G. K. Chesterton once defined the Catholic Church as “the one supremely inspiring and irritating institution in the world.”
This book, along with the PBS and EWTN series from whose scripts the book was developed, will both inspire and irritate many people. It will inspire those open to the notion of the Church as being both human and divine, but will irritate those who, even as they profess themselves Catholic, speak as though the Church is only human.
However, I think it might also, at times, annoy more traditional Catholics (and inspire more “progressive” ones) because of his discussions of such Catholic figures as Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Father Barron’s book is the best work on Catholicism I have read in a long time and will go on the shelf with Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics (1927), Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism (1929) and Thomas Howard’s On Being Catholic (1997). It is a grand overview of the Church’s life, and Father Barron, who holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake outside of Chicago, writes with a rigorous but passionate intelligence about spiritual things.
I would love to go into detail about each of the 10 chapters, showing how deftly Father Barron weaves traditional Church teaching with the insights of modern thinkers and writers such as William James, Etienne Gilson, Rene Girard, Paul Tillich and Flannery O’Connor. But the following thoughts from the first chapter, “Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man,” offer a good sample of the spirit and skill with which this book is written:
It all begins with a jest. The essence of comedy is the coming together of opposites, the juxtaposition of incongruous things. … The central claim of Christianity — still startling after two thousand years — is that God became human. … Christian believers up and down the years are those who have laughed with delight at this sacred joke and have never tired of hearing it repeated, whether it is told in the sermons of Augustine, the arguments of Aquinas, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the stained glass of Chartres, the mystical poetry of Teresa of Avila or the little way of Thérèse of Lisieux. It has been suggested that the heart of sin is taking oneself too seriously. Perhaps this is why God chose to save us by making us laugh.
The book, however, shows signs of being written in haste. A few misprints jumped out at me, and Father Barron leaves out some things he should have included. For instance, in his discussions of Lourdes and Guadalupe it should be noted that these are instances of private revelation that the Catechism says “do not belong to the deposit of faith” and which do not “improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation,” but which help the faithful to live “more fully by it in a certain period of history.” He should also have mentioned not only Merton’s forays into the philosophy of non-violence but also his struggles with his abbot’s authority, his sexual falls, and his movement, arguably, toward syncretism between Buddhism and Christianity.
But, overall, I have to say Father Barron’s Catholicism impressed me mightily. Perhaps we have someone like Sheen, Chesterton or Knox among us once again, someone who can, with the Church, both inspire and irritate the modern world.
Register correspondent Frank Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.
A Journey to the Heart of the Faith
By Father Robert Barron
Image Books, 2011
304 pages, $27.99
To order: Image Books