As a general rule I am not a fan of celebrity priests. They often operate outside the established structures of ecclesiastical discipline, packing unaccountable war chests and creating online followings that make it difficult for any bishop to rein them in. All that said, there is also a great need in the Church for media-savvy clerics with theological acumen and excellent teaching skills to evangelize digital space.
One of those priests, now Bishop Robert Barron, took on the task of bringing the Gospel into mass media and cyberspace. Barron is now (rightly) famous for his production of the ten-part video series, Catholicism. Since then, he has built a media ministry (Word on Fire) that seems to be just about everywhere, bringing strong pedagogical content with high production values to pretty much every available platform.
Theologically, Bishop Barron and Word on Fire are squarely in the camp of orthodoxy in the vein of Vatican II, John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Neither hyper traditionalist nor liberal, Barron speaks with the measured sanity of a highly intelligent man with genuine intellectual curiosity, who tries always to think with the mind of the Church.
Bishop Barron seems to have tweaked the sensitive radar of online inquisitors who have made him one of their favorite critical targets.
Barron’s appreciation of the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of their bêtes noires. Specifically, they object to Barron’s approval of Balthasar’s view that we can at least hope that “all shall be saved.” Regardless of what one thinks of that position, it remains true that there is nothing heterodox about it. Neither Balthasar nor Barron espouse universalism straight-up, and both condemn that view as heretical. So, we are left with an argument over numbers, with Barron arguing that we can hope that the numbers of those consigned to eternal perdition are few, while his critics seem to hold to the view that the numbers must be vast—a kind of “new and improved” doctrine of the massa damnata, according to which everyone except the traditionalist cognoscenti are in Hell.
A common tactic in these attacks on Barron’s views on Hell is to quote Matthew 7:14 where Christ says that the gate is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it, while the path to perdition is wide, with many on it.
The gate is narrow—the gate is Christ himself as the one Savior of the world—and the wide path of perdition is so owing to the universal reign of sin. Christ does not say, however, that all those on the path of perdition will end up in Hell. He warns of how trapped in sin and needful of salvation are we all. Not content with this, however, the critics are intent on turning the verse into a kind of eschatological census, which they then wield as a weapon against those who hold that Christ’s regime of grace is stronger than the bondage of the “strong man” who holds us all in slavery.
Either way, there is nothing either heretical or suspicious in Barron’s views on the topic. Don’t we pray at the end of each decade of the rosary “… lead all souls into Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy”?
The critics also point to a few interviews that Barron has given to Ben Shapiro and others where he repeats the teaching of Vatican II that salvation can be found outside of explicit faith in Christ. Building on Newman’s teachings on the primacy of conscience, Barron teaches what Vatican II teaches: that the moral conscience is Christ in our soul, and that a serious person who takes the moral law seriously and is truly trying to follow it can find the grace—Christ’s grace—of salvation therein.
One suspects that the animus of these critics arises from their negative attitude toward Vatican II as such, as well as from their discomfiture with all of “modern theology” post-Pascendi. Seen in that light, their criticism of folks like Bishop Barron is most properly interpreted as an attack on the path of the past five papacies, beginning with Pope John XXIII.
Right now, Bishop Barron is the most visible, eloquent, and popularly successful expositor of that tradition, and so he has become a shibboleth for them of the entirety of the modern Church.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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