The Perils of Popularity: Critiquing Bishop Barron


Bishop Robert Barron – Image Courtesy of Word on Fire Ministries

There is an oft-cited quote — attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt — which asserts the following maxim:

Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events;  Small minds discuss people.

I suppose the quote is popular because it gives off a certain aura of common sense. After all, one can see some truth reflected in the hierarchy of minds as laid out by Mrs. Roosevelt. There’s a big difference between theoretical physicists, philosophers, theologians, and the like, and the salacious rumor-mongers at the tabloids. As for the rest of us, we tend to aspire to the lofty goal of being idea-makers, trip and fall more often than we’d like into gossip, and spend most of our time existing somewhere in between.

A deeper look, however, reveals the superficiality of the observation.

Ideas exist as a product of human thought and endeavor. Events come about because of the application of ideas in the world. People produce ideas, and applied ideas give rise to events. Whether given ideas or events are good, bad, or evil, it behooves us to understand what we can about the thinkers who are behind them. We want to know whose ideas we should support and promote, and whose ideas should be condemned. Mein Kampf, for example, didn’t write itself, and neither did the Summa Theologica. We associate the ideas these texts contain — and the events that have been shaped by them — with those who created them. And because of this, we have no problem speaking disparagingly (and almost interchangeably) of Hitler and Nazism, or with admiration and praise for Aquinas and Thomism.

It is easy to apply value judgments of this kind to those who have lived in the past and have already made a clear mark on history. More difficult is the application of critical analysis to our contemporaries, inasmuch as we lack the certitude of hindsight. This is a particular challenge when it comes to those who have attained a certain level of celebrity. Cults of personality have always existed, but the rise of big media (and now social media alongside it) have made it easier than ever for a person to become larger than life, and loved (and thus defended) beyond reasonable measure. Often enough, those individuals who rise quickly to prominence do so primarily on the strength of their charisma. They are likeable, camera friendly, and seem “down to earth.” The kind of guy (or gal) you’d “like to get a beer with.”

When it comes to such figures in the Catholic world, few are more noteworthy than Bishop Robert Barron. His apostolate — Word on Fire Ministries — reaches millions through the artful use of multimedia and a state-of-the-art website that follows the latest trends in design, typography, and mobile responsiveness. Everything about Bishop Barron from his downloadable biography and neatly-packaged press kit to pages of products and easily-embedded videos is parceled into conveniently-sized portions and ready to be re-used by providers who seek to feed a content-hungry online audience.

Of course, the best marketing and communications plan in the world won’t do anything for an off-putting persona. Barron is affable and easy going, his congeniality so effortless that it’s almost completely disarming. He riffs on everything from theological topics to current events to movie reviews in his prolific series of YouTube videos. And his numbers are telling: Word on Fire has nearly 200,000 Facebook fans and 30,000 Twitter followers; Bishop Barron’s own Facebook page has another 600,000 fans, his Twitter account has 80,000 followers, and his YouTube channel has 74,000 subscribers. These are numbers that would make many of the best online content producers green with envy. Much of the credit no doubt goes to the clearly talented Brandon Vogt, who acts as the Content Director for Word on Fire when he’s not busy producing and promoting his own series of Catholic books, videos, and educational courses.

As an example of the kind of professional mastery an effective Catholic apostolate should strive for in the 21st century, Word on Fire — along with those responsible for its high production values — are deserving of admiration and respect. In that regard, Bishop Barron is doing exactly what he should be to build a successful online media business and an army of fans and advocates.

Which is why it’s so incredibly important that the content be as good as the packaging. For obvious reasons, the absence of legitimate, corrective criticism can be a very dangerous thing indeed to anyone in Bishop Barron’s position, as well as to the souls they serve. But with so many adoring fans, critiquing anything Barron says invites trouble.

And this is truly a pity. Because Barron, while hitting many of the right notes and no doubt doing the best he knows how to inform people about Catholicism, nevertheless embraces some very bad ideas. When the incisive Maureen Mullarkey sharply identified the fatal flaws in his response to the ISIS attacks in Paris, her larger thesis was quickly lost in the defensive ring that spontaneously formed around the bishop. What was never substantively addressed in all the clucking was the thrust of her piece – that nonviolence is an untenable response to radical, genocide-seeking Islam – unless the goal is to be submitted to dhimmitude. 

She made her case adroitly, but few listened. (She added more on her own website a few days later, though I doubt it was better received.) Meanwhile, Vogt — who stopped into our comment boxes to protest the original article without mentioning his role as the media point-man for Barron — took to his 10,000-fan Facebook page to lambast my editorial decision to keep the piece unaltered despite his objections. There, the number of ad hominem attacks on Mullarkey — the majority of which were predictably attempted puns on her surname — piled up high and deep, while some comments critical of Vogt’s handling of the issue went missing.

Through it all, the impression one was left with was that those who objected to the article think that Mullarkey’s ideas are bad because she is mean, and Barron’s ideas are good because he is nice and we like him.  

It shouldn’t need to be said, but this is a terrible mechanism for discernment.

At the blog Unam Sanctam Catholicam, another analysis of Barron was mounted in the wake of the dust-up, this one moving beyond the question of the proper Christian response to Islam and into Barron’s Christology itself – with particular focus on the influence of the writings and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar on his thinking. An excerpt:

For years we have attempted to demonstrate that Hans Urs Von Balthasar is not an orthodox theologian, not only due to his controversial theory of a potentially empty hell, but just in terms of his basic Christology. Catholics need to understand that it is not just one theory that makes Balthasar questionable, but a whole slew of bizarre novelties. We recommend reviewing our previous articles “Balthasar’s Denial of the Beatific Vision in Christ” and “Balthasar and the ‘Faith’ of Christ” on the Unam Sanctam Catholicam website,  which both deal with Balthsar’s unorthodox Christology, as well as “The Heresies of Balthasar” on this blog, which reveals Balthasar’s absurd position that sin has its own ontological reality.

One staple of Balthasarian Christology is his teaching that Christ only gradually came to understand His messianic identity, and that this did not happen by any infused knowledge by virtue of the Incarnation (Balthasar strongly rejected the idea that Christ had any knowledge given directly from God about His mission). Instead, Christ had to “learn” that He was the Messiah, basically through regular human intuition. It kind of slowly dawned on his consciousness as He grew.

The Catholic Tradition is that Christ had infused knowledge of His own identity and mission.


But Bishop Barron chooses instead to promote the heretical novelty of Balthasar that Christ had to learn about His identity through a gradual enlightening of His consciousness. For example, in his Lenten Meditations, then-Father Barron offers this commentary on the Baptism of the Lord:

“Jesus has just been baptized. He has just learned his deepest identity and mission and now he confronts—as we all must—the great temptations. What does God want him to do? Who does God want him to be? How is he to live his life?”

Jesus has “just learned his deepest identity and mission” at His baptism, implying that He was in positive ignorance of his identity and mission before this moment?

The full essay tackles these issues in greater depth, and deserves to be read. These are substantive theological criticisms, and should thus be addressed substantively. The ideas under review from Von Balthasar are the same that infuse Bishop Barron’s work. Mentioned only in passing in the longer version of the above-cited post is an issue that gives me equal — if not greater — cause for concern. Namely, Barron’s all-but-full-throated embrace of universalism – the idea that hell is empty and that we may hope that all men are saved. This is of no small importance in evaluating his larger body of work. It undoubtedly has an impact on the urgency with which he understands our evangelical mission. In point of fact, such a belief cannot help but undermine any desire to convert those of other faiths to Catholicism at all, since in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because everyone is saved. Here is Barron on this topic in his own words:

In this video, which has nearly 160,000 views, you’ll note, among other troubling comments, that Barron insists that

…hell is not so much a place — we use spacial metaphors for it — it’s a condition, a state of being. It’s having refused in freedom the divine love. And it results in this terrible loneliness. We have to accept the possibility of hell, we have to accept the existence of it as a possibility because of human freedom — BUT — are any human beings in hell? We don’t know. We don’t know. The Church has never declared on that subject. And — and — we may pray that all be saved, and may even reasonably hope that all be saved. So, it’s a kind of universalism if you want…

This is simply not the Catholic view. The Council of Florence taught that “the souls of those who depart in mortal sin, or only in original sin, go down immediately into hell…”, which indicates a belief that hell is indeed a place, as do the many Gospel passages cited in this article on hell in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Hell is a place, in fact, which any reasonable interpretation of the fallen nature of mankind would make us hard-pressed to believe could be empty. As St. Anthony Mary Claret observed:

A multitude of souls fall into the depths of Hell, and it is of the faith that all who die in mortal sin are condemned for ever and ever. According to statistics, approximately 80,000 persons die every day. How many of these will die in mortal sin, and how many will be condemned! For, as their lives have been, so also will be their end.

The vision of hell given to the children at Fatima gives further witness to this:

She [Our Lady of Fatima] opened Her hands once more, as She had done during the two previous months. The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls [of the damned] in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons could be distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.1 This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, Who had already prepared us by promising, in the first apparition, to take us to Heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.2

Our Lady then explained to the children, “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go.”

The above examples notwithstanding, my point here is not to launch an exhaustive critique of Bishop Barron’s work and thinking. It is instead to point out that there are things in his work and thinking (just as there are in mine) that are deserving of critique. He has a far larger platform and a much louder microphone than most. His influence invokes a higher standard of scrutiny. We should not be afraid to examine these things carefully simply because he is a popular and congenial figure.

For those who have benefited from work of Catholic media personalities like Barron and thus feel compelled to rise instantly to their defense at any perceived slight, I would urge you to consider carefully whether your response is rooted in truth and justice, or in simple affinity. Do the critiques have merit? Do you know your faith well enough to recognize a subtle but important deviation?

I have no doubt that Bishop Barron, Vogt, and others who have demonstrated great alacrity with contemporary communications paradigms could do great and lasting work for the good of the Church if they adhere to the central points of her doctrines. This is why it is so critical that they apply as much diligence to the message as they do the medium.

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