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Bishops, “Nones,” and the Church: An Interview with Bishop Barron

November 5, 2019


Next week, Bishop Barron will join his brother bishops for their annual USCCB meeting in Baltimore. At the meeting he’ll lead a panel discussion about the “nones.”

With that in mind, and in advance of the meeting, the National Catholic Reporter interviewed Bishop Barron about evangelizing the “nones.” Due to space constraints, they could include just a few quotes from the interview in their published article, so with their permission, we’ve included the full text below. Enjoy!


How has your theology developed over the years? Who influenced it? What effect did Cardinal Francis George have?

Bishop Barron: When I was a teenager, two Thomases had a huge impact on me: Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton. The first Thomas gave me a vivid sense of the reality of God, and the second Thomas introduced me to the world of spiritual experience.

Aquinas has been a theological touchstone all my life. I wrote my STL thesis on his Christology, and my doctoral work at the Institut Catholique in Paris focused on his doctrine of creation. When I was going through seminary, I read Karl Rahner with great enthusiasm, but in later years, I gravitated much more to Hans Urs von Balthasar. During my years in Paris, I also read a great deal of Paul Tillich, and this deepened my appreciation for both the Protestant and Augustinian traditions. Through my doctoral advisor, Michel Corbin, SJ, who was a student of Henri de Lubac, I came into contact with the pivotal figures of the nouvelle theologie: Guardini, Ratzinger, Karl Adam, de Lubac himself, etc. I have also taken a number of literary and artistic figures as theological inspirations: Dante, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Bob Dylan.

Cardinal George was a wonderful mentor to me. He liked nothing more than engaging in lengthy and disputatious theological conversations. We had read a lot of the same people and we both were passionate about using theology in the work of evangelization. His most important one-liner, at least for me: “You cannot evangelize a culture you don’t love.”

I would love your thoughts on how different roles (evangelists, catechists, missionaries, etc.) fit together in the Church. Do you gravitate toward a label? Do you see yourself, as some would say, carrying on the mantle of, say, a Fulton Sheen—a highly visible and articulate messenger of Catholic teaching in a given era?

Bishop Barron: I’m a priest above all. I served very happily in a parish but was then asked to do academic work at Mundelein Seminary. This made me a theologian, a teacher, and a writer. But since Vatican II said that the primum officium of the priest is to proclaim the word of God, this academic identity never seemed at odds with my primary vocation. Then, through my own desire but also at the prompting of Cardinal George, I moved more explicitly into the work of evangelization, and my Word on Fire ministry grew out of this. Subsequently, I was appointed seminary rector and bishop, which has brought me into the world of administration and institutional leadership.

Of the three labels suggested in your question, I would most readily embrace evangelist. Fulton Sheen is certainly a hero, and I suppose I’m attempting to do what he did. But I’m always uneasy with the comparison, largely because our styles are rather different and I have nothing like his rhetorical skill.

As one who had such a well-established media apostolate before your move to LA, how disruptive was the transition of integrating that part of your ministry into an entirely new role? What did it force you to change?

Bishop Barron: I was deeply involved with Word on Fire during the years that I had a very full-time job as rector of Mundelein Seminary. So I had already learned how, with the enormous help of my Word on Fire staff, to balance these various responsibilities. Therefore, the transition to another very full-time job didn’t pose insuperable difficulties. I’m very grateful to both Cardinal Cupich and Archbishop Gomez who facilitated the transition of the Word on Fire headquarters to Santa Barbara.

Describe the experience of coming into the USCCB as such a known quantity. Your almost immediate election to the Evangelization and Communication chairmanship and your subsequently being entrusted with “Faithful Citizenship” say a great deal about your standing in that body. How do you navigate that?

Bishop Barron: I was very surprised to be elected chair of Evangelization and Catechesis. My plan had been to participate in a few committees and learn the ropes. But it’s been more like a dive into the deep end of the pool. I must say, however, that I’ve enjoyed working with the committee and with the administrative committee of the USCCB (membership in which comes with being chair of evangelization and catechesis).

My greatest satisfaction has come from bringing the issue of the “nones” or the religiously unaffiliated to the attention of the bishops. After the sex abuse scandal, the massive attrition of the young is, I think, the most important issue facing the Church.

You’re certainly overstating my involvement with the “Faithful Citizenship” films! I’m simply a member of a large subcommittee looking into the preparation of short films designed to make our complex social teaching available to a wide audience.

As far as my “standing” in the USCCB, I’m strictly a back-bencher.

What is your strategy for tackling and communicating “Faithful Citizenship”?

Bishop Barron: We all felt that the original “Faithful Citizenship” document was quite fine in its careful articulation of the Church’s social teaching in regard to the pressing political issues of our time. We also felt that the vast majority of Catholics never had the time or inclination to read such a lengthy treatise. So we wanted to make the content of the document available to a twenty-first century audience far more attuned to digital means of communication. Hence our decision to create a series of short films.

We also strongly felt that Pope Francis had changed the landscape a good deal, stressing immigration, care for the poor, and perhaps above all, concern for the environment. Thus, we wanted to make sure that these themes are strongly emphasized in the films. Our hope is that these short videos could be widely distributed on social media, where most people get their news, information, and inspiration today.

You have the distinction of being attacked from points all across the ideological spectrum. I am particularly interested to hear your read on why a group like Church Militant would take issue with what you have to offer. What do you see as most motivating that?

Bishop Barron: I’m actually very proud of that. I’m happy that both extremes go after me. It shows, I think, I’m in the relatively right position.

The extreme right is unhappy with me for two reasons: my conviction that we may hope that all people might be saved and, relatedly, my contention that non-Catholics can find salvation. In regard to the first matter, I more or less follow the teaching of von Balthasar—namely, that we don’t know that all will be saved (which would be universalism), nor that we blithely expect that all will be saved. Rather, we are permitted to hope that all may be saved, not because of heroic human effort, but because of what Christ has accomplished through his cross and Resurrection. The best argument for this position is under the rubric of lex orandi lex credendi. I’ve frequently told my critics that I will stop hoping all may be saved the moment the Church stops compelling me to pray for it, which it does frequently in the liturgy. They seem to think that this will lead to a blasé, evangelical indifferentism. But I say, on the contrary, it spurs the evangelist on to reach as many as he or she can—which my own dedication to the evangelical task proves.

In regard to the second issue, I’m just conveying the teaching of Lumen Gentium that non-Christians, even nonbelievers, can be saved. Again, this is not to say that their salvation should be taken for granted or that it is easy to attain, but it is possible. To my mind, neither of these is a radical position, which is why I’ve always been more than a bit puzzled by the vehemence of the reaction from the right.

Do you see yourself as a bridge figure in a divided Church? If so, in what ways?

Bishop Barron: I hope so. Some years ago, I published a collection of articles under the title Bridging the Great Divide, and I have always seen my work as defying the usual left-right categorization (hence the critiques from both sides as well). I grew up in the period just after Vatican II, and the Church I knew was one that was bickering with itself, largely over issues of sexuality and authority. I don’t doubt for a moment that these were (and are) important questions or that the people involved were (and are) of good will, but I will affirm that this disputatiousness has been unattractive to the wider culture.

Furthermore, I would insist that while these debates were going on, a couple of generations came of age not knowing much about the fundamentals of Catholicism. An anecdote might be illuminating. Several years ago, a professor at a Catholic university told me that he had his students read my book And Now I See, which deals with most of the essential teachings of the Church: God, Jesus, Incarnation, redemption, sin and grace, eternal life, etc. A young woman from the class came up to him and said, “You know, before reading this book, I had no idea that Catholicism was about all these things. All I knew was that Catholics are against premarital sex, birth control, gays, and abortion.” An extreme case perhaps, but it indicates the problem. Much of my work has been in recovering in, I hope, a smart and aesthetically appealing way, the heart of the matter—and this has proved attractive to everyone along the spectrum. In that sense, it has served to build a bridge.

What has the local Church of LA taught you about contemporary Catholic life in contrast to Chicago?

Bishop Barron: I wouldn’t really see this as a contrast with Chicago, but the Church in LA reveals how alive and how culturally rich the Church is. The LA Archdiocese is 70 percent Hispanic, but there are also massive numbers of Catholics from Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Middle East. Though it’s certainly true that many are leaving the Church today and that pews are emptying out, I must say that I don’t really see that phenomenon here. I think it’s fair to say that the Church is more vibrant in the Southwest and on the West coast than in the classically Catholic East and Midwest. I’ve become much more aware of how Hispanic Catholics ought to become (and are indeed becoming) more the subjects than the objects of evangelization. I mean that the question is shifting from “How do we reach out to Hispanics?” to “How can we engage Hispanics in the evangelization of the Anglo mainstream, which is becoming more and more secularized?”

How do you see the effects of clericalism in the priesthood in our country? Or is it a red herring?

Bishop Barron: I don’t think it’s a red herring. It’s a serious matter. Cardinal George used to characterize clericalism as the severing of the tie between Holy Orders and Baptism–that is to say, forgetting that the task of the ordained person is to make lay people saints. The moment that priesthood is seen as a privileged caste set over and against the baptized, we have clericalism. It manifests itself in myriad ways, most painfully and destructively in the context of the clerical abuse of young people. But you can see it whenever priests use lay people rather than serve them.

When I was seminary rector, I was always interested in how our lay staffers evaluated candidates for the priesthood. I would ask them whether a given seminarian was kind, respectful, and helpful, because sometimes a student would put on a good show for the faculty but would treat lay people with disdain.

How will you approach the upcoming ad limina with the pope? How do you view the agenda Francis is laying out before the Church?

Bishop Barron: I’m not entirely sure, never having been involved in an ad limina visit before. And as an auxiliary bishop, I don’t think it would be my prerogative to say very much. I’d leave that to the archbishops and ordinaries.

But as to the Francis agenda, I particularly love the Pope’s insistence that we go out from the sacristies and to the margins. Long before the Council, von Balthasar wrote a book called Razing the Bastions, whose central theme was the tearing down of the medieval walls behind which the Church was crouching too defensively. Balthasar wanted the light of the Church to shine in the world. And that was precisely the central motif of Vatican II: bringing the lumen to the gentes. The New Evangelization followed from this, and Francis has picked up on the theme magnificently.

I loved a talk he gave to priests in which he said that the oil of ordination ought to flow down to the fringes of their garments, signifying that their priesthood is about spreading holiness out beyond themselves. When the oil of ordination is held on to (clericalism), it becomes rancid. My own conviction is that now, with the rise of the “nones,” the Church should not be preoccupied primarily with parish-based programs. The young unaffiliated aren’t coming readily to our churches and parishes. Rather, we should allow the oil to flow to the fringes; we should find ways to move into the world where young people actually live. This is where I would put a special stress on the new media.

As different chapters in the life of the Church unfold, how do you see the need for different charisms, emphases, etc. playing out in our missionary responsibility to our culture (and all cultures)? Are there times better suited for certain players than others?

Bishop Barron: I would follow St. John Henry Newman here. People always want a univocal answer to the question regarding the Church in relation to the culture. The standard reading is that liberals are open to the culture and conservatives are resistant to it. Well, that doesn’t get us very far.

Newman said that a healthy Church in relation to the culture is like a healthy animal in relation to its environment. If an animal is utterly open to his environment, he will be dead in short order; and if an animal is utterly closed to his environment, he will be dead in short order. The healthy, successful organism moves through its domain, assimilating what it can and resisting what it must. In the same way, the Church, in the course of its long history, has moved through a variety of different cultures, adapting, assimilating, and resisting by turns, sometimes getting it relatively right, sometimes relatively wrong.

When I was a young man and liberalism was in the ascendency, everyone talked about openness to the culture, some going so far as to say that the culture “sets the agenda for the Church.” Well, what if someone told you in the Germany of the 1930s or the American south of the 1950s that the Church should be radically open to the culture? Cultures are always a hybrid of good and bad, and the Church should be canny, agile, adaptable, and clever as it makes its way through them.

Having said all that, I can address your question more directly. Different times call for different charisms and different kinds of people. Thomas Aquinas was the right man to engage the culture of his time with great optimism and openness; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the right man to engage the culture of his time with fierce prophetic resistance. There is never one strategy or one type of personality.

Your writing tying the abuse crisis into Scripture narratives is pretty profound and not something I’ve seen treated elsewhere. You find recognizable aspects of the issue and don’t lay blame at the feet of a single issue (celibacy) or group (the gay community). What drew you to this approach? What are its unique benefits?

Bishop Barron: The last thing I wanted to do in Letter to a Suffering Church was to contribute to the Girardian scapegoating that is sadly rampant, on both the left and the right, around this issue. Everyone wants to find some group to blame. Whatever else you want to say about this awful issue, you should begin with the acknowledgment that it is our problem and we have to solve it together.

I felt that the problem had certainly been addressed from a forensic and legal standpoint as well as from a psychological point of view, but it had not yet been addressed sufficiently from a biblical perspective. And if we’re right in saying that the Bible is uniquely the Word of God, then the scriptural hermeneutic ought to be fundamental. And once you look at the Bible with the sex abuse scandal in mind, you find a surprising number of stories that speak to the matter. To my mind, the most remarkable biblical antecedent is the story of Hophni and Phineas, wicked priests who were abusing their people sexually and financially. When the victims brought the concern to their father, Eli, the high priest, he responded with strong words but no action. The result was a disaster for Israel. You’d have to be blind not to see this as a distant mirror of our time.