Fr Robert Barron is an unusual figure: he not only holds the Chair of Faith and Culture at the seminary at Mundelein, Illinois, but he is also a YouTube evangelist, a “post-liberal, post-conservative evangelical Catholic”, as he says.
He was in Paris when we spoke, filming Catholicism, a high-quality television series produced by his Word on Fire online organisation and modelled on Kenneth Clark’s BBC classic, Civilisation.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “I was bowled over by that show. I thought, wouldn’t Catholicism be a great subject for that kind of treatment, where you talk about the faith but also show it and go to the great places?”
Fr “Bob” Barron didn’t choose his mission as an online evangelist. Four years ago, when he was working as an academic, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, asked him to get more involved with the internet. He comes from an Irish Catholic background. His family were loyal Democrats and he recalls as a boy joining in with his father in booing Richard Nixon when he came on television.
The Catholic Church, Fr Barron thinks, has been “behind the curve” with the new media in comparison with Protestants. “I’ve just started in my own small way doing it,” he says. “I discovered almost overnight that I was the leading Catholic media user in America.”
He took what was valuable out of the evangelical tradition and added to it what he calls the “the rich artistic and intellectual tradition” of the Catholic tradition. On the website Word On Fire you will see articles, Scripture commentaries, and videos – dozens of them – in which Fr Barron sits in his study and chats. So fluent is he as a speaker that you hardly notice what he’s actually doing is “evangelising the culture”, as he would say, and drawing you into an elegant argument.
He surveys the contemporary scene from Barack Obama or Christopher Hitchens to the latest papal encyclical, The Sopranos – “Tony Soprano is sort of an Augustinian figure” – or the music of Bob Dylan, which he says is deeply biblical. He’s very clever and it does no harm that he seems solid. There’s nothing weird about him; neither is he a trendy tryhard.
The key thing for him is that Catholics should engage with the culture unapologetically. He’s fond of “John Paul Two”, as he calls him. “I think he was a very good example of this unapologetic but very genial Catholicism, not scolding and belligerent, but he was trying to show how attractive Catholicism was on its own terms.”
Not that he isn’t full of praise for the present Pope, especially for the “élan” of his literary style, but the Williamson affair, he says, showed a “lack of basic competence” in the Roman Curia. The Vatican should not have been unaware of information that could be found on Google. “Maybe the communications department has to be improved a tad,” he says.
He’s prepared to make such gentle criticisms because, as he says: “I’m with Cardinal Newman. He would say the Pope’s infallibility has nothing to do with his pragmatic judgments.” He has absolutely no time, however, for what he calls the “anti-Roman feeling”.
“If you go into a bookstore you’ll see all kinds of evangelical books with very confident titles and then a lot of the Catholic books are ‘Why I’m not a Catholic’, ‘Why I’m mad at the Pope’. Are we surprised that we’re not very effective in getting our message across?”
Of course, not everybody thinks evangelising is an appropriate thing for Catholics to be doing these days. “Evangelising gets a bad name because of bad evangelists, certainly on the evangelical side. That shouldn’t prevent us from doing the basic task of the Church, which is to bring people to Christ in his body the Church. Our goal is to preach to all nations. If we stop doing that we’ve lost our soul. You do it in a way that leads with the positives, but by God you do it.”
Is there any risk you might offend people who hold different beliefs? “Paul at the Areopagus in the Acts of the Apostles is doing things with evangelisation. He was talking to a very multicultural crowd, making no apology but doing it in a nonviolent way, proposing not imposing.”
If that’s the case, then, shouldn’t more priests be doing what you’re doing? “Yah, I think so. There’s a dearth of priests who are trained in use of the media. I think a lot of our bishops sort of get it but they didn’t come of age with all this technology.”
For the past four years the media work has taken up half of Fr Barron’s time and recently even more, since the Catholicism project has required endless travel.
“There’s strain involved in producing all this,” he says. “I’ve been criticised more in the past two years than I have in my entire priesthood, but you can’t let that get you down.”
It’s obvious the criticisms do bother him, though, and he points to the “bilousness” of Richard Dawkins and Hitchens. “They lead with the assumption that religious people are idiots and that’s what I find so insulting. We’re bad people – period. Well, we’re not going to get anywhere there.” Still he’d be “happy” to debate with them.
Then there is the vexed question of Obama. Fifty-four per cent of Catholics voted for the President. Fr Barron can understand it. “From a Catholic perspective, as an opponent of the Iraq war, I think Bush did a lot of damage.” But on the “central question” – abortion – he thinks Obama is “about as wrong as he could be”. Abortion is “pivotal” and not just one issue among many. “It’s like slavery in the 19th century. It’s like segregation in the 20th century.”
On sexual morality he says: “I think we can appear finger-wagging and moralistic.” He quotes Belloc – “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine there’s dancing, laughter and good red wine” – and says: “That is a very strong tradition in Catholicism and we should repudiate that fussy Puritanism and should lead with the positives of our sexual future.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks the Church should lower its standards. Quite the opposite. “I don’t think the official Church wants to compromise on the high moral values. Think of the Church’s view on just wars. The Church shouldn’t say it’s OK to drop atomic bombs on civilians. Now, if you’re an army chaplain dealing with a soldier who’s wrestling with these issues, that’s a different thing, now you’re doing it as the pastoral work of helping someone.”
Another of his enthusiasms is for the transformative role of liturgy. Mind you, he’s “no great devotee of the Latin Mass”, which he’s too young to remember. “The Novus Ordo Mass as said by John Paul Two and Mother Teresa can’t be all bad.”
Vatican II, and people like Romano Guardini and Henri de Lubac, wanted to renew the liturgy, but instead the faithful stayed away in droves. Why?
Partly, he says, the proposals contained in the “beautiful” conciliar texts were poorly implemented; even more, the rising tide of secularism is to blame. “Vatican II is in some significant way unrealised,” he says. “What they wanted to do was to let the liturgy be the leaven for the whole culture and to bring more and more Catholics into it. I lived through an era of trying to get people to Mass with folk Masses and clown Masses and that didn’t work. I think the liturgy done with great spiritual seriousness would be attractive. I want people sent out from the liturgy and the sanctification of the laity through their work in the world. Effectively we have this sort of privatisation of religion. That’s an anti-Vatican II point of view, the view that ‘I practise privately but what I do in my secular work is in another sphere’. The whole point of Vatican II as I understand it was to let your spiritual life invade your secular life.”
Does he experience doubts himself? “Sure, you always struggle in the spiritual order, because you’re not dealing with something that you can see. What I’ve done most of my life is wrestle with theological questions. I hope what I’m sharing is the fruit of some of that wrestling.”
The thing I take away from the conversation with Fr Barron is that he believes Catholicism is about being happy and fulfilled. He’s always using words like “genial” to describe his approach, and he means it. He says: “Catholic life is about joy, it’s about the attitude, it’s about how to become happy, and happiness comes from self-giving.”
There’s less of that business about enduring wretched misery in this world in anticipation of reward in the next. For a long time I thought gloom was rather the point of it. Now, I find Fr Barron’s sunshine Catholicism is more appealing.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald (October 2, 2009)