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Bishop Barron and the Postconciliar Church

While progressives unfairly attack Bishop Robert Barron, elements of his theology are implicated in the postconciliar trends he laments.

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The Abyss, by Ferran Cabrera i Cantó (Public Domain)

Bishop Robert Barron, formerly of Los Angeles and now of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, modeled his Word on Fire media apostolate after Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who successfully used television and radio to engage the broader culture. It has been successful. Bishop Barron has a substantial following on social media and garnered upwards of 100 million views on YouTube.

With that popularity has come scrutiny from the hierarchy and Catholic media, and with that scrutiny has come criticism from all sides. The liberals don't like that the bishop condemns "wokeness," which they think is a reasonable approximation of Catholic social teaching. The conservatives don't like his occasionally extravagant exegesis. The trads don't like his support for Cardinal Ratzinger's hermeneutic of continuity.


Sometimes being criticized from all sides is proof you're doing something right. Other times, it means you're doing a lot wrong. I think Bishop Barron, at least compared with other popular American prelates, has been a force for good in American Catholicism.

The popular but much-maligned head of Word on Fire found himself in hot water after sitting down for an interview with Fox News's Timothy Nerozzi, in which he made the following remarks about the state of the Church after Second Vatican Council:

"The [C]hurch was often reduced to ethics and more precisely, to social justice. Nothing wrong with ethics or social justice, but it was a kind of reductionism and the doctrinal element was underplayed... A caving in to the very relativistic culture held sway. So that's been a problem for a long time."

Liberal Catholics predictably suggested Bishop Barron was discounting the importance of ethics and social justice. They cited several New Testament passages to the effect that Bishop Barron was undermining the Gospel.

But what Barron says is true. The Church, in the minds of some priests, theologians, and laymen, "was often reduced" to ethics and social justice in the wake of the Council. The "horizontal" focus on "human dignity" and the supposed virtues of "modern man" did have the effect, in some quarters of the Church, of diminishing the "vertical" element of faith. Properly understood, the horizontal and vertical are inseparable—we love our neighbor because we love God. But the two were not always presented as such in the years after the Council.


In fact, what some American prelates since the Council have done is "sociologize" the Gospel—taken its radical calls to charity and simplicity, which make demands on individuals as well as the social order, and reframed it as a series of abstractions: "structures" and "systems" and Medicaid reimbursement rates and marginal tax rates. The upshot seemed to be that you can satisfy the demands of the Gospel by voting for politicians to raise taxes on your neighbors, the proceeds of which will bankroll social programs for the poor. Would Christ have been satisfied had the rich young ruler, in lieu of selling his possessions, vowed to support the expansion of the Roman tax regime?

While the progressives unfairly attacked Bishop Barron for this line of argument, I do think his theology is implicated in the very postconciliar trends he laments.

The bishop subscribes to the late Hans Urs von Balthasar's idea that we can have "reasonable hope" that all men are saved. Neither Barron nor Bathasar are universalists. They do not think that universal salvation is certain. Bishop Barron is using "reasonable" not in the probabilistic sense, but in the sense that our hope for universal salvation is reasonably grounded.

While we do not know who is in Hell, and would do well to hope that we and our fellow men escape damnation, we have little grounds to hope that Hell is empty. The bishop certainly has heard this argument, but read the conclusion of Matthew 25, Christ's parable of the Last Judgment, often cited by Democratic politicians who have otherwise never read the Bible:

Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me. Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.

And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.

Those who fail to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the prisoner will be damned. They will not pass go, they will not collect $200; no appeal to the hopes of 20th-century theologians will suffice. As swiftly and certainly as the Lord commands, they will be sent into "everlasting punishment"—that exterior darkness where there will be great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Bishop Barron often suggests his opponents feel assured of their own salvation and take delight in the thought of others' damnation. I don't think that is a good argument, but can say I feel no such assurance of my own salvation and think there is a non-negligible chance that I will be damned. I pray not only that I avoid that terrible fate but that my fellow men avoid it, too.

But Hell is real, and people will go there. If you ignore that reality, the demands of the Gospel become polite suggestions. You will, as the Bishop warned, be "caving in" to a "very relativistic culture" that seeks to explain away the hard sayings of the Gospel.

The bishop also says that the massa damnata view of many Church Fathers—the idea that the great mass of humanity will be lost—is no longer "effective" in evangelizing in the modern world. That may be so. But does not matter whether it is "effective." It matters whether it is true.


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