Bishop Barron's Bottom-Up Revival
Bishop Barron thinks America can be fixed.
Bishop Robert Barron is one of the Catholic Church's most influential prelates. His homilies, lectures, and interviews have been viewed more than 100 million times. His evangelization has won countless souls and convinced atheists and skeptics of the reasonableness of Christian faith.
Barron also occupies a precarious place in ecclesial politics. Liberal Catholics accuse the bishop of palling around with right-wingers, soft-pedaling the dangers of reactionary politics, and dismissing as "wokeness" fundamentally Christian concerns for the poor and social justice. Conservative Catholics criticize his occasionally heterodox theology and exegesis. Traditionalist Catholics take issue with his calls to abolish the death penalty and what he calls his "reasonable hope" that all men will be saved.
While the label is imprecise in the ecclesial context, Bishop Barron is best understood as a neoconservative. He holds fast to the Church's unpopular teachings and resists most popular heresies. He defends the Second Vatican Council and sees the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis as carrying forward the Council's salutary agenda of reform. Barron chalks up the postconciliar malaise—declining Mass attendance, cratering seminaries and religious orders, the clerical abuse scandal, liturgical malpractice, poor catechesis, and widespread heterodoxy—not to the Council's reforms, but to individual prelates abusing the conciliar documents.
He is also a qualified defender of the United States. He argues belief in God and in liberal democracy are "mutually implicative." While he acknowledges that elements of the Founding were flawed, he believes some of the tensions between the Church and America were rooted in mutual misunderstanding.
On Tuesday, Barron delivered the Heritage Foundation's annual Russell Kirk Lecture. His talk, titled the "Breakdown of the Tocquevillian Consensus," examined just this subject: the compatibility of liberal democracy as practiced in the United States and the Church's historical condemnations of capitalism and democracy.
Barron opened his speech remarking on the longstanding tensions between Catholicism and American democracy. For centuries, he noted, the Church had condemned liberalism and certain forms of democracy as antithetical to Catholic social order. In Quanta cura, Pope Pius IX condemned governments that failed to distinguish "between the true religion and false ones" and declined to censure "offenders against the Catholic religion." Pope Gregory XVI deemed “insanity" the notion that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right," and that citizens have the right to "openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” As recently as 1953, Pope Pius XII called freedom of conscience “a mistaken idea which has no right to exist.” These were, either intentionally or in effect, direct attacks on the American separation of church and state.
The hostility, of course, ran both ways. Several Founding Fathers and presidents argued that Catholicism was incompatible with American democracy. Samuel Adams argued "much more is to be dreaded from the growth of popery in America, than from the Stamp Act.” Later, Woodrow Wilson said the Church was "an organization which, whenever and wherever it dares, prefers and enforces obedience to its own laws rather than to those of the state.” America was a constitutionally liberal country, and Catholics had a well-founded anti-liberal reputation.
Things changed, Barron argued, after the Second Vatican Council. In the conciliar decree on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, the bishops declared "that the human person has a right to religious freedom," and that all men were to be "immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."
This, he claimed, was a radical departure from the Church's previous teaching. Where freedom of conscience was once unequivocally condemned, the Council Fathers resolved that it was a human right to be recognized "within due limits." Bishop Barron cited the document as evidence of the Church's development on religious liberty.
The question is whether the change was substantial or prudential—in other words, whether the Church had renounced her previous teaching in full, or whether she suspended her advocacy of religious coercion in response to contingent factors subject to change in the future. If the question seems esoteric, consider the implications. After Pope Francis revised the Catechism's entry on the death penalty, pro-LGBT groups celebrated what they believed it implied about the potential of the Church to change its teaching on sodomy. To concede that the Church substantially reversed her teaching on religious liberty at the Council would imply that other perennial teachings are subject to reform. Barron, usually an advocate of what Pope Benedict XVI called the "hermeneutic of continuity and reform," seemed to imply a substantial rupture between pre- and post-conciliar teaching on religious liberty.
With that as background, Barron argued that the divergence between the American system and Catholic thought, rooted in disagreements about religious liberty and liberalism more broadly, is less severe than historically proposed. Barron claimed that there is substantial overlap between the American ideals of equality, the rule of law, and limited government, and biblical and Catholic assumptions about the nature of politics and the dignity of the human person.
Why, then, did pre-conciliar opponents of liberal democracy—not all of whom, Barron allows, were "bigots"—believe Catholicism and the American system to be "incompatible"?
Barron admitted that many of them had a point. Anti-liberal Catholics rightly observed that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two thinkers who influenced the American Founders, "represented a radical rupture from the classically Catholic understanding of both the political and moral orders." The Hobbesian world, Barron said, "is one of utter self-interest," and both Hobbes and Locke rejected the "teleological vision of political life" that Barron placed at the heart of classical political thought. Even Thomas Jefferson's prologue to the Declaration of Independence defended the "artificial nature of the political enterprise," and posits happiness as a subjective good to be pursued by individuals as they see fit, rather than as an objective good pursued by the state on behalf of the political community.
Barron concedes these pre-conciliar thinkers had legitimate gripes with the American project and liberal modernity, but concludes that Catholicism and American democracy are, or at least can be, compatible.
"The American polity is fundamentally modern in form and inspiration but remains conditioned by certain deeply held religious assumptions," he argued. "It's a Hobbesian-Lockean system, but with overtones of the Christian worldview that still haunted the minds of the Founders, and perhaps more importantly, the souls of the first American citizens." The system, in other words, can succeed in spite of itself—on the virtues of its citizens rather than its foundations.
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To illustrate the point, Barron referenced two quotes from the 19th century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville. First, he highlighted Tocqueville's observation that "Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other," implying, perhaps unintentionally, that the American people had idolized the concept of liberty. Second, he referenced the diplomat's note that in America, "religion is commingled with all the habits of the nation." Barron argued that the American system, while rooted in official agnosticism about the highest good, can work if these religious "habits" are observed by the great mass of Americans. If not, and what Barron called the "Tocquevillian equilibrium" collapses, "the more severe Hobbesian structure of our polity" will "assert itself."
Barron didn't say whether that collapse was the inevitable result of the country's liberal founding. He did suggest that American decline could be reversed by a "recovery of the sense, especially in our young people, of the objectively valuable rather than the subjectively satisfying." By turning their eyes toward the objectively good, he argued, Americans might recover that pervasive religiosity that made the maintenance of a liberal order possible.
You may or may not find that compelling. But if persuasion within the liberal order is the solution to Catholicism's decline, few are doing more than Bishop Barron to hasten its revival.