In The Soul of the Apostolate Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard tells a fascinating story about Pope St. Pius X.
Chautard recounts how, on one occasion, an “eminent layman” who was spending some time with that great and holy pope, “let fall a few biting words against an enemy of the Church.” The pope immediately rebuked the layman, and then told him a story about a young priest that he knew.
When this priest was assigned to a new parish, said the pope, he immediately made it his mission to visit every single family within that parish, including any Jews, Protestants, and Freemasons. However, these visits shocked his parishioners, who complained to the bishop, who in turn called the priest before him and “reprimanded him severely.”
The priest, however, calmly replied: “My Lord, … Jesus orders his pastors, in the Gospel, to bring all His sheep into the fold…How are we going to do that without going out after them? Besides, I never compromise on principles, and I confine myself to expressing my interest and my charity towards all the souls entrusted to me by God, even the ones that have gone furthest astray.”
The pope recalled that the bishop was moved by this appeal, and granted his priest permission to continue these visits. And who was that priest? It was, the pope revealed, himself. “Therefore,” the Holy Father instructed the layman, “cling firmly to principles through thick and thin, but let your charity go out to all men, even the worst enemies of the Church.”
I chanced to re-read this story this week, and it immediately reminded me of the recent interview with Bishop Robert Barron, conducted by the gay, atheist host of The Rubin Report, Dave Rubin.
That interview has stirred some significant controversy, after Bishop Barron appeared at one point to argue against pursuing the overturning of Obergefell – the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex “marriage” in the United States. I believe Bishop Barron deserves much of the criticism that he has received for that answer (and we will return to that later). And yet, after watching the complete interview, I couldn’t help feeling that I had just watched something truly remarkable unfold.
When, after all, was the last time that any of us has seen a Catholic bishop sitting face-to-face with an avowed enemy of the Church, and forthrightly critiquing and challenging his atheism, lucidly defending many of the Church’s hard teachings, including the prohibition on abortion in the cases of rape, pithily distinguishing the central difference between Islam and Christianity, and proclaiming to a large, atheistic audience the salvific message of the crucified Christ (to name but a handful of topics that Rubin and Barron discussed): and all that with a disarming ease, humor, erudition, and warmth that clearly intrigued Rubin, and – judging by the many comments on Youtube – a huge number of his viewers?
I understand why many in conservative Catholic circles suspect Bishop Barron. His apparent embrace of the intellectually intriguing, but ultimately subversive “empty hell” theory of Hans Urs von Balthasar, for instance, is for many a warning sign: for does not recent history show that the peril of perdition is often the first doctrine jettisoned by ecclesiastical quislings and moral revolutionaries? And besides, have we not been betrayed badly enough these past few years by overly-charming “celebrity priests,” from Maciel to Cutié?
Meanwhile, the Church is being torn apart by dissension, intrigue, and moral waffling at the highest levels. Many who ardently love Christ and His Church are dismayed that we have a Pope, and a circle of advisors, who at times seem constitutionally incapable of speaking difficult moral truths with clarity and conviction. We are weary of clever, populist compromises with the zeitgeist.
Indeed, one of Bishop Barron’s points in the interview – that one possible error the Church can make is a form of “hyper-moralism,” in particular “beginning with moralizing about sex” – bears far-too-uncomfortable echoes of Pope Francis’ own warnings against becoming “obsessed” with issues like abortion, contraception and same-sex “marriage.” After all, whatever problems have assailed the Church these past few decades, “hyper-moralism” on sexuality hardly tops the list.
And yet, Bishop Barron is not Pope Francis. He has a gift for clarity. And, caveats aside (we’re getting there), much of the Rubin interview amounted to a truly masterful exercise in straightforward, old-school evangelization. “Going to the peripheries,” “taking risks,” “getting one’s hands dirty”: we’re tired of the catch-phrases. But here, they seem to apply.
Indeed, in the midst of the chaos of our age, above all the chaos in which the Church Herself is currently plunged, I have often wondered what space there is left for the business of pure evangelization – the proclamation of the Gospel, which is not at heart a moral code found in complex theological treatises, but a call to an intimate and life-altering relationship with a person: Jesus Christ.
We who are closest to the Church are too often now entirely taken up with the business of fighting fires. Very often this requires us to engage with theological complexities that leave the uninitiated cold, and bewildered. To explain the controversies that have dogged the interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, for instance, to someone who has almost no grasp on the basics of the Gospel, would be an exercise in futility, or worse.
To go about fulfilling our calling to be evangelists (“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature”) now requires a conscious effort to break out of the cycle of controversy – a conscious effort to transcend the energetic disputes of the day, and to focus our energies on the fundamental Christian work of enticing people with the compelling message and personality of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Bishop Barron clearly has a heart for the Gospel, and the problem of evangelization has evidently much preoccupied him. In a blog post at least obliquely responding to the critiques he received about his gay “marriage” response, the bishop explained (rightly enough) that “there is a lot more to Christianity than the ‘pelvic issues.’”
When you read the great evangelizing texts of the New Testament—the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the book of Revelation, etc.—you don’t get the impression that what their authors wanted you primarily to understand is sexual morality. Rather, they wanted you to know that the great story of Israel had come to its highpoint and that God, in the person of the crucified and risen Messiah, had come to reign as king of the world. God, redemption, the cross, the resurrection, Jesus the Lord, telling the Good News—these are the master themes of the New Testament.
This, of course, is quite true, and should be obvious to any Christian. But where the bishop would be wrong, is if he believes that in order to effectively proclaim the Good News, we must – contrary to Pope St. Pius X’s warnings – “compromise on principle,” cowing to the prejudices of a skeptical age by apologizing for or downplaying the hard teachings of Christ, simply because they may cause some to stop up their ears. That was not the example given to us by Christ Himself, who calmly watched his disciples abandon him after he revealed the hard teaching of the Eucharist.
Which brings us to that answer on gay “marriage.”
Firstly, it should be clarified that Bishop Barron did not state that Obergefell should not be overturned, period. Indeed, Rubin at one point attempted to lead Barron to go so far, suggesting that the Church’s teaching on same-sex “marriage” is not so central that the state has a compelling interest in banning it. Bishop Barron objected to that, and clarified that insofar as it impinges upon the nature of one of the fundamental structures of society, there is certainly a compelling reason for the state to legislate on the issue. So far, therefore, he did not sacrifice principle.
That said, the rapidity with which he assured Rubin that he would not want to “press” for, or “jump on a crusader’s tank” to overturn Obergefell at this time, clearly telegraphed weakness on the issue. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when every sign of weakness is being leapt on and exploited by the enemies of the Church and the family to quell the lingering resistance. Furthermore, I believe his answer, and subsequent clarification, show that he grossly underestimates the degree to which same-sex “marriage” is being used as a Trojan horse to undermine fundamental rights and freedoms of Christians, including the right of the Catholic Church to operate adoption agencies, hospitals, and schools in accordance with its teachings.
As for the bishop’s insistence that the Church is larger than the “pelvic issues” – that is well and good. But surely he recalls what his literary hero G.K. Chesterton once prophesied: “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” It seems unsurprising, then, that the bishop finds that he must often pivot to the “pelvic issues”: for that is ground zero of our current cultural demolition, and where the enemies of the Church are concentrating their efforts.
After decades of betrayals by weak – and sometimes blatantly heterodox – bishops and bishops conferences, who have reneged on their duty to protect the spiritual and physical welfare of the flock, it was certainly disconcerting to hear Bishop Barron suggest legislative retreat as a viable path forward. “Personal witness and education” – his suggested solutions to the current conundrum – are vital of course: but on this issue commitment to legislation is a sine qua non, if we are going to have any hope of being taken seriously. Obergefell is not, as the bishop’s language and tone suggested, simply some regrettable decision that we can quietly weather until a better day arrives: its gravity demands concerted and courageous resistance, even in lieu of practical hope.
The stakes could not be higher. Ex-gay-porn actor Joseph Sciambra has criticized Bishop Barron, arguing that the devastation that has consumed the gay sub-culture, which he witnessed first-hand in the deaths of so many of his friends from HIV/AIDS, in many cases rests squarely on the shoulders of negligent and faithless pastors. “If the Church has been ‘disordered’ in any sense on this issue,” he argues (responding to Bishop Barron’s fears that at times the only message that gay individuals have heard from the Church is that they are “disordered”), “it’s that bishops have allowed for this confusion and open deception to continue completely unchecked.”
Pope St. Pius X finished his story about the zealous young priest, saying, “The future proved that the priest was right, because he had the happiness to convert a few of these strays, and inspired all the others with a great respect for our Holy Church.”
My hope is that Bishop Barron will continue to speak to the hunger and the sufferings of this lost generation, clinging to his central commitment to pursue a pure form of evangelization, calling people to a relationship with Christ with the clarity and zeal with which he is gifted. It is only through such bold evangelical efforts, for which he has rightly earned a reputation as a pioneer and model, that we will ever reach the growing crowds of “nones” – those who profess no religion.
And yet, I also hope that he is listening to the critiques that come from his own faithful flock, which originate also from a place of suffering – the suffering of having been repeatedly betrayed by their shepherds through the chaotic decades since the 60s, and having witnessed the personal and cultural devastation that has resulted. The times are dire, and never before has the Church been in such urgent need of great, heroic saints, willing to embrace the cross. I, for one, am praying for Bishop Barron.