Appreciating Bishop Robert Barron as Theologian

Holiness of life leads to good theology and good theology leads to holiness of life.

Bishop Robert Barron
Bishop Robert Barron (photo: Photo courtesy of DeChant-Hughes Public Relations via CNA)

Recently, Bishop Robert E. Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire, was awarded an honorary doctorate March 7 from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in Rome.

After the conclusion of Holy Mass, Bishop Barron was awarded the honorary doctorate (he himself earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology [STD] for Institute Catholique in Paris, France), and then gave a lecture entitled “The One Who Is: The One Who Gives: Aquinas, Derrida, and the Dilemma of the Divine Generosity.” It was an insightful, erudite lecture given to a packed room of students, guests and professors. At the conclusion of the lecture by the bishop, in which he demonstrated his immense knowledge of both Saint Thomas and postmodern philosophy, one of my seminarians said, “Wow! I’m so used to Bishop Barron being an internet evangelist that I forgot that he is a real systematic theologian!’

That comment took me back a bit and I realized that for some, including seminarians, theology and the pastoral life have a disconnect. One of the areas that I have tried, in my own limited way, here in these articles for the Register, is to always tie the formal study of theology to the pastoral life and with the spiritual life. There cannot be a gap between theology and sanctity, and if there is, then something is seriously wrong with either the theology or the lived experience of sanctity. Holiness of life leads to good theology and good theology leads to holiness of life. This is demonstrated in the life of Saint Paul the Apostle; this is clearly shown in the life of Saint Augustine of Hippo; this is obvious in the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas; and, in the present age, we can look to Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI. And, I believe that this connection between theology and holiness of life is the goal of Bishop Robert E. Barron.

I had first heard of Bishop Barron and his work from a 1997 article on a very young Father Barron and his concept of the priest as “soul doctor.” As a seminarian, I found it fascinating, and then discovered his text, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (1996), which, for me as one not trained in the Thomistic system, made Aquinas very appealing. For my ordination to priesthood, an older priest gave me a copy of what is my favorite of Bishop Barron’s books, And Now I See: A Christian Theology of Transformation (1998). I now use both of these books in my classes in dogmatic and fundamental theology as examples of books that get the approach that I want my seminarians to have — one that is highly academic, deeply spiritual and incredibly pastoral.

With each passing year, Bishop Barron has become, to use a term he applies to some great thinkers, a “pivotal player” in Catholicism — not only in the United States, but indeed around the world. Bishop Barron is more than just an apologist and an evangelizer. He is a theologian par excellence and I would like to take a few articles to offer an appreciation of the bishop as theologian over the next several weeks. Among the topics I plan to discuss are Bishop Barron’s doctrine of God (God being noncompetitively transcendent to the world); his Christology (Christ’s priority is ontological, epistemological and ethical)[this comes from his masterpiece, The Priority of Christ: Towards a Post-Liberal Catholicism (2007)]; his theological anthropology, which teaches us the importance of the Imago Dei and to leave behind our pusilla anima); his concept of priesthood (most especially the priest as doctor of the soul and the priest as bearer of the Gracious Mystery); his Ecclesiology (the “both/and” of Catholicism and “Affirmative Orthodoxy”); his biblical theology (he is the author of a fine text in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible on 2 Samuel [2015]); his appreciation of and use of great Christian theologians from Paul Tillich to Hans Urs von Balthasar to everyone in between; and his appreciation of a defender of the classics of Western Civilization. He is truly, as he describes himself in one of his collections of essays, Bridging the Great Divide (2004), “a post-liberal, post-conservative Evangelical Catholic.”

You can probably tell that I am a big fan of the bishop, but most especially, as one who teaches and studies theology himself, of him as a theologian. Bishop Barron is one of the Church’s treasures, not only in the United States, but throughout the international Church. His theology leads to mission and is a call to a deeper union with the Lord. The bishop writes in his interview book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (2017):

The Catholic Church’s job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives. Its mission is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold, or people with good intentions; its mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue… To dial down the demands because they are hard, and most people have a hard time realizing them, is to compromise the very meaning and purpose of the Church. However, here’s the flip side. The Catholic Church couples its extraordinary moral demand with an extraordinarily lenient penitential system. The Church mediates the infinite mercy of God to those who fail to live up to that ideal (which means practically everyone). This is why its forgiveness is so generous and so absolute. To grasp both of these extremes is to understand the Catholic approach to morality.

These are wise words by which to live. I look forward to exploring the work of this great contemporary American theologian with you over the next several articles.