Warm oval vacuum
Posted by Oakes Spalding on 9/2/16
It is emblematic of the topsy-turvy world of contemporary Catholicism that Bishop Robert Barron is now considered one of the faith’s top apologists.
I cannot imagine how any apologist could be less effective at evangelizing or converting anyone, or less effective at persuading potential apostates to reconsider leaving the faith.
Here are some of the Bishop’s most well-known snippets:
1. there may be a hell, there’s a good chance that it is empty. Whatever you do, you’ll probably be saved anyway.
2. The Crusades were wrong.
3. Many of the most famous stories in the Bible are not literally true. But that doesn’t mean they’re false. The Bible should be evaluated in the same way that we evaluate the novel Moby Dick.
4. Some people put Catholicism down, but thats not completely fair. If you look at its history, it often comes close to emulating the ideals set out by Gandhi.
5. The best way for Christians to resist ISIS is through non-violent witness.
Any one of the above arguments or claims appears almost designed to keep you out of Church (or at least out of a Catholic Church) and back at your usual seat in the saloon.
But the problem with Barron goes deeper than that. I’m talking about his personality. Evangelization isn’t just about what you say or even how you say it. It’s also about you. I’ve known Christians (including at least one of the priests at my Church) who were so likable or compelling that they could stand on the sidewalk telling jokes or reading the telephone book or playing a fiddle, and by the end of the day, they’d have five new converts.
To me, Barron has anti-Charisma. He’s so smarmy, so pretentious, so superciliously “don’t you see, the Bible is true, but not true in the vulgar sense that you think,” that if he were trying to convince me that A = A, I’d drop everything and become a socialist.
I know some might disagree. It is said that many Catholics love Bishop Barron. On the other hand, few traditionalist Catholics seem to like him much.
And I admit that my dislike is almost visceral. As you might now be expecting, more of that dislike will come out below. Whether that says more about me or Bishop Barron is another question. You can be the judge of it.
In this post I want to look at one specific Barron piece – something he wrote just a few days ago for National Catholic Register, characteristically titled, Apologists, Catechists, Theologians: Wake Up!
Barron laments the fact that according to a recent study, for every one person who joins the Catholic Church, six will leave. This annoys him partly because he believes that the people leaving (or their teachers) are just not thinking.
After perusing the latest Pew Study on why young people are leaving the active practice of Christianity, I confess that I just sighed in exasperation. I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of those who responded to the survey, but the reasons they offer for abandoning Christianity are just so uncompelling. That is to say, any theologian, apologist, or evangelist worth his salt should be able easily to answer them. And this led me (hence the sigh) to the conclusion that “we have met the enemy and it is us.”
What’s notable about this passage is that Barron seems to be claiming that turning things around should be easy. Those who are leaving have merely bought into dumb arguments. And any Catholic “worth his salt” should be able to effortlessly knock down those dumb arguments. Hence the sigh.
Now, I think Barron is wrong about this, or, rather, it’s an extremely misleading way of presenting the problem. But for the moment let’s accept it – people are leaving the Church because they are stupid, or at least because they believe really stupid things – and then pause to ask the obvious question: why is this occurring?
It’s telling that Barron never answers or even asks this, though he claims that the thing has been going on for fifty years. At some point in the mid-1960’s, most Catholics simply stopped being intellectual. Darn.
But all is not lost. The way to combat this now is for the few surviving Catholic intellectuals (such as Barron) to exhort the slackers to (as Barron puts it) “pick up their game.”
For the past fifty years or so, Christian thinkers have largely abandoned the art of apologetics and have failed (here I offer a j’accuse to many in the Catholic universities) to resource the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in order to hold off critics of the faith. I don’t blame the avatars of secularism for actively attempting to debunk Christianity; that’s their job, after all. But I do blame teachers, catechists, evangelists, and academics within the Christian churches for not doing enough to keep our young people engaged. These studies consistently demonstrate that unless we believers seriously pick up our game intellectually, we’re going to keep losing our kids …
This most recent survey indicates that intellectual objections figure prominently when these drifters are asked why they abandoned their faith. My cri de coeur is that teachers, catechists, theologians, apologists, and evangelists might wake up to this crisis and do something about it.
That’s three uses of the word “intellectual” in less than two paragraphs. And to underline the method, he even brings in two phrases from a foreign language – j’accuse and cri de coeur.
I think they’re French.
Bishop Barron wants to be an intellectual.
Bishop Barron is not an intellectual.
He’s a muddle-headed suck-up who can almost always be counted on to take his claims from the current Zeitgeist and twist them (in an insult to the Zeitgeist) into propositions that wouldn’t convince a twelve-year old.
Mind you, this is by no means to imply that there are no rational warrants for belief in God. Philosophers over the centuries, in fact, have articulated dozens of such demonstrations, which have, especially when considered together, enormous probative force. I have found, in my own evangelical work, that the argument from contingency gets quite a bit of traction with those who are wrestling with the issue of God’s existence. What these arguments have lacked, sad to say, are convinced and articulate defenders within the academy and in the ranks of teachers, catechists, and apologists.
You see street preachers warning passerby that they will go to hell. Little did you know that in some hidden classroom, a media bishop was getting quite a bit of traction.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Barron thinks Catholics are exiting the Church in droves because they haven’t been exposed to the argument from contingency. To call that moronic is an insult to socialists.
Let’s now look at the arguments that Barron claims people cite for leaving the faith – arguments that Barron thinks are “uncompelling” – as well as considering Barron’s “answers” to them. Here are the arguments in Barron’s words:
1. Modern science somehow undermines the claims of faith.
2. Religion just seems to be the opiate of the people.
3. Christians seem to behave so badly.
Now, as it happens, I actually think #1 is a very compelling argument. Indeed, it’s probably the best argument the atheists have. Modern science does seem to undermine Christian faith. Among other things, modern science appears to contradict the claims of that centerpiece of our faith, the Bible. The Old Testament tells us that God created two human beings out of dust. One of their descendants built a huge boat and put a set of each kind of animal in it in order to save them from a world-wide flood. A few thousand years later, someone walked around the area we now call Israel performing miracles – including, among other things, raising people from the dead. In turn, He was raised from the dead and He and His mother later levitated into Heaven, etc.
But modern science tells us that human beings evolved gradually from one-celled organisms over the course of over a billion years. At the time of the flood, there probably were 60,000 species of beetle (or whatever). It would be weird to think that those beetles scuttled into the ark on their own, and Noah would almost certainly not have had time to gather them up. If a body is truly dead, it cannot revivify itself. People’s living bodies don’t disappear forever into the sky. And so on.
Barron elsewhere has denied some of these “literal” Biblical claims, while reaffirming that the Bible contains deeper moral or theological truths. So, in the current piece his answer to the argument is that science and faith are completely separate entities:
(T)he sciences, ordered by their nature and method to an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within the universe, cannot even in principle address questions regarding God, who is not a being in the world, but rather the reason why the finite realm exists at all. There simply cannot be “scientific” evidence or argument that tells one way or the other in regard to God.
Let me make four points about the above.
First of all, this response is completely unconvincing to an atheist. Indeed, in my experience, atheists just laugh at it, as it has an almost desperate ad-hoc air about it.
Faith person: There’s a gorilla in my living room.
Atheist: No there isn’t. Photographs, audio recording and chemical testing have conclusively shown that there is no gorilla in your living room. Plus he wouldn’t have been able to fit through the door.
Faith person (after thinking for a bit): He’s not that kind of gorilla.
I know some of you have been exposed to that supposedly brilliant stratagem and may even think it’s effective. It’s not. Trust me. At most it’s a postponement – a way for people who are so inclined to temporarily cling to something. In my experience, that something won’t be the traditional Catholic faith, or it won’t be so for long. And it’s precisely one of the main responses that has been strongly put forward (contra Bishop Barron) by the Church for the last fifty years. We all know the results.
Second, it has the effect of making the Catholic faith superfluous and unattractive. I don’t know about you but I want to worship and interact with a being in the world not a reason. If all the wonderful stories in the Bible are simply fictions created for the purpose of, say, relating moral truths, it’s not clear why I need anything more than those moral truths. And I do not think the argument from contingency is a sufficient replacement for Adam and Eve. Or the Moby Dick version of Adam and Eve. Or whatever.
I’m not as sophisticated as Bishop Barron.
Third, Jesus was a flesh and blood being in the world (or so the Church teaches). Indeed, that’s the central Christian claim – 2,000 years ago, a time recent enough to be well-encompassed by the science of archeology, among other things, God walked on Earth as a man. I became a Christian and then a Catholic largely because I became convinced that what we might call the story of Jesus, including His resurrection, was true – not true in some goopy “spiritual” way, but true in, yes, an empirically verifiable sense, at least (contra Barron) in principle. And in turn, I can imagine evidence being discovered – they find Jesus’ body along with documentary evidence indicating the whole thing was a hoax – that would, so to speak, un-convince me. I think Paul is with me on this:
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain.
The authors of the Gospels explicitly assert that they were eyewitnesses to incredible events – empirically observable things that actually happened in the world – and the reason they wish to relate these events is because they want to convince you that they really happened.
t one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe.
That was written by a religious fundamentalist named John.
The logical implication of Barron’s view is that this design is pointless – “an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within the universe, cannot even in principle address questions regarding God.” This is of course a rejection of the strategy of the very founders of evangelization – an odd way for a Christian apologist to proceed.
Lastly, Barron’s claim that science and faith are completely separate entities was in fact condemned by the Church as a heresy. And this wasn’t in, say, the fourth-century or the middle-ages or whatever, but only three or four generations ago in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (see paragraphs 6 – 16), authored by Pope Pius X. For all of Barron’s harping on the “richness” of Catholic intellectual tradition, he seems oblivious to papal encyclicals, even those penned in the 20th century by saints. Obviously, the fact that Barron’s view is heretical shouldn’t mean anything to an atheist (although it should mean something to Barron). But a curious atheist just might ask this question: if the Church said X a hundred years ago, but now it says (you claim) Not X, on what grounds should it command my assent now?
Moving on the second argument – “Religion just seems to be the opiate of the people” – Barron responds that you could say the same thing about Atheism.
Marx’s adage, of course, is an adaptation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s observation that religion amounts to a projection of our idealized self-image. Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century, further adapted Feuerbach, arguing that religion is like a waking dream, a wish-fulfilling fantasy. This line of thinking has been massively adopted by the so-called “new atheists” of our time. I find it regularly on my internet forums. What all of this comes down to, ultimately, is a dismissive and patronizing psychologization of religious belief. But it is altogether vulnerable to a tu quoque (you do the same thing) counter-attack. I think it is eminently credible to say that atheism amounts to a wish-fulfilling fantasy …
That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s sort of concedes a crucial point – that Catholicism acts like an opiate (whether it is or not). Ask a traditional Catholic mother of eight kids whether she thinks of her faith as an opiate. Or ask a nun or a priest or anyone who has made great sacrifices for their faith. To paraphrase the only baptized Catholic American president (who was speaking on a different issue), “we choose to become Catholics not because it is easy but because it is hard.” But we do it of course because it is worth doing. That may not convince your atheist friend over the course of one beer, but it’s much more compelling than “so’s your Momma” (tu quoque).
By the way, Barron gets his intellectual history wrong. Marx wasn’t “of course” adapting Feuerbach. Yeah, I’ve read a bit of Marx in between comic books. Barron is really not much of a scholar (though he wants you to think that he is). Not that that’s here nor there but still.
To the last argument – “Christians seem to behave so badly” – Barron basically just says, “so what?”
God knows that the clergy sex abuse scandals of the last 25 years have lent considerable support to this argument, already bolstered by the usual suspects of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the persecution of Galileo, witch-hunts, etc., etc. We could, of course, enter into an examination of each of these cases, but for our purposes I am willing to concede the whole argument: yes indeed, over the centuries, lots and lots of Christians have behaved wickedly. But why, one wonders, should this tell against the integrity and rectitude of Christian belief? Many, many Americans have done horrific things, often in the name of America. One thinks of slave owners, the enforcers of Jim Crow laws, the carpet bombers of Dresden and Tokyo, the perpetrators of the My-Lai Massacre, the guards at Abu-Graib Prison, etc. Do these outrages ipso facto prove that American ideals are less than praiseworthy, or that the American system as such is corrupt? The question answers itself.
Relatedly, a number of young people said that they left the Christian churches because “religion is the greatest source of conflict in the world.” . . . this view has seeped into the general consciousness, but it simply does not stand up to serious scrutiny. In their exhaustive survey of the wars of human history (The Encyclopedia of Wars), Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod demonstrate that less than 7% of wars could be credibly blamed on religion …
This is a popular sort of line (which is why Barron takes it) but it’s not satisfactory. If Catholicism is true, one would expect it to make better people (in general or on average). Not perfect people, but better people. None of the Christian fathers or medieval theologians would have denied this. And one would also expect the great Catholic causes (or what were perceived to be great causes at the time by Catholics) to be meritorious.
On the subject of the Crusades, they were one of the central events of the Catholic experience for hundreds of years, approved and participated in by a long line of popes, saints and other prominent Catholics during the height of the Church’s power. To condemn the Crusades – as Barron does elsewhere (and not merely for the sake of argument) – gives powerful ammunition to the anti-Catholic side. Even worse, it once again takes away one of the more powerful arguments for being a Catholic. For hundreds of years, we defended European civilization, at great sacrifice of blood, from a barbaric civilization worshipping a cruel and false god. What was your side doing, nailing narcissistic manifestos to doors and bitching in the salons?
Or so most Catholic apologists would have argued . . . previous to about fifty years ago.
G.K. Chesterton, who Barron loves to quote, was an enthusiastic booster of the Crusades. Worse for Barron, he was in a sense an enthusiastic booster of religious wars. Or more accurately, Chesterton made the quite logical claim that if one’s Catholic faith is the most important thing in the world (which of course it should be for any Catholic), then if anything is worth fighting for, shouldn’t that be at the top of the list?
Christ and His Church are worth fighting for. Or rather, if you don’t see me proclaiming that, how good an advertisement is that for my faith? If I said my wife wasn’t worth fighting for, what would that say about my wife? And what would that say about me?
Barron has recently come out as a seeming pacifist – a stance in clear opposition to historical Christian and Catholic teaching – arguing that “the non-violent stance” is the best response to ISIS aggression. For our purposes, that’s another mark against his “apologetics.” Most people will be repelled by this irrational sounding claim. As for the minority of Gandhi devotees who might sympathize, we might ask what reason they have to become Catholics as opposed to Hindus? After all, Hindus can still use the argument from contingency.
How does all this cash out, so to speak, on the ground? I wager that my Church – a non-SSPX traditionalist Church in downtown Chicago – is one of the only Catholic churches in the Chicago area where the majority of the parishioners believe both in the literal existence of Adam and Eve and the justice of the Crusades. Or in other words, we’re one of the only churches where most of its members believe what the Church itself went out of its way to explicitly profess for the first 98% of its existence. It’s not a coincidence that my Church leads Chicago in promoting vocations, or that parish membership as well as non-parishioner attendance is thriving.
Traditional Catholic teachings are attractive, much more attractive than the post-Vatican II liberal-conservative synthesis popularized by Bishop Barron. You don’t get Christians excited by claiming to be as good as Gandhi. You get them excited by claiming that the poorest soul at Catholic Mass has something infinitely greater than Gandhi ever had.
Conversely, people are leaving the Church because of “apologists” like Barron. The people ask for bread and are given stones (though the Bishop would no doubt excitedly claim that Catholic stones are no worse than other stones). Barron shouldn’t be giving lessons in apologetics; he should be taking them.
But I would be happy if he would just shut up.