I have never been more than an occasional viewer of Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire chats. His recent televised interview with EWTN’s Catherine Szeltner put paid to whatever interest I had.
Newly elevated to an auxiliary bishop in the sprawling L.A. diocese, now-Bp. Barron was in Baltimore for his initial appearance among the USCCB. Ms. Szeltner was on hand to ask how Catholics should respond to the slaughter in Paris. “How should they react?” she wondered, as if Catholics were dependent on guidance in their attitude toward carnage.
This was hardly a spontaneous interview. Chairs had been set. The bishop had not been caught on the run; he was not speaking off the cuff. On the contrary, it is standard practice to establish before air time which questions will be asked. Ms. Szaltner was wide-eyed with anticipation for an answer that had already been rehearsed. Here was the fledgling bishop’s moment to affirm public solidarity with the mantra of love heralding the Year of Mercy. Which—the Vatican just announced—extends to Muslims.
Barron began with a self-reverential response that carried a hint of conceit for having been placed among the great and the good. Our new bishop has ascended above even just anger. The massacre aroused no outrage, not even a wince of distaste. Rather, his first words were on fire with . . . nostalgia. He found the atrocity “especially poignant” because he had studied in Paris for three years. And because he remembered some of the locations involved, the attacks were “moving and poignant.”
Not obscene, not demonic, foul or repellant. Poignant. It is a word appropriate for the death of a kitten. Applied to the murder and maiming of innocents, it is worse than unfitting. It is shameful.
He glided on to a serene tutorial on mercy, on the obligation to “respond to violence with love,” and “to fight hatred with love.” He enjoined Catholics to mercy and “a non-violent stance.” Listening, I realized why I have never been able to cotton to Word on Fire: Barron is smarmy. His genial TV persona has none of the alert, intellectual muscularity of Fulton Sheen whose lead he presumes to follow. This time on camera, he confused Paris in 2015 with Selma, Alabama in 1965.
Sanctimonious appeal to non-violence is typical of middle-brow respect for the strategy of King—learned from Gandhi—minus any grasp of its genius. There is nothing commensurate between the cultural situation of the American civil rights movement and the events in Paris. To try to impose the conditions of that movement onto Islamic jihad is astonishing in its obtuseness. Mercy is vacated of all meaning when it is used as an excuse for blindness to history, or for inaction in the face of present realities.
King adopted Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence because he understood the nature of the correspondence between American blacks and Indians under British rule. In their different ways and to different degrees, both peoples were subordinate. Their only tool against potentially crushing power was civil disobedience, the crucial tactic of non-violence. Without recourse to civil disobedience, non-violence is no more than passivity. Not only is the tactic impossible against Islamic terrorism, calls for non-violence invite further aggression.
Gandhi, trained as a lawyer in London, was intimate with the basic decency of British culture. His insistence on civil disobedience disarmed Britain only because the British were a people steeped in a Christian ethos, in a sense of fair play, and belief in human rights and the rule of law. As King knew, these animated the American soul as well. They do not apply to resurgent Islam.
Genocide was never the end game of either the British or the segregationist forces in the United States. Genocide—mitigated only by conversion or the slavery of dhimmitude— is an objective of Islam. Barron misleads his audience with bankrupt, Vatican-stroking noises about nonviolence.
The limited applications of non-violence were obvious when, in 1938, Gandhi advised Europe’s Jews to practice nonviolent resistance against Nazi persecution. In some mystical way, this would supposedly result in Germany’s moral reformation. Nearly eighty years later, Bishop Barron offers the same futile rationale—in the name of Christ crucified—to Catholics.
Inversion of circumstances between Islam and the West is as bizarre as it is reckless. Non-violence is the resort of the weak against the strong. By inviting Catholics to adopt “a non-violent stance” against jihad, Barron insinuates assent to inferiority. It is a failure of will dressed in Christian idiom. Call it submission.
In practical terms, what does it mean to respond with love to genocidal intention? How is non-violence applicable to a contest of civilizations in which one side is committed to the annihilation of the other? Wherein lies the moral force of non-violence against a bloodlust cultivated for fourteen hundred years?
Gandhi’s notorious advice to Jews was tantamount to telling them to march quietly to the ovens. Whether satyagraha serves freedom or a final solution depends on the variables of situation. Bishop Barron’s inability to discern critical distinctions makes his ministry dangerous.
He remains a cheery, good-natured promoter. Sadly, what he promotes is dhimmitude.
Maureen Mullarkey is a senior contributor to The Federalist. She keeps a weblog at StudioMatters.com.
Editor’s Note: Brandon Vogt, who serves as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, contacted us to say that “Bishop Barron was grabbed by the interviewer as he was walking through the room and invited to sit down for an interview. He had no advance notice, no idea what questions would be asked, and his answers were given on the fly, without preparation.”
Here’s the interview in question, which was not included in the original post. We’ll leave it to the viewers to decide if Bishop Barron’s lack of preparation affected his readiness to respond:
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
She also keeps the weblog Studio Matters [www.studiomatters.com] She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mmletters.