Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Robert Barron: A Bishop for Today's Church

Fr. Barron at the Taj Mahony
Origen would be remembered as a saint if not for two spectacularly bad ideas: that the soul pre-exists the body and that because of the soul's pre-existence all beings with souls, right down to Satan in Hell himself, will one day be saved in an act of restoration. True, he was condemned without a specific citation to his works by an ecumenical council and there have since been efforts to restore his name, most notably by Benedict XVI, but the lingering doubt over his beliefs persists. Neither one has been explicitly condemned wholesale. Origen was a chain between St. Clement of Alexandria and later writers like St. Gregory of Nyssa, who also believed in universal salvation. In Origen, the Church had its first great thinker. Even St. Vincent of Lerins asked, "Who would not rather be wrong with Origen than right with anyone else?" The spiritual life of the Church stood athwart his condemnation at the Second Council of Constantinople and ignored it for the most part until after the middle ages. The various local rites of Latin Christianity read his works during the Divine Office, most notably Sarum dedicating his commentary on Matthew to Christmas Eve. In the Greek Church, his book on prayer has always been read. None would doubt his luminous place in the history of the Church if not for those two bad ideas, which is why it is so irritating that he has resurfaced in some circles precisely and exclusively because of those two bad ideas. 

Modern conservatives are fond of complaining about President Obama, understandably, because he promised to change America "fundamentally." The America of this president, candidates will clamor, is one of identity politics, mediocre quasi-socialism, limp-wristed foreign policy, and a passive aggressive hostility to his own armed forces. They are absolutely right, so why are they complaining? Leaders in democracy are no better or worse than the people who elect them. They are who we are. They give us want we want. They want whatever we want. Christianity in the media age is no different. Although not a democracy, Christian belief has caught the bug of 1776. The Church of England has been in full communion with political correctness for some time. The Eastern Orthodox have generally resisted it in the old world, although Kallistos Ware, Anthony Bloom, and a handful of others have made remarkable progress in the West. And in the Latin Catholic Church we have modern episcopal conferences which, fine institutions which will not affirm political correctness, but will leave it uncorrected. Enter Fr. Robert Barron.

Fr. Barron's name has floated on the internet for years. He used to make watchable movie reviews and ten minute commentaries on modern issues from a Catholic perspective. At some point he discovered that large sums of money were available to fund projects and his Catholicism series was born. Catholicism was supposedly an evangelization tool, but it is more often a visual spectacle viewed by Catholics with neo-con politics to affirm their perspective on things, a feel good movie. Fr. Barron took Origen out of the dustbin of history some time ago not for his book on prayer or his commentary on Matthew, but for his defective reasons for believing all men will be saved. The appeal behind feel good movies and tepid theology disguised as ancient thought (the purification process latent in the older belief behind universalism is conveniently forgotten) is feeling. Sweet, sugary and smooth feeling. 

Fr. Barron has been made an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he will be fortuitously near cameras ready to capture his every idea about Origen, his every thought on blasphemer and heretic Hans Urs von Balthasar, and his every gripe with the assault on the first amendment. He is what the American bishops perceive modern Church-goers want to hear: more or less Catholic with a lightened attitude and some progressive ideas that will keep Aunt Marge out of the eternal flames. He is what we are. He wants what we want. Yes, this selection by Francis' men is almost assuredly a reward for promoting a moderate pro-reform and pro-spirit of the Council line when "continuity" and traditionalism were both popular under Benedict. He was faithful to the Church they wanted all along, and now he has been granted our hearts' desire.

This torpid brand of religion demands little of the faithful and even less of the unfaithful. Rather than demanding conversion of heart and mind, it tells us that we are all saved, but should encounter God for the sake of experiences of holiness. By contrast, Mattins today for St. Mary Magdalen tell us of a woman who encountered holiness, embraced it, converted in repentance, and found heaven only after this baptism into Christ:
"At first when she sought Him, she found Him not; she went on searching, and so it came to pass that she found Him; and this was so, to the end that her longing might grow in earnestness, and so in its earnestness might find what it sought. Hence is it that the Bride in the Song of Songs saith as representing the Church: By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth. We seek on our bed for Him Whom our soul loveth, when, having got some little rest in this world, we still sigh for the Presence of our Redeemer but it is by night that we so seek Him, for though our mind may be on the alert for Him, yet still He is hidden from our eyes by the darkness that now is."


  1. At least, Origen was a greater mind than fr. Barron. Origen concocted his belief by himself, and on the other hand, fr. Barron needs support from Origen and H. U. von Balthasar (whose theories have nothing to do with apokatastasis) for his own musings.

    1. Origen also would likely have been disgusted with Barron's outlook as a whole. While those two bad ideas were a side-note in Origen's otherwise illustrious theological work, Barron built his outlook on those two bad ideas and missed all the good stuff.

  2. Let's hope the folks from Eclectic Orthodoxy blog don't find this post! If they do, please turn on comment moderation.

    1. Had to look up what that blog was. How very idiosyncratic!

  3. I hope his movie reviews will continue!

  4. One thing that is totally off topic but which came to my mind. Again the words of consecration.

    If the words of institution and the intention to consecrate with them is so vital to the consecration, how come that the Eastern Orthodox have valid Eucharist when they deliberately suppress their own intention to consecrate with the words of institution? Shouldn't that invalidate the Eucharist? If not, then consecration truly is murkier than it seems.

    1. The Catholic communion has always upheld the validity of Orthodox liturgies (under normal circumstances), so I don't see why the emphasis on the words is a necessary piece. If they were to excise the words, or any other piece of the anaphora for that matter, that would be another case entirely (the Byzantine anaphoras aren't like Addai+Mari or some of the others where the words of institution appear to have never been part of it). It's not like anyone intends to cut pieces out of an anaphora.

      Admittedly, the suppression of intent to consecrate specifically with the words is not a suppression of the intent to consecrate. The Orthodox priest still presumably intends that this bread and wine will become the body and blood of Christ and says the right prayers to invoke God to do so. The moment it happens is a bit of a moot point if we accept that it has happened by the end of the Eucharistic anaphora, no?

    2. Marko,
      A question for you: If a priest were to walk past a bakery, look at the baguettes in the window, and say, "This is My body" with the intent to consecrate, what do you think would happen to that bread?

    3. Guys guys, calm down. What i wrote i wrote against myself. There was a post where i vehemently claimed that words of institution are absolutely necessary for the consecration and i ignored any proof to the contrary. But it has shined upon me that if that were true, than the EO liturgies wouldn't be valid since they do not intend to consecrate with them, but that is in a sense a part of the narrative. But the CC has always regarded EO liturgies to be valid, even at Council of Florence which made the declaration of the words of institution being words of consecration.

      Also this can be used to counter those who say that Novus Ordo is invalid since it somehow presents words of institution merely as part of a narrative, and not as sacramental form (which is an impression i never got from Novus Ordo Masses), and thus it distorts the required intention rendering NO invalid. But even if the narrative thing were true, we have EO liturgies which have the same "problem" but are still viewed as valid by the CC. That's what i'm saying.

      @EV Ofc. The consecration is done by the end of the Anaphora for sure.

      @AD Well there is a prohibition in the CIC (can. 927) that one should not consecrate one matter without the other, that and both outside of the Mass. That implies that it can be done.

    4. It's alright. I was simply explaining the ins and outs of the concepts and theology. :)

      As to AD's question, perhaps it can be done but probably not. God is not subject to our calling him down. Should he choose not to do so - though everything we did is right - he could refuse to manifest himself in the bread and wine. Transubstantiation is not human controlled magic and the prohibition, I think, is a warning to not even attempt to separate the Mass and the Canon.

    5. :)
      Yes, that might be true. Fr. Gregory Hesse was of an opinion that outside of the Mass, consecration was impossible. Still the language is not "attempt to consecrate", but only "consecrate", which to me implies that it can be done.

      But if it can be done - why not just have Mass as simple consecration rite like the Palmarians do?

      Many questions.

      Great mystery.

      (wow. so theology)

    6. Marko,

      The bread example by AD and the Byzantine liturgy elicit a consistent answer, that the former cannot effect a consecration and the latter can precisely because one is not a Catholic setting for the Eucharist to take place and the other is. The Church's understanding of intention is less the internal mind of the priest and more the external forum in which something happens. The reason Leo XIII decided against Anglican orders was not the intention of the Anglican bishops, as many undoubtedly kept Catholic sympathies; he decided against it because their ordination and Eucharistic rites made it clear that the Catholic understanding of things was excluded. This is far from true in the Greek rite. It is an ancient and accepted rite of the Church. As long as the priest is a priest, the bread is bread, and the wine is wine, the Sacrament will take place. I would also note that the tired Scholastic phrase "to do what the Church does" may also illuminate us here: priest do not summon exact and explicit intentions to change matter during Mass, they intend to celebrate a Sacrament and worship God; even if the priest emphasizes one part of the anaphora over the other, if he intends generally "to do what the Church does", the Sacrament will take place.

      I have never understood why people exclude the possibility that the consecration might happen at another moment in the Greek liturgy. I do understand that the Latin Church has accepted the Institution Narrative in its particular words as the exact moment of change because of its theology of the priest in "persona Christi." However, every other sacrament has numerous forms throughout the Church (think of the different forms of absolution and confirmation/chrismation used throughout Apostolic Christianity). Why can the Eucharist not? Of course the descending epiclesis of the Greek liturgy is a development at the end of the Patristic age and arguably an innovation, which would be a strike against it, and yet I still see no reason why in principle there could not be alternative forms for consecration.

      As an aside concerning the idea of intention and setting: I am unaware of any historical precedent for consecrating the Eucharist or conferring Holy Orders outside of Mass/Liturgy. Is anyone else knowledgeable on the subject? There are short ways of doing every other sacrament except these two, which tells me that the setting and intention are intricately tied to each other.

    7. The Beal, Coriden, and Green commentary on the Code of Canon Law, in referring to canon 927, states that this brings up two points: 1) a theological opinion that the consecration of only one of the elements renders the Eucharist invalid; and 2) that the strong wording of this canon (nefas est) indicates that even a eucharistic celebration while imprisoned, for example, is strictly forbidden. Hmm... what of Fr. Ciszek?

    8. @TRT

      My comment was just on that line. No need for such explanations :)

  5. Hard to disagree with this analysis. Fr. (now Bishop) Barron is a very engaging speaker and a warm personality, but there is always the sense, even setting aside his Balthasarian enthusiasms, that the Catholicism he's pitching is not an especially challenging one. He is what we are.

    That said, I think we have to realize that the positive reason for his elevation is not sufficient (though I understand that this is what you wanted to focus on); there was a negative reason, too, and there's good reason to believe that it was the more decisive one, especially among those in the know in Chicago. As Phil Lawler has noted, moving Barron to Los Angeles means moving him out of Chicago, and that means moving him out of Mundelein. And that means that Archbp. Cupich can finally put his own man, and his own stamp, on Mundelein. And that is not an encouraging prospect. Say what you will about Barron, but under his direction the seminary made some considerable strides in climbing out of its Bernardin-era corruption of dissent and sexual shenanigans; some decent faculty hires (Hahn, Levering, et al) were made and some bad ones eased out, moving the center of gravity to something at least barely on the conservative end of ressourcement, making it at least possible for a stable, orthodox seminarian to survive there. Whereas Archbp. Cupich's track record with seminaries and vocations is not at all promising (in Spokane he dropped from 26 seminarians to just four in less than four years, and Bishop White Seminary disintegrated), and his close connections to the Bernardin machine, with all that entails, are alarming.