
Athough in a sense this group is a subset of the nones, Barron has come to think of what he calls the “hard-core” atheists, meaning disciples of figures such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris, and Deniel Dennett, who collectively have been called the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” as a different group. In part, he treats them as a separate category because he believes their hostility to faith is much greater, and therefore evangelical strategies directed to them have to be adjusted accordingly.
To be honest, Barron has few illusions that anything he or any other evangelist does is likely to win many of these hard-core atheists over, at least in the short term, always, of course, leaving room for the grace of God. His aim is instead is to force some to rethink their arguments, and perhaps to be slightly less aggressive and denigratory when addressing religion and religious believers – which might, he believes, make it slightly easier to reach lapsed Catholics and nones, many of whom are influenced by the thought-world of the New Atheism.
THE “BUFFERED SELF”
Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher who’s now an emeritus professor at Montreal’s McGill University, is a particular favorite thinker for Barron. From Taylor’s seminal book A Secular Age, which appeared in 2007, Barron picked up the concept of the “buffered self” to describe the central cultural malady associated with widespread secularism.
Basically, the idea is that when culture was dominated by religious belief, it fostered a “porous self.” The world was full of other people, angels, demons, and cosmic forces, all of which imbued it with meaning, and people were disposed to absorb those other sources of meaning, which weren’t created entirely by the self. In a secular milieu, however, the “buffered self” perceives a strong boundary between the internal and external worlds, people create meaning for themselves, and so they’re basically isolated from anything deeper or bigger. To put the point in a nutshell, the “buffered self” has been disconnected from the transcendent, and therefore from God.
To begin, let’s consider how Barron defines secularism – not as a simple historical and cultural process but as an ideology.
“As I use the term ideological secularism is a philosophical view that effectively excludes God from the equation, although it might acknowledge God as a side reality,” Barron says. “Secularism as I’m using it here is becoming increasingly the dominant philosophy in our culture. It’s an exclusive naturalism, often exclusive materialism, which on principle excludes God from the worldview. It sees the very idea of God as a threat to human flourishing. This, of course, is born of a very bad understanding of God.”
Ultimately, Barron says, the drive to separate people from any sense of reality or purpose higher than themselves produces disenchantment and disorientation, which opens a door through which evangelists today can walk.
“What I see happening all the time is the hunger for God and dissatisfaction with the buffered self, and dissatisfaction with the purely secularized view of the world, “he says.
I see a lot of people, especially younger people, who have bought that philosophy, that’s what they’ve been given by the elite culture, and now they’re chafing against it, they’re reacting against it. That’s an opening.
My problem with atheists is that they shut down wonder. They say, “Our world is self-contained, all explained, and nothing further is needed.” But this is far too limiting. I’m with Leonard Cohen, who got the image from Chesterton, that what we have to do is to crack some holes in our heads in order to let in the light, to punch holes in the buffered self.
When you suppress the desire for God, which secularism does necessarily, it’s very dangerous psychologically. I see it all the time in the form of addictions and deep depressions. So I’m doing this out of a deep concern for people. It’s dangerous stuff, to shut down the aspiration toward God.
The question then becomes, if that aspiration toward God is natural and, in the end, irrepressible, what’s getting in the way for people raised in a secular culture – meaning, the lapsed Catholics, nones, and even the hard-core atheists Barron is trying to reach?
THE PENTARCHY OF PROTESTS
In Eastern Christianity in the early centuries, a theory of Church governance known as the pentarchy, from the Greek word for five, developed. It held that power in the Church was to be shared among the five major episcopal sees, which corresponded to the major administrative divisions of the old Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
In essence, the pentarchy was an early way of answering the questions Who’s in charge? Who’s setting the tone here? Over the years, some ecumenical experts in contemporary Christianity have proposed dusting off some form of the pentarchy as a way to conceive what power sharing in a reunited church might look like.
Based on his experience of interacting with lapsed Catholics, nones, and secularists, Barron believes they’ve got a pentarchy too, not about power but about protest – five classic, visceral objections to religion in general, and to the Catholic Church in particular, which form the primary obstacles to the faith in the early twenty-first century. Any Catholic evangelist worth his or her salt, Barron says, has to be prepared to confront these objections, because they come up over and over again.
That secularist pentarchy of protest is composed of the following:
- The idea of God
- Religion and science
- Religion and sex
- Religion and violence
- The Bible
In the previous chapter, we covered how Barron views the role and interpretation of the Bible, so here we’ll explore how he talks about the other four classic obstacles when he runs into them in conversation, online, and in other venues.
The Idea of God
German theologians often talk about die Gottesfrage, meaning “the question of God.” Often, they mean it in a basically positive sense. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, has urged Catholic theologians to spend less time wrestling with second-order matters, such as power in the Church or the fine points of sexual ethics, and more on the Gottesfrage, by which he means the stuff that’s really most important – who God is, what God wants for humanity, and so on.
Yet Barron says that for many contemporary secularists, the Gottesfrage generally is not a positive but a stumbling block. Lots of people in our time, he says, are convinced that there’s simply no rational warrant for believing in a Supreme Being, and many are actually convinced that modern science has “disproved” the existence of God. The very first thing a Catholic evangelist must be prepared to do , therefore, is to make a persuasive case that believing in God doesn’t mean suspending one’s rational faculties or operating solely on the basis of blind faith.
Here’s how Barron describes the basic problem: “They think God’s a being,” he says. “They think God is one big being among many. It’s what I call the yeti theory of God. [The yeti is a legendary creature in the folklore of Nepal, basically their version of Bigfoot.] There’s supposed to be this thing out there. Some say he’s there, some say he’s not; so let’s go see if we can find him out there. The question then becomes, ‘Is there evidence for a yeti? Is there evidence for God?'”
It’s precisely the wrong to think about God. God’s not an item in the universe, but you see that assumption in all of the contemporary atheists, from Bertrand Russell to Dawkins and Hitchens. They all operate out of the understanding that God is something big item among many others, and so we have to find evidence. I always go back to Thomas Aquinas, who said that God isn’t a being, he’s ipsum esse subsistens, “subsistent being itself.” God’s not in the genus of being, God is the ground of all being. Thomas says that God is not an individual, which I think is actually rather mind-blowing, but it means that God is not a thing in the world but rather the reason why there’s something rather than nothing. Very few of the contemporary atheists get that, and when you don’t get that, you conceive of God as a rival, a competitor with us in the same space. If God gets all the glory, I get no glory. If God is there, my freedom’s limited. Sartre came in at that point, and all of his existentialist disciples. If you really press it, I think a lot of it goes back to nominalism, a philosophical view which influenced the reformers in a big way. I think that’s the pivot on which a lot of this business turns, and now every high school kid in America thinks God is a threat to their freedom, which is precisely what the true God is not. It’s high philosophical stuff, but it has very strong concrete implications.
When he has laid out what Christianity actually means by “God,” Barron’s next move is to show that people who believe in that concept of God didn’t just check their brains at the door. To do so, once again he falls back on Aquinas, who famously laid out five philosophical arguments for the existence of God – arguments that, Barron is convinced, still retain a persuasive power.
Those arguments are
- Unmoved mover: For Thomas Aquinas, “moving” included any kind of change – not just spatial motion. Things change all the time in the world, and those changes are always caused by something else. A plant grows because someone waters it, I change jobs because someone hired me, and so on. However, that chain can’t go back indefinitely, because at some point there had to be a force that initiated change without an external cause, and that’s what God is.
- First cause: In the world, everything that happens has a cause. Once again, however, that chain can’t be infinite, because something has to exist without being caused, and that’ God.
- Contingency: When we look around, it’s clear that everything in the world depends on something else, meaning everything is “contingent.” I wouldn’t be here without my parents, my wife’s Prius wouldn’t exist without Toyota, et cetera. However, there has to be something that’s not contingent that got the ball rolling, and that is God.
- Degree: As we think about the world, instinctively we think about things as more or less “good,” more or less “beautiful,” et cetera. Yet that evaluation implies some absolute standard of perfect goodness, perfect beauty, and so on, against which everything else is being judged, and that’s another way of saying “God.”
- Natural end: In the world, even non-intelligent beings appear to behave with purpose – acorns, for instance, grow into oak trees without anyone engineering it. Yet since these things can’t think for themselves, they must have acquired that orientation toward a goal from some intelligent force, and again, that’s a way of talking about God.
Although Barron finds all five of Aquinas’s arguments powerful, he says that for most secularists, the one that cuts through the noise best is the argument from contingency. Here’s how he presented it in a 2012 column.
You and I are contingent (dependent) in our being in the measure that we eat and drink, breathe, and had parents; a tree is contingent inasmuch as its being is derived from seed, sun, soil, water, et cetera; the solar system is contingent because it depends upon gravity and events in the wider galaxy. To account for a contingent reality, by definition we have to appeal to an extrinsic cause. But if that cause is itself contingent, we have to proceed further. This process of appealing to contingent causes in order to explain a contingent effect cannot go on indefinitely, for then the effect is never adequately explained. Hence, we must finally come to some reality that is not contingent on anything else, some ground of being whose very nature is to-be. This is precisely what Catholic theology means by “God.” Therefore, God is not one fussy cause within or alongside the universe; instead, he is the reason why there is a universe at all, why there is, as the famous formula has it, “something rather than nothing.” To ask the sophomoric question, “Well, what caused God?” is simply to show that the poser of the question has not grasped the nettle of the argument.
Religion and Science
Commonly, Barron says, people respond to that argument by saying “matter,” “energy,” or “the universe” can explain things. However, he insists that response just shifts the problem rather than resolving it.
Energy or matter always exists in a particular modality, which implies that they could just as well be in another modality: here rather than there, up rather than down, this color rather than that, this speed rather than that, this temperature rather than that, et cetera. But this in turn means that their being in one state rather than another requires an explanation or an appeal to an extrinsic cause. The proposal of the fluctuating universe itself is just as much of a nonstarter, for it involves the same problem simply writ large: How do you explain why the universe is expanding rather than contracting, at this rate rather than that, in this configuration rather than another, et cetera? Finally, a cause of the very-to-be of a contingent universe must be sought, and this cannot be anything in the universe, nor can it be the universe considered as a totality. It must be a reality whose very essence is to-be, and hence whose perfection of existence is unlimited.. As I have tried to demonstrate, philosophy can shed light on the existence of God so construed. The one thing the sciences cannot ever do is disprove it.
In Chapter 4, we saw how Barron diagnoses scientism, a worldview that turns the legitimate triumphs of the empirical sciences into an ideology, claiming that’s the only way to establish truth – which by definition consigns God to the realm of the irrational and subjective. He says that what frustrates him most about people who have imbibed such a view is that they assert science is rational and religion isn’t, yet they’re often not willing to pursue the rational question to its logical conclusion.
“I’ll tease them, saying, ‘You drop the question right when it gets really interesting,'” Barron says. “You get to a question such as ‘Why is there a world at all?’ or “Why is there something rather than nothing?’ and you generally just drop it. Or the atheists will say the world just popped out of nothing. And I’m the one doing magical thinking here? I’m the one who is irrational? I ay, pursue reason all the way, and don’t abandon it when its getting really interesting.”
In truth, Barron believes, scientism in this sense is a threat not merely to religion but to every non-empirical way of perceiving truth. It imperils poetry and art, for instance, as much as religion, as well as the venerable discipline of philosophy. In fact, about as close as you’ll ever here Barron come to going ballistic, at least in public, came in response to a 2016 YouTube video from Bill Nye, the Science Guy, in which Nye said some disparaging things about philosophy vis-a-vis science, suggesting that philosophy “doesn’t always lead you to someplace surprising, inconsistent with common sense.”
Barron virtually fumed in a podcast in which he was asked to comment on what Nye had said, calling Nye’s answer “a remarkably dumb video… It was rambling, incoherent, and it said to me that the man has never read even a page of philosophy.
Even by the time of the great figures, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, philosophy had clearly distinguished itself from science. Aristotle wrote the Physics, and then the Metaphysics, meaning “what’s beyond physics.’ What we’re hearing now is a tremendous arrogance born of the admittedly massive success of the physical sciences in explaining the world from a particular perspective, and giving rise to technologies that have been of extraordinary help to us. But it’s naive in the extreme to say that all rational forms can be reduced to the scientific form. To say that philosophy is just primitive science…. Has the man read anything from Aristotle through Wittgenstein? Philosophy is obsolete? Tell Hegel that, tell Heidegger that, tell Wittgenstein that, tell Jacques Derrida that. They knew that philosophy has its own integrity and rational contribution to make.
The fact that philosophy asks different questions than science, Barron insists, doesn’t make it any less rational.
“The sciences can shed lights on a whole range of questions that human beings find intensely interesting,” he says. “But, what’s the beautiful? What makes something morally right or wrong? What’s the nature of reality? What does it mean to be ‘true’? What’s the nature of consciousness? There are all sorts of questions philosophers ask in a rational way, but they’re not going to follow the scientific method because it wouldn’t apply in those cases. It’s just as rational as the sciences, but not reducible to the sciences.”
Barron says he also tries to make the point to secularists who regard religion as an implacable foe of science that they’ve got things exactly the wrong way around. Religion, specifically Christianity, isn’t an obstacle to modern science – Christianity actually created the conditions in which scientific thinking could arise.
To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science, namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is marked, through and through, intelligibility. If the world or nature is considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it, or perform experiments upon it. But a created world, by definition, is not divine. It is other than God, and in that very otherness, scientists find their freedom to act. At the same time, if the world is unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, since all science is based upon the presumption that nature can be known, that it has a form. But the world, precisely as created by a divine intelligence, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore, and experiment.
Rejecting either of those convictions born of religious faith as simply irrational, or even jettisoning the premises about intelligibility supplied by philosophy because they can’t be confirmed through a laboratory experiment, is a self-defeating exercise, Barron argues, that makes even science impossible to justify.
“Sometimes atheists will invoke [Scottish philosopher David] Hume against first cause arguments, because Hume took a radically skeptical position toward the whole idea of causality,” Barron says. “Okay, but you’re also thereby undermining biology, chemistry, physics, all the natural sciences. They’re all based on the principle of causality, in one way or another. In effect, you’re cutting off the branch you’re sitting on. You’re so afraid of the logical power of that argument, you’re willing to undermine science itself to avoid it.”
For all those reasons, Barron says, Christians of all stripes, but especially the Church’s apologists, “must battle myth of the eternal warfare of science and religion….continually preaching, as Pope John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary, and compatible, paths toward the knowledge of truth.”
Religion and Sex
We’ve already seen what Barron regards as the critical first move with regard to the Church’s teaching on matters such as gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and other aspects of sexual ethics – which is, Don’t make that your first move. As he always says, you won’t read the Gospels and think Jesus’ main concern is that you need to have your sexual life in order, however important that may be. Further, if you don’t grasp what Jesus’ primary concerns actually are, the sexual teaching won’t make sense to you.
That said, Barron is also well aware that the Church doesn’t always get to set the agenda. However much he might like to sequence a conversation about the Catholic faith for himself, sometimes the culture asks questions that just won’t be made to go away by talking about something else, and they have to be tackled head-on. The first point to be made, he says, is that Church teaching on sex ultimately is about love.
It’s about love, not the suppression of sexuality. It’s about directing sexuality toward willing the good of the other. We sentimentalize all the time, but I use the more bracing definition. Love is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will, to desire the good of the other as other. Your sexual life, as with everything else in your life, has to be directed that way. That’s what the Church’s teaching is trying to do, just continually, consistently, move you in the direction of willing the good of the other. And love is the one virtue for which there’s no upper limit. You can’t love too much. You can have too much faith, which becomes credulity. You can have too much hope, which is presumption. However, you can’t have too much love.
Here, we’ll look at how Barron typically fields two classic flash points of sex and the Catholic Church: the Church’s teaching on gay rights and same-sex marriage, and the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
Homosexuality and Gay Marriage
When it comes to homosexuality, Barron says first he tries to help people not merely to know the bottom line of Church teaching but to appreciate what’s behind it and what it’s designed to accomplish.
What the teaching is trying to do is to move people into the stance of more radical and complete self-gift, which in the Catholic view, includes not just unity and friendship but procreation and the gift of life. When that sexual ideal is held up uncompromisingly, you’re going to get teachings against anything that would undercut procreation and the gift of life. This will strike some people as extreme. Yet the Church is also extreme in its mercy as it reaches out to, accompanies, walks with, and understands gay people. For someone who has a gay orientation, is all that a massively difficult thing to integrate? Yes, absolutely, and we have to be sensitive to that. Do we need shepherds who are willing to walk with and accompany gay people? Yes, as Pope Francis always says. “How far do we go?” All the way, all the way, but without dialing down the moral demand, the moral ideal. I think that’s the thing.
While Barron resists “dialing down the ideal,” he is hardly what one might consider a cultural warrior on the issue. For one thing, he concedes that some of the language used by the Church over the years to address these issues has been pastorally suspect and, and frankly, often counterproductive. In Chapter 3 we encountered what Barron says about the declaration in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church that a same-sex orientation is “intrinsically disordered.” He says “if this is the only thing a gay person ever hears from the Catholic Church, then we’ve got a very serious pastoral problem.”
“Now, those of us who are trained in the Church’s thinking, in its Aristotelian roots, know exactly what that phrase means,” he says. “In this aspect of life, there’s something ordering you in the wrong way toward what ought to be the proper teleology of this [the sexual] act. That’s what it means, but I totally get how that term would have landed with a complete thud in the hearts and minds of gay people.”
Barron broadly welcomes the modern emancipation of gays and lesbians, from a past in which they were often mistreated, stigmatized, and driven underground.
Over roughly the past twenty-five years, armies of gay people have come to understand the nature of their sexual attraction, and this is indeed welcome. Repression, deception, and morbid self-reproach are never good things. The result of this greater honesty is that million have recognized their brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, uncles, and dear friends as gay. The homosexual person is no longer, accordingly, some strange and shadowy “other,” but someone I know to be a decent human being. This development, too, is nothing but positive. The man or woman with a homosexual orientation must always be loved and treated, in all circumstances, with the respect due to a child of God.
As a footnote, however, Barron sees an equal and opposite problem today, and one that’s growing, in terms of how people interpret and react to language in the debate over gay marriage, which is that an expression of opposition, however well intentioned or ethically sound, is treated as tantamount to discrimination.
“Any preacher or writer who ventures to make a moral argument against gay marriage is automatically condemned as a purveyor of ‘hate speech’ or excoriated as a bigot,” he says, “and in extreme cases, he can be subject to legal sanction. This visceral, violent reaction is a consequence of the breakdown of a rational framework for moral discourse.”
Barron brings sensitivity to other issues in the Church that involve gay persons, such as one he had to face directly during his time as a seminary professor and later the rector of Mundelein Seminary, which is the suitability of men with a same-sex attraction to become priests. The question came to a boil in 2005, when the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued a controversial document stating that men with “deep-seated” same-sex tendencies should not be admitted to seminaries, and thus should not become Catholic priests. At the time, Pope Benedict XVI, popularly seen as a conservative, had just been elected, and critics charged this was the opening salvo of a wider “witch hunt” designed to drive gays out of the priesthood.
Barron says he adopted the most nuanced perspective, voiced at the time by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
The cardinal came out to Mundelein and he said, “I know there’s concern about this document and the phrase ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies,'” He said, “Can I address what I think that means?” He said, “I think it means if your sexual orientation is so profoundly central to your identity that the whole of your person focuses around it, we have a problem. Then your sense of yourself no longer focuses around your relationship with Jesus Christ. But if that relationship with Christ is central, and your sexual orientation finds its place around that center, then I don’t think we’re talking about deep-seated.” That’s how he interpreted it. When I became rector, I found that this issue was clearly on the minds of lots of my students. So we had a whole formation session on it, and I just repeated what Cardinal George had said, and I said, “That’s my position too.”
In general, while Barron does not back down from defending the substance of Church teaching on homosexuality and gay rights, he does question the wisdom of continuing to lead with such matters in the way the Church engages the culture right now.
I’ve seen the Church pour all kinds of energy and all kinds of time into these issues, and you could say culturally right now it’s not working that well. Maybe it’s time to shift the emphasis. I don’t duck it, and if people bring it up, I’ll talk about it. But there are things far more fundamental. If you don’t believe in God, and you don’t think there’s a supernatural dimension to life, then we have a lot more elementary work to do. Some people will just see the Church as oppressive and deeply insensitive to gay people, and I think we can clear that up. I think we can do so within the framework of our moral teaching, because we’re not saying you’re a terrible person… We can come across not as scolding and condescending, as if I’ve got every answer, but rather in an inviting way.
Barron says his first inkling that a storm might be brewing with regard to reports of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy came in 1992, when he visited his mother in her condo in Chicago after returning from finishing his studies in Paris. He recalled that she had a WELCOME HOME BOB! Sign and some champagne on ice. After catching up for a while, he says, his mother mentioned that she had collected some news clippings for him on a table in his room.
“I go to my room, and there was this whole pile of sex abuse clippings,” he says. “It was already happening in Chicago. I was unaware of that in Paris, I must say. I said, “Wow, I know that guy,’ and so on. Then my mom told me that, because of all that, when people asked about me she’d tell them I was an author, not in the first place, a priest. I remember thinking something has really shifted.
“My whole priesthood has been under the cloud of the sex abuse scandal,” Barron says. “I can say that for priests it’s been horrific, because our work is just compromised in every way, it’s undermined. I realize when anyone sees me wearing a Roman collar, they’re probably to this day, at some level, making a judgment about me.”
To begin with, Barron makes no bones about just how devastating the clerical sexual abuse scandals have been in terms of the Catholic Church’s moral authority and its credibility in the public arena.
“It will be mentioned in a thousand years when they say ‘Crusades and witch hunts,'” he says. “They’ll add, ‘and the sex abuse scandal.’ I’m convinced of that. I’ve said it’s the worst crisis certainly in American Catholic church history, and one of the worst in the whole history of the Church.
It is also, Barron says, one of the most frequent objections he encounters to Catholicism when he’s talking to lapsed Catholics, nones, and atheists. Typically, he says his first move is to put the question in a different context, to see if he can get people to think about it from a fresh perspective.
First, I’ll say, human begins are a bad lot. I mean, we just tend to go bad. Wherever human beings are involved, there will be conflict and stupidity and corruption and all that, and the Church is no exception. Sometimes with people on the Web, I’ll ask, “Are there bad Americans?” The question answers itself. Then I’ll ask, “Does that mean American ideals are bad? The Constitution, the American ethos?” Of course there are bad Americans; there are terrible Americans. But what about the American ideal, this quasi-mystical reality? It’s still wonderful, and rich, and beautiful in its documents, its heroes, and so on. So, in the Church are there bad church people? Obviously. Are there institutional corruptions of tremendous depth? Again, of course. The Church is full of human beings, who go bad. Does that mean the church in its essential structure is bad, or in its essential ethos is wicked? Then I’ll talk about the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, so we’re not just a human institution, we’re not just a coming together of like-minded people. We’re a Mystical Body, and we’re grounded in Jesus. We are cells and molecule sin that body, and therefore in sacraments, in the liturgy, in the Eucharist, in the saints, in our great art, in our ethos and all that, we remain the Spotless Bridge of Christ. Both those things are true, and we certainly can’t deny the first, that there are people in the Church capable of great evil. I fully acknowledge it, that at times the church has included all kinds of wicked people doing terrible things.
The good news, according to Barron, is that things have changed dramatically in the Catholic Church in terms of child protection.
“I think generally the last fifteen years have brought massive improvement,” he says. “I saw it on the front lines as a seminary professor and later as a seminary rector. The process of screening students fro the seminary is extremely careful and rigorous, a bit like an FBI investigation. When [Cardinal Blase] Cupich came in, in fact, he brought in a term of former FBI people to comb through the records and raise every possible question, so I know what we’ve done to address it. I think it’s true what they say, that there’s hardly any place safer for kids now than the Catholic Church.”
Religion and Violence
Barron believes that the Twin Towers attacks on September 11, 2001, produced one of those cultural tipping points that has conditioned secular attitudes about religion ever since. What it did, he says, is cement the widespread impression that there’s something inherent in religion that breeds intolerance, radicalism, and hate, which eventually expresses itself in violence. To resist violence, therefore, for many secularists, means to break the grip that religion holds on people’s minds.
“That’s a giant problem, maybe the biggest if you think about it,” Barron says. “We’re all in the post-September 11 universe, where the modern myth that religion by its very nature is violent has become reconfirmed. And because it’s irrational, the only recourse we have is violent if we disagree, so religion is always breeding violence.”
Barron says that view of religion has deep cultural roots.
“It’s as old as Spinoza, Kant, and Jefferson in our country,” he says. “Related to that is the Bible issue, the fact that the Bible seems to be sanctioning so much violence.”
Reaching back into the twentieth century, Barron would also say that Christianity’s inability to resist the massive bloodshed that rolled through Europe – even, shockingly often, the willing participation of countless Christians in that bloodshed – caused a crisis that still hasn’t been resolved.
“In the heartland of Christianity, you had this orgy of violence, the piling up of corpses, a whole continent drenched in blood,” he says. “Secularism is like the crater left behind by the bomb. Christianity was obviously incapable of stopping this violence. Nationalistic ties and ethnic ties were far more important than Christianities. You have French Christians, Russian Christians, German Christians, all Christians, killing each other on a massive scale, and then Christians standing by while six million Jews are killed. I don’t think we’ve begun to recover form that.”
By the end of the twentieth century, as Barron sees it, things hadn’t become notably more pacific.
“Look at Rwanda in 1994, which is a 90 percent Christian country,” he says. “Christians were hacking each other to death. It’s another lesson in human beings tending to go bad,” he says, adding that the doctrine of original sin makes such failures explicable and even inevitable.
To respond to all that, Barron begins by making the point that while religion may sometimes be a force that drives people to violence, it’s hardly the only one.
“Let’s be honest. Far more people have been killed in the name of the secular nation-state than have ever been killed in the name of religion,” he says. “The most murderous dictatorships of the twentieth century were not religious but were fiercely antireligious. Charles Taylor makes that point over and over again. I mean, give me a break. It is simply a calumny to suggest that religious people are especially responsible for violence in the world.”
In his view, however, the only truly effective way to deal with the objection about religion and violence isn’t to deny that many religious people, including many Christians, have engaged in violence. It’s instead to insist that’s not the whole story. Yes, he argues, Christians are as capable of sin and hatred as anyone else, but over the centuries Christianity has also inspired and sustained some of the most heroic models of nonviolence, healing, and reconciliation the world has ever seen – including the supreme act of mercy in history, meaning the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross.
Christianity starts with an act of violence done to the Son of God. It starts with this horrific event, which opens the door [to redemption]. So, we have to keep telling our story of origins. If you think of religion and violence, religious people causing violence, everyone gets that, it’s familiar. But religious people enduring horrific violence in imitation of Christ and his Cross, that’s our story, which in my mind is far more compelling. Are people violent for religious reasons? Of course, but they’re violent for every other kind of reason too. At the drop of a hat, human beings will turn demonic. Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine. We tend to go bad, so we should never be surprised. But there are heroic stories in there too, and I think that’s much more compelling.
Barron goes on, “Within Christianity we have this very long and ancient tradition of nonviolent resistance, and that’s the best way for us to engage the violence in the world.,” he says. “Look at John Paul II in Poland…he was not waving the white flag. He was very actively engaging the enemy, but in a nonviolent way, and I love that.”
As a final note about religion and violence, Barron defends the Christian just war tradition, which holds that if certain conditions have been met, the use of armed force to stop an unjust aggressor can be morally justified. (He’s dubious, however, that any armed conflict in a long time has satisfied those stringent tests, which cover both the cause of the fighting and the means employed in it.)
He’s clear that while the Catholic Church always seeks peace, it does not espouse absolute pacifism. At the same time, he says, the Church respects those within its fold who do embrace non-violence and believes that “we’ve underplayed the power of that tradition.
Many years ago, when I was at Notre Dame for my sabbatical year, Cardinal George came and gave a talk and Q & A. Michael Baxter [a Catholic theologian who defends “Catholic pacifism”] was there at the time, and he rose to ask, “Tell me about your view on nonviolence.” George said, the Church needs the nonviolent the way it needs celibates. He said living as a celibate is a witness to an eschatological way of being [meaning what life will be like in Heaven]. Then he said, “I don’t want everyone to be a celibate, and I don’t want everyone to be nonviolent. But I do want pacifists to be present in the life of the Church to give an eschatological witness, a glimpse of how things will eventually be in Heaven.” I thought that’s a good way to balance things. I don’t want my president to be nonviolent, because he has an obligation to defend our basic rights. But, as George said to Baxter, I want you operative as an eschatological witness.
An excerpt: The Chapter Eight from ‘To Light a Fire on the Earth’ by Robert Barron & John L. Allen Jr.
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