I’m strongly motivated by the Church’s call to evangelize. I think Pope Francis is the bee’s knees because he has tried very hard to place before the Church the imperative to evangelize. That’s why he launched his papacy by issuing Evangelii Gaudium. I have said since the start of his reign that you can basically sum up everything he has to say in the words, “He has preached good news to the poor.” What so many find “confusing” about him is as obvious as an open book to me: Evangelize fearlessly and do so in a way that places the good of the poor before our own good.
The trouble, of course, is that the former makes him anathema to Reactionary Catholics and the latter makes him anathema to American Conservatives (and these are often the same people). Reactionaries hate evangelism because it brings riff-raff into the Church and their vision is of a smaller, purer Church in which the riff-raff are both barred from entering and those riff-raff in the Church are driven out and purged. To give you a taste of the mindset, I give you a reader who recently wondered aloud how gays had gotten into the Church. It never occurred to him that they were born and baptized here and that wondering how they “got in” was like wondering how they “got in” to Times Square. The Church is the biggest public space on the planet. Anybody can come in and it began with the mandate, “Go therefore into all the world.” It’s catholic. Universal. It proposes the salvation of the whole human race as the project. Riff-raff especially included.
But Reactionaries hate all that. They see the Church as a fortress keeping out invaders, not as Jesus created it: a missionary society fearlessly invading the world with the gospel just as God invaded the world in the Incarnation. Jesus, speaking prophetically, said, ““Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk 16:15–18).
His point was not that Christians should be Appalachian snake handlers. It was to use several different images to communicate the basic point that we are not to stay in the Fortress, not to cower in fear, not to huddle and hide and live in perpetual terror of impurity, contamination, defeat, and on the defensive. We have the grace of the Spirit to beat the devil, to speak to the whole world, to fight the powers of hell, to digest and use whatever the world flings at us and turn it to good, and to overcome the sickness of sin. That’s the point. That is what the apostles believed and lived, doing things like “becoming all things to all” and preaching to Jews, Gentiles, barbarians, slaves, free, men, women, and everybody else the early Church encountered. That’s what the Church is supposed to do: engage the world.
And that is what most Catholics do not believe and Bp. Robert Barron attempts to model. I respect that.
Funny story. When I debated Michael Voris a few years back, Michael kept bringing the conversation back to what he clearly regarded as one of the gravest threats the Church faces in our lifetime: then-Fr. Robert Barron. I was amazed by this and even more amazed that the roomful of 600 men in which we debated clearly agreed with him for the most part. What it came down to was Barron’s attitude of hope and his agreement with Benedict XVI that it was legit to hope (not know, but hope) for the salvation of most people.
It is an opinion well within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy, but not within the pale of Reactionary desires for the damnation of most. But since Voris and his audience could not pour out their wrath on the real culprit–Benedict XVI–for holding an opinion identical to Barron’s, they had to do what such people always do: vilify the messenger. (Now that Benedict is gone and the hated Francis is here, they can direct their malignant hatred directly at the Holy Father).
For my part, I was astonished at the malice directed at Barron, whom I have always regarded as the best evangelist working in the English-speaking world. I finally responded to Voris and the crowd by saying, “The Church has a thousand huge problems. Pope Francis and Fr. Robert Barron are not among them.” (It was October of 2013 and the cult of Francis-hatred was already rapidly germinating.)
Of course, that has not slowed Reactionaries down. In 2017, newly-minted Bishop Barron went on The Rubin Report with a gay Libertarian named Dave Rubin to talk about the faith:
Surprisingly, he went over well with a number of atheists and gays (his target audience for that interview). Sadly and unsurprisingly, he was vilified by Voris and by Lifesite News, which banned Brandon Vogt from its comboxes for the crime of not denouncing him. His “spiritual poison” (as Voris called it)? Failing to denounce his host for being gay. Because, as everybody knows, people who totally do not share Christian and Catholic presuppositions will definitely change their minds if you scream at them like Michael Voris.
So anyway, the other day, Bp. Barron had another conversation, this time with Ben Shapiro, a Jewish right winger and culture warrior. I posted the the clip on the Book of Face and commented that I agree with ever word Bp. Barron said:
Now, I full expected an assault from the Usual Suspects declaring (if they were Reactionary Catholics) that he is a heretic who denies all non-Catholics are damned and (if they are Fundamentalists) that he is a heretic for denying all non-Christians are damned. (In fact, he does neither. He affirms that all who are saved are saved through Christ and that no one comes to the Father except through Christ–and therefore is in union with the Church, his Body, whether they realize it or not in this life).
What I did not expect was that he would now be chewed out for associating with Ben Shapiro. But that’s what happened. His mere willingness to talk to the guy was attacked, again and again, because, in talking to him, he no more flung the table over and denounced him for being a right wing Libertarian than he denounced Rubin for being a gay Libertarian. And so, various of my readers, including friends I respectfully disagree with, denounced him for “letting himself be used” in a way I watched him get denounced for “letting himself by used” by the “gay lobby” a couple of years ago.
I have mentioned it before but I will point it out again. When the centurion approached Jesus about healing his slave, Jesus (despite knowing that slavery was gravely and intrinsically immoral and an affront to the dignity of both the owner and the slave) did not take that opportunity to ream the Centurion out for owning slaves, nor to attack him as the tool of an occupying power oppressing not only his fellow Jews but peoples all over the ancient world. Instead, he looked for the growing edge and commended the Centurion for his faith, praising him as having greater faith than even his fellow Jews. That’s how evangelism works.
This conversation with Shapiro is, very obviously, a conversation, not between a bishop and a culture warrior, but between a Catholic Christian and a serious Jew, addressing an issue that has been a bone of contention between Jews (and many Protestants) and Catholics since interreligious and ecumenical conversations began. Barron handled it with grace, intelligence, and theological accuracy in a way that I can only dream that Catholics in social media could emulate. Yes. Barron did not take the opportunity to denounce Shapiro about a hundred matters unrelated to the topic at hand. Jesus did not denounce the centurion for owning slaves either and instead commended him for his faith. Was he “letting himself be used” by an occupying power? Barron simply answered his host’s questions. Not everything has to be about culture war 100% of the time forever.
The irony, for me, is that what lies behind both denunciations is the conviction that the main thing Catholics have to do is fear contamination, not confidently proclaim the gospel. The idea that the paramount goal is to seize opportunities and proclaim the gospel, not fearfully hold back lest we be seen talking to the Wrong People is nowhere in sight in this complaint against Barron. Might be he perceived wrongly be some in speaking to Shapiro as to Rubin? Sure. I guess. Jesus was perceived wrongly for talking to tax collectors and sinners. But the mandate of the gospel is still to invade the world with it, not hide it under a bushel. Of all the thousand problems the Church has, too many intelligent and articulate evangelists willing to go anywhere and talk to anybody is not among them.
Go Bishop Barron!