Abbiamo riportato nei giorni scorsi l’approfondita recensione comparsa su Crux a firma di Austen Ivereigh, considerato il più importante biografo di papa Francesco, al libro di Massimo Borghesi sul pensiero del Papa. Ora a pochi giorni di distanza il vaticanista inglese torna sul libro di Borghesi in un articolo scritto per The Tablet e riguardante il vescovo ausiliare di Los Angeles Robert Barron.
The Tablet, 2 dicembre 2017, The line of beauty (A. Ivereigh)
One of the most successful Catholic evangelists of the digital era, Robert Barron, discusses with a papal biographer and communications expert the different approaches he and Pope Francis take to closing the gap between contemporary culture and the Church / By AUSTEN IVEREIGH
WHEN WE spoke recently, Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Robert Barron – whom Pope Francis has called “the bishop who makes the airwaves tremble” – had just taken up the chairmanship of the US Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis to which they had elected him last year. So, first question: What happens now that the creator of the epic Catholicism series of DVDs, founder-president of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and the Archbishop Fulton Sheen de nos jours, is in charge of the US Church’s national evangelisation strategy?
The answer, it seems, is focus. “Brothers, you know this is problem number one, and we have to concentrate on that,” Barron tells me was his message to his fellow bishops. By problem number one he means the “Nones”, those who identify themselves as irreligious. There are more than 56 million of them in the US, outnumbering both Catholics and Protestants.
Barron has long parlayed with the Nones and speaks about them with the confidence of a missionary who knows his tribe. He wants the bishops to get behind a “new apologetics” that will tackle head-on the big issues for this group: religion and science, the idea of God, plus sex, violence and the Bible. He goes into all these topics in his new book, To Light a Fire on the Earth, based on conversations with the veteran Catholic journalist John Allen. Allen calls Barron “the best English-language evangeliser of the early twenty-first century”. The book describes a theological journey that took Barron from would-be academic to airwave-trembler, and reveals the strategic and theological thinking behind the book’s subtitle, Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age.
I CAN’T HELP connecting Barron’s book with Massimo Borghesi’s new study, Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Una Biografia Intellettuale, which explores the complex hinterland of creative and original thinking that has shaped the extraordinary evangeliser that is Pope Francis. Despite obvious contrasts – Barron, born in Chicago in 1959, is 21 years younger than the Argentinian pope, and was made a bishop only in 2015 – they are both acute discerners of contemporary culture. Like Bergoglio, Barron is “captivating”. This doesn’t mean that they dazzle or bamboozle. Just the opposite: in their humility and graciousness, they create an attractive space for audiences to share their passions, as Francis does brilliantly in the Ted talk (2.7m views) he recorded earlier this year. And Barron’s “come-on-in-let’s-thinkthis-through-together” tone is instantly recognisable to anyone who has watched his 10-part Catholicism series or has swum in his YouTube channel, where his thoughtful videos have clocked up more than 20m views. Even on a phone line from LA, he makes me feel we’re on a jolly treasure hunt together.
A SECOND POINT in common: the passion they’re inviting you to share is not an idea as much as a transformed existence. Both men like to quote Pope Benedict’s famous line in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Hence, too, their shared admiration for the Swiss ex-Jesuit theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who in the 1970s and 1980s offered a kind of post-liberal path to faith. “Post-liberal” is Barron’s self-description. It means he is a son of Vatican II with no desire to resile from it, but he became frustrated with what he calls the “beige Catholicism” of the post-Council era he grew up in. Its rush to relevance and accessibility, he says, emptied out much of the richness and depth of the Church’s tradition, and lost sight of the divine person at its heart.
In Argentina, Bergoglio saw Catholicism turn red rather than beige – insufficiently critical in its eager adoption of ideologies of modernisation and Marxism. It’s striking how both these future evangelisers were dissatisfied in many ways with post-conciliar culture, and how they sought to reconnect with something deeper and older: tradition, as it were, but without traditionalism.
In the 1980s and 1990s Barron and Bergoglio were enthralled by Balthasar’s theological aesthetics. While Catholic Christianity represents the fullness of all three so-called “transcendentals” – beauty, goodness and truth – both men, following Balthasar, became convinced that in post-modernity the invitation to faith is firstly through beauty, which is what moves and possesses us. So both are big on culture. As a seminary rector, Bergoglio stocked the library with Balthasar and made sure his Jesuit charges knew their literature, poetry and history. In Catholicism, Barron globetrotted in search of the marvels of the Catholic past and present in art, letters and architecture.
Here’s where I see a difference. For Barron, beauty is a strategic “way in” to faith because in a culture of relativism, as he tells me, “there’s such an immediate reaction against appeals to the true or the good because no one wants to be told what to think or what to do”. There is “something that’s easier about the beautiful: it’s not seen as aggressive in the same way, it’s more inviting and more winsome”.
For Bergoglio, the via pulchritudinis follows a deep discernment about contemporary culture: post-modernity is not an ideology or even an idea (indeed, it rejects ideas as mere narratives) but rather a way of being, one that sunders the search for beauty from truth and goodness and so ends in consumerism, gratification and individualism. So you don’t respond to libertinism with doctrines or abstract rules but with another way of being, a radically alternative praxis, such as that of St Francis of Assisi.
OF COURSE, BARRON gets that beauty is not just an aesthetic thing, that it’s a way of being – which is why, he says, the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century was St Teresa of Kolkata. But the beauty door is how you get to the other two doors, and especially truth: “The way of beauty needs to be bolstered by a very strong intellectualism,” is how he puts it. Nones, he says, love nothing better than an intellectual engagement, but the Church has pretty much ditched the culture of apologetics. When the New Atheists – led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – went on their anti-religious jihad after 9/11, arguing that religion was irrational, joyless and dangerous, Catholics were ill-equipped to launch an intellectually credible response.
Pope Francis would not dispute the need for a creative apologetics — indeed, he calls for it in Evangelii Gaudium – but he believes the priority is to restore the beauty of mercy. In his discernment, the Church responded to the threat of secularisation and relativism with an ethical defence, and in the process Catholicism became detached from beauty and goodness. It risked losing sight of Christ, and of becoming precisely what Benedict insisted it was not: an ethical system, a set of lofty ideas – what the New Atheists caricatured it for being.
Hence the popular view of the Church at the end of the two long teaching papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as distant, abstract, cold, legalistic and dogmatic. And hence Francis’ conviction that what is needed now is “pastoral conversion”: restoring the particular to the universal, mercy to truth, the pastoral to the doctrinal, so that they are in healthy tension. Massimo Borghesi’s study shows that Bergoglio’s reflection on Balthasar convinced him that communicating the beauty of the Incarnation was, above all, about presence, closeness, concreteness. Beauty is the praxis of mercy that captivates the heart, and leads it to the good and the true.
So if there was a pressing “post-liberal moment” in the years after the Council, as Barron has argued, could it be that Francis now represents a “post-conservative moment”?
Isn’t this, too, about putting Christ back in the centre, by restoring the tension of mercy with truth, the particular with the universal?
Barron considers this. Francis, he says carefully, is the fruit of providence, the Holy Spirit stepping in to “change the conversation” – through his emphasis on creation, the poor, mercy and so on – just when it was most needed in the midst of a serious crisis of credibility (sex abuse, corruption etc.). This papacy, says Barron, is “a stroke of genius on the part of Divine Providence”.
YET BORGHESI shows that the shift under Francis is not just a strategic move but the fruit of a deep discernment about the gap between contemporary culture and the Church. Hence the attempt to reintegrate mercy and truth in the much-disputed postsynod exhortation on marriage and family life. There are several US bishops resisting Amoris Laetitia but Barron isn’t one of them. He makes it clear in To Light a Fire on the Earth that Francis isn’t dialing down the ideals of marriage but dialing up the shepherd’s role – and “that’s the right combination”. He thinks the very ambiguity of chapter eight is “appropriate to that level of discernment”, and that critics are overlooking the “two different epistemic moves” involved in the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried. One is the objective state of sin or disorder, the other is the degree of subjective
culpability. “And I just hear Francis insisting over and again on that clarification.”
The great Catholic evangelist of the digital age is deeply frustrated that the powerfully rich teaching of Amoris Laetitia – “an evangelical document about the nature of love”, as he puts it – has been hijacked by a fractious debate over footnote 351, in which a few cardinals and moralists are warning that the Pope is either diluting orthodoxy or even embracing heresy. All this bickering, Barron tells me, is “evangelically disastrous”.
And yet, I can’t help wondering if the protests at Amoris Laetitia indicate something deeper than a misunderstanding of pastoral theology: we are seeing the Church learning again to live in the tension between truth and mercy, the universal and the particular, the abstract and the concrete. If that means the Church restores the beauty of its message with a face of mercy, and in the process captivates – or at least intrigues – the Nones, that can only be good for Barron’s outreach, and the bickering will have been a small price to pay.
To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age is published by Image Books.
Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, and How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.