Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

MOJ and Father Robert Barron’s Reflections on the New Evangelization (Part 1)


Father Barron at University Club


On Thursday I had the pleasure of attending an event sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute hosted at the University Club in Chicago.  Father Robert Barron spoke on the theme of “Pope Francis and the New Evangelization.”  He gave the three hundred or so guests seven points which he said are central to evangelizing in the current age – reminding those assembled that evangelization is something that every Christian is called to do, sometimes using words (to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi).

Anyone who has ever heard Father Barron lecture or preach, or has seen his PBS television series Catholicism knows that he is a gifted speaker.  His remarks struck me, however, in having something to offer not only with respect to how the faithful in the United States may present the Good News in a secular age – an age that seems eager to embrace the new verities offered by the culture but which reserves a determined skepticism for traditional religion in general and Catholicism in particular.  His remarks also have something to say to those of us in the Catholic blogosphere.

What follows is the first of several posts reflecting on Fr. Barron’s remarks and what I think they have to say with respect to the MOJ project and the presence of Catholic legal theorists in the legal blogosphere.  In this first post, I address the first two characteristics of the New Evangelization that Barron identifies.  I have tried to quote Fr. Barron as best I can from memory.  From time to time, however, I extrapolate on the points he made in my own voice.

1.  Lead with Beauty

Fr. Barron’s first point concerned the three transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty.  He argued that today the way to present the faith is to lead with beauty, not with truth (because we live in age in which the reflexive reaction to truth claims is “Well, you have your truth and I have mine”) and not with goodness (because we live in an age in which the reflexive reaction to claims of goodness is “Well, who are you to tell me how to act?!”).  Instead, he said that we should begin with what is beautiful – show them Our Lady’s Cathedral at Chartres, show them Sainte Chapelle, show them Mother Teresa’s sisters caring for the poorest of the poor.  Show them real beauty and they will be drawn in.  They will be attracted.   Eventually, the conversation will involve the other transcendentals as each is related to the other two, but begin with beauty.

The example that Fr. Barron gave was baseball and how his father introduced him to the sport by taking him to a game at the old Tigers Stadium in Detroit when he was only seven years old.  Attraction to the sport began with beauty (although, aside from Brazilians and their soccer, we are not accustomed to talking about competitive sports teams in this fashion).  From that experience he said he wanted to learn how to play the game and to play well (the good) so that over the years he at last came to understand and appreciate the game (the true).  It all began with the attraction of beauty.  By contrast, the last way to get someone to like baseball, he said, is to start by having them read the rulebook and put to heart the infield fly rule.

Pope Francis, Barron said, has led the charge of evangelization with beauty – with the merciful face of Christ.  Contrary to how some have portrayed the Holy Father as abandoning the claims of the orthodox and apostolic faith with respect to the true and the good, Francis has opted to lead people to the faith in all its fullness by introducing them to the beauty of the Church – showing them a baseball game rather than reading them the rulebook.

Leading with beauty is, I think, a challenge for those of us whose calling is law and the teaching of law.  As a normative discourse, law naturally lends itself to discussions of what is true and good.  Still, the beauty a Catholic theory of law may offer is the beauty of harmony, the beauty of coherence – the same beauty that many encounter the first time they study Euclid’s Elements.  This is not to say that Catholic legal theory supplies a ready answer to every legal problem that life presents with deductive certainty.  (Catholic legal theory is decidedly not the Formalism against which the Legal Realists of the 1920s and 1930s rebelled).  As discussed and evidenced many times on MOJ, people who seriously subscribe to Catholic legal theory may reasonably disagree on any number of legal questions involving prudential judgment, yet a proper understanding of the Church’s teaching concerning law and morality and an authentic Christian anthropology ensure that the project stays balanced and centered.

This harmony and coherence – beauty – might be contrasted with the ultimate ugliness of liberalism.  The experience of liberalism (as a legal and political theory and cultural phenomenon) is that of a tradition that contains within it the seeds of its own demise – championing principles that ultimately undermine one another: the equality of persons and freedom of thought and action unconstrained by any robust theory of the good that ends up favoring certain classes of individuals over others and championing a theory of the good that restricts the erstwhile free acts of those who refuse to conform.  This conflict is currently being played out in the controversy surrounding the HHS contraceptive/sterilization/abortifacient mandate and in the resistance of supporters of traditional marriage and religion to the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples.  It is also on full display in the recent investigation concerning sexual assault on college campuses (here) and the promotion of sexual license through university-approved student orientation and “sex week” events (here, here and here).  The incoherence of liberalism is (as Michael Scaperlanda and I have argued elsewhere) akin to the madness of Colonel Kurtz: “We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene” (see here).

2.  Don’t Dumb Down Catholicism

Barron bemoaned the way in which the faith was passed on to young Catholics following the Second Vatican Council.  “Beige Catholicism” is a term he coined a number of years ago to describe the sort of bland, inoffensive religion that many people his age (my age) and younger were brought up on.  The dull color beige fits the office park and the hotel meeting room but not the sanctuary of the Church.  The bold colors of the faith – the blood of sacrifice, the blue of fidelity, the green of hope and new life, and the luminescent gold of divine glory – cannot be captured on the palate of bureaucracy and “being nice.”

The faith isn’t about being nice.  Jesus wasn’t nice.  He upset the world, and the Christian faith is meant to upset the world – to turn it on its head – in the way that love always upsets the world.  “The first shall become last and the last shall become first” (Matt. 20:16).  A humble carpenter from a provincial backwater – the son of minor tribe from the Levant – is in fact the Son of the Most High, the “I Am” of Moses’ burning bush, God incarnate.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118: 22).

What, says Barron, was missing in the years following Vatican II – why so many of his generation left the faith – was the insipid version of the Christian faith that was passed on – a therapeutic version of the faith that traded in greeting-card sentiments, a version of the faith that its young adherents came to see as not intellectually defensible.  What was missing was an effort to introduce young people to the depth, rigor and richness of the Christian intellectual tradition – the tradition that gave birth to the university in the West, the tradition that gave the world Dante and Palestrina, the tradition that made modern science possible.  Confronted by ideas and systems of thought antithetical to the faith, many young Catholics turned away embarrassed that the religion in which they were raised had little to say by way of reply.  The decorative collages and the feel good moments of their religious education and CCD classes were no match for the assault on the faith that they encountered – an assault not only on the received ideas of their youth but on the mores in which they had been raised.

In this portion of the talk Fr. Barron talked about the response of Catholics to the so-called “New Atheism” – a misnomer because it is not really new – an atheism that repeats in a less rigorous, more pedestrian way the claims of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Feuerbach.  Barron told the story of an interview he did with CBC radio on the “New Atheism” which ended with the radio host asking him: “Father would you at least concede that you have the New Atheists to thank for forcing you Catholics to think about these questions for the first time?”  Barron’s response was a polite “no” – that the Church had in fact been thinking about these matters for the past two millennia – that the Church is fides quaerens intellectum.  For Barron, however, the question revealed just how widespread the view of the Church as an unthinking, anti-intellectual institution really is.  Sadly, it is a defining mark of the present age. 

Barron quoted John Henry Newman that it is the sign of a disordered faith that it no longer struggles with hard questions – questions posed by the world and questions that arise from within the Church.  It is precisely a sign of the vibrancy of Catholicism – ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam – notwithstanding the dumbed down era that we have suffered through – that the Church is able to respond to the New Atheism, and every “new” atheism (as it has done perennially).

This same vibrancy, I would add, enables the Church – through platforms like MOJ – to respond to phenomena that have a particularly legal dimension (like, e.g., the culture of death) with rigor and nuance.  As such MOJ is a place where the process of fides quaerens intellectum in law can take place.  General interest law reviews are, by and large, an inhospitable forum in which to explore a Catholic perspective on legal questions – inhospitable not because one’s ideas will be challenged but because they will never be published.  Yes, there are specialty law journals that provide fora for this sort of thinking, but most of them publish on a symposium format such that placing an article in one of them is rather haphazard.

MOJ serves as an important reminder to those who remain blithely ignorant of Catholicism’s rich intellectual tradition.  Moreover, it puts this reminde on display in the less formal (though still serious) setting of a blog.  How to drive traffic toward the site remains a challenge, but a challenge worth taking up.


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