As Catholic Church faces precarious cultural time, Bishop Robert Barron of Minnesota models thoughtful faith
The Catholic Church is in a precarious cultural moment in history as it balances the need to stay true to its teachings but also to live out its mission to be a welcoming church, as Pope Francis has emphasized.
There’s hardly a more reasonable voice out there to aid in the venture than Bishop Robert Barron, bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
Beyond his clerical position, Barron is the popular priest behind Word On Fire, a global Catholic media ministry.
A leading thinker and on-demand speaker, Barron is also the author of several best-selling books on theology and Catholic teaching, helping millions of Catholics, young and old, to navigate the difficult journey of living out their faith in a secular world.
He’s also quite humble. He announced only recently that he is one of the delegates chosen by Pope Francis to partake in the monumental event called the Synod on Synodality, which is taking place at the Vatican in Rome for most of October.
The Synod on Synodality is the largest so-called readjusting, perhaps, of the Catholic Church since Vatican II in the early 1960s.
A handful of Vaticanistas have all but called it a Francis version of Vatican III.
What’s different is that these next few weeks of discussions not only involve men of the cloth, bishops and priests — but many more lay leaders, women and advocates for LGBTQ Catholics.
And they won’t just be poring over documents from the Magisterium, the official and authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. As Barron has written, “Our discussions will be based on what they call an Instrumentum laboris or ‘working document,’ which for this synod represents the culmination of two years of listening sessions with Catholics from across the globe.”
This, then, is the controversy.
Conservative Catholics have heavily criticized Pope Francis, calling the synod a “trojan horse” bent on changing the Church’s core teachings on gender, sexuality and marriage.
Fr. Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in New York City, wrote about the synod in The Catholic Thing.
He said, “It unapologetically calls into question various Catholic doctrines under the guise of listening to the Holy Spirit who, remarkably, is somehow speaking through the complaints and criticisms of those who reject what the Church teaches and has always taught.”
Gavin Ashenden of the Catholic Herald has written, “It would be a serious mistake not to realize that the progressive liberal mindset wants to change the ethics of the faith. So, it replaces the categories of ‘holiness and sin’ with “inclusion and alienation … Sin and separation from God are not as alarming as alienation, angst and separation from society. The supernatural is replaced by the political.”
Vatican expert George Weigel, talking about the difference between Vatican II and the Synod on Synodality, said on the “Lighthouse Faith” podcast, “Vatican II was far more about sanctifying the world, or, if you will, Christ defying the world than it was about reinventing the Catholic Church.”
Barron, although not really a liberal or conservative, said on “Lighthouse Faith” recently that the real issue is that the Church must decide what it means by being a “welcoming church.”
Said Barron, “If by welcoming you mean — [as] the pope did in Lisbon” for World Youth Day — [in] his famous homily where he said, ‘Who’s welcome in the church? … Todos, todos, todos. Everybody, everybody.’ Well, of course, everyone’s welcome in that sense. We want to invite you to share the life of the church. But I think for a lot of people on the left, ‘welcoming’ means — well, ‘your lifestyle is just fine and we totally approve of your lifestyle.’ And the church, it seems to me, can’t say that.”
Barron’s main focus is helping young Catholics understand their faith and not succumb to the indoctrination into a secular worldview that often happens when they go off to college.
Word On Fire has raised thousands of dollars to give every incoming first-year student a Bible with study outlines that challenge them to see the depths of how Scripture applies to their life.
Said Barron, “We’ve dumbed down our faith for way too long. We presented the faith in a way that’s just not very intellectually compelling. And we’ve got a very rich intellectual tradition.”
So “I would say jump into that arena, jump into that fray, and propose to give young people a different vision of things.”
Barron was actively involved in helping actor Shia LeBoeuf in his recent conversion to Catholicism.
Said Barron, “He was in my pastoral region when I was out in California. Because he was researching the role of Padre Pio, and he went to this Capuchin monastery that was in my region.”
He added, “And so I ran into him during that period. Most of them didn’t know Shia LaBeouf from Cab Calloway. … But they saw this young guy who was struggling and questioning and they took him in and … they treated him kind of like as one of their own.”
And “they talked to him and they instructed him. They listened to him. And it was the compassion of the friars that really, I think, brought him more deeply into the faith.”
Barron downplayed his own involvement, but he talked about it a lot more in a sitdown podcast with LaBeouf that can be seen on the Word On Fire website.
It is in how Barron approached the actor that he revealed his belief about the Church and the term “welcoming.”
He thinks the term should be changed altogether.
“I don’t like the word ‘welcome’ as much. I like the word ‘love,’” said Barron. “Love means to will the good of the other, right? So the Church is loving toward everyone. The Church reaches out in a loving embrace to the whole world. It’s the Bernini colonnade in Rome outside St Peter’s. It’s like two great arms reaching out.”
But Barron said it’s a definition of love that is far more nuanced.
He said, “Love means, ‘What’s really good for you? What’s objectively good for you?’ So that doesn’t mean I just affirm everything you’re doing … It might mean I’m going to deeply challenge what you’re doing and saying.”
His hope for the Synod on Synodality is that this kind of love prevails.
And he prefers “love or compassion or charity language to ‘welcoming’ — because ‘welcoming’ is too vague.”
The Catholic Church is not about being vague — but about preaching the truth in love.