How to Reclaim Affirmative Orthodoxy

A Suggestion for Seminarians as Future Evangelizers from Bishop Robert E. Barron’s Theology of the Transcendentals (Part 5)

Theophile Lybaert (1848–1927), “Ecce Homo”
Theophile Lybaert (1848–1927), “Ecce Homo” (photo: Public Domain)

In my last piece for the Register, I began to cover the last of the three transcendentals, truth. For those of us who are beginning to read this series with this article, permit me to give the definition of the transcendentals, according to the sure and certain guide that is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 40, 41):

Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures — their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, ‘for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.’

Bishop Robert E. Barron, one of the foremost evangelists of our present age, believes that an understanding of the transcendentals are essential for those who wish to make Divine Revelation and the faith of our Church credible for the world and who also wish to transmit that Divine Revelation to both the faithful and the faithless. In his interview with Bishop Barron, titled To Light a Fire on the Earth, John L. Allen, Jr., states the following:

In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth are known as “transcendentals,” linked to the three core human abilities to feel, to wish and to think. Jesus refers to them in the Great Commandment when he talks about the mind, the soul and the heart, and inducements formed the core of his temptation scene in the Gospels. (41)

For Bishop Barron, the first transcendental to consider is beauty. The via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) attracts the attention, beguiling and alluring the individual to the All-Beautiful One, Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Lord. Once fascinated and enticed by beauty, we are then lured in goodness, inspired by the example of the heroic lives of those saints, both those in heaven and those who are still striving for heroic sanctity on this mortal coil. Divine Revelation is ultimately made most credible in the lives of the martyrs, those who have so fallen in love with the Only One Who is Good so much that they are willing to lay down their lives for this belief. Finally, we come to the transcendental of the truth.

Bishop Barron wants the evangelizer to express the truth in its fullness, making us holy in the truth who is the One Who is All-Truth, Jesus the Lord. There is no room in this theology for what the bishop describes as “beige Catholicism,” which is, at its essence, a “dumbed-down” Catholicism, one that is seeking to be relevant. In some previous pieces for the Register, I have described what Barron believes the priest needs to be — a true mystagogue, a doctor of the soul, one who needs to have a truly informed Catholic imagination, intellect, and a deep faith in Christ and his Church. There needs to be a heroic priesthood in the world in order to avoid a “beige Catholicism.”

The necessity to avoid “beige Catholicism” is necessary not only for priests, but indeed for all people. In To Light a Fire on the Earth, Bishop Barron tells a story illustrating his passion in instructing the faithful to avoid this bland, safe Catholicism:

I remember in Los Angeles many years ago, I was speaking at the Religious Education Congress. I’m the keynoter in that giant room, and at the end I said, “Hey, can I just tell everybody how I hate dumbed-down Catholicism?” I told a version of that story [about his niece] and I’m banging on the podium like a madman saying that I hate dumbed-down Catholicism. The whole arena burst into raucous applause, and so I said, “Don’t applaud; do something about it.” The room was filled with publishers, teachers, catechists, and I told them to do something, because we have no one else to blame. We’ve met the enemy, and it’s us. We did this to ourselves. High school kids can handle a lot of serious stuff, so why aren’t they reading C.S. Lewis? Why aren’t they reading Orthodoxy by Chesterton? Why aren’t they reading Aquinas for that matter? My nephew, he’s a smart kid, he’s a junior in high school, and he’s a math guy, which I am not. Man alive, the complexity of the math books he’s dealing with…why couldn’t we give him Augustine or Thomas Aquinas? I have very strong feelings about that. We dumbed it down out of this attempt to be relevant. (92)

When I hear the bishop’s words, I think back to my own high school education. For high school, I attended the diocesan high school seminary. It was a day school, one in which we did not reside. We returned each night to our homes. And, in order to attend this school, all a young man had to have was an openness to be willing to consider seriously the possibility of the vocation of the priesthood. Out of the class of 60 young men that entered as freshmen in 1986, only 24 of us graduated. Out of the 24, only five of us went to the college-level seminary. Out of the five, only two of us went to the major seminary (we were sent to two different major seminaries). Of the two, I am the only one ordained — and that is fine. You can’t take a 14-year-old and say “become a priest!” No, all you can do is introduce him to the best that the Church has to offer — solid liturgical, spiritual, human and intellectual formation, all at an age-appropriate level.

For me, the intellectual formation was overwhelmingly influential in my life. The priests and laymen who taught me, men of faith all, became my heroes. In theology classes, we were being exposed to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II; in history, we learned the true role that the Catholic Church had in building up Western civilization; in English literature, we learned to read Shakespeare, Eliot, Chaucer, Faulkner, O’Connor, all from a Catholic perspective; in four years of Latin, we went from basic grammar and vocabulary in freshman year to reading of the Gallic Wars in junior year, to reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions in senior year. It was a unique education, one which I am still each day unpacking, and one for which I am ever grateful. To be honest, college education was easy compared to high school. And, when we are made to read Dei Verbum and Providentissimus Deus as freshmen, major seminary education is not as much of a shock to the system as one might expect. When I returned as a young priest to teach full-time at this high school, I had come to realize that times had indeed changed and that I could not expect the same from the students I was teaching, but even in the mid-00s, we strived to offer a similar education for a non “dumbed-down” Catholicism. When I teach the seminarians my first year seminar in fundamental and dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, I am still surprised when they have never read Chesterton, Lewis, Newman, O’Connor, just to name a few. I tell them if I expected it from high school students, I certainly expect it from seminarians in their last years of formation!

Bishop Barron is correct. We, as a Church, have suffered from “dumbed-down” Catholicism. One needs only to look to recent polls that have garnered much press concerning 21st century Catholics in the United States’ belief concerning the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. It is a mandate that we preach “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as is said in courts. This truth is the Deposit of Faith which we are Catholics are blessed to possess and which those of us who are ordained to preach the Word as clergy are mandated to do. And, at the same time, truth, Veritas, cannot be a club with which we bludgeon our interlocutors. As the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has asked us time and again, we are to accompany people to the truth. This doesn’t mean that we hit them with the truth into submission, nor does it mean that we water down the truth of our faith. In a previous entry at the Register, I had reflected on this point, using the story of Our Lord’s encounter with the woman at the well in Saint John’s Gospel, as well as Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (2013)  as a starting point. I wrote:

“Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization” (EG, 173). The Pope explains further: “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God… to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (EG, 170)

It’s not about watering down the truth, this accompaniment. The Lord Jesus, who knows the hearts of all, does not begin his conversation with this woman with a laundry list of her sins. He helps her understand her situation in life, her many sins, he helps her comprehend for the first time her lack, he helps her recognize that she is truly thirsting for the water, the living water that only the Lord Jesus, who is life and truth can give.

It’s in the dialogue, it’s in the communication that the Lord shows us the art of accompaniment. Pope Francis writes: “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness with­out which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (EG, 171). 

It’s the job of priests and those involved in apostolic service to know our stuff and to be clear. We have to model the truth of the faith by living it out daily. We can’t water down the truth, especially about marriage, about life issues (for nothing is more essential than the sanctity of life), about the integrity of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and about issues of sexuality and gender. We have to know what the Church teaches and to be able to communicate what the Church teaches clearly and concisely.

But communication is a two-way street — a true dialogue. As Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis writes: 

Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth. (Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth, xiv.)

It doesn’t mean just smiling and listening, nodding along and giving tacit approval. Nor does it mean a lecturing that most likely is inappropriate at an initial moment of contact. Jesus engages in dialogue, but he is pretty direct when it comes to the reality of the presence of sin in this woman’s life.

And, to be honest, it is essential to know your faith well and to believe your faith before one can hope to dialogue. When a student tells me that he wishes to focus in on the study of ecumenism or inter-religious dialogue in his studies, the first question that I always ask is “How well do you actually know your own faith?” Nemo dat quod non habet- You cannot give what you do not have! Perhaps a firm foundation in dogmatic theology is essential before one goes to venture into ecumenism!

Bishop Barron speaks clearly about the necessity to avoid the necessity to be “relevant” in the preaching of the Gospel. How often does the “perpendicular pronoun” of “I” become the focus of a homily we hear at Holy Mass! In our attempts to engage, in our attempts to be personal, all of which is an essential thing, we can lose the forest for the trees. Bishop Barron states in To Light a Fire on the Earth:

My formation in the 1970s and ‘80s would have been experience, experience, experience. Good preaching, for example, meant you begin with your own experience. Begin with a joke or a story, then draw it out into your experience, and only then correlate it to the Bible. But the trouble with this way of going about it is that experience runs the show, experience asks the questions, experience sets the agenda, experience sets the context. The Bible is drawn into experience, but that’s getting it backwards. (93)

With this in mind, what is the approach that we might wish to take to evangelization? How can we communicate Veritas without watering it down or hitting someone with a club? Perhaps the proper way can be called “Affirmative Orthodoxy.”

Bishop Barron writes:

I came of age in the late sixties and seventies of the last centuries, in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. What I witnessed during that period was a terrible war of attrition between two camps (with, admittedly, numerous shades in between): progressives overly in love with the culture and pushing myriad reforming agendas and conservatives desperately trying to recover the form of Catholicism that predated the council. Some of the liberals were so enamored of growth, play, and free development that they allowed John XXIII’s flourishing garden to become overgrown and untamed; while some of the traditionalists were so attached to an outmoded cultural expression of the Church’s life that they effectively killed off the plants in the garden, pressing their dead leaves between the pages of a book. (From “Cultivators of a Flourishing Garden of Life,” xiv-xv, in Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic, 2004).

Pope Francis received a five-minute standing ovation after his final address of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October 2014 by stating:

And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

- The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

- The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

- The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…”

John L. Allen, Jr, describes the attitude that Cardinal Timothy Dolan exhibits as “affirmative orthodoxy” in his interview book with the Cardinal titled A People of Hope (2012). What does that mean? Well, simply put, it means being faithful to the teachings of the Church, but presenting them in a positive way. John Allen once described affirmative orthodoxy this way:

By ‘affirmative orthodoxy,’ I mean a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key. Benedict appears convinced that the gap between the faith and contemporary secular culture, which Paul VI called “the drama of our time,’ has its roots in Europe dating from the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment, with a resulting tendency to see Christianity as a largely negative system of prohibitions and controls. In effect, Benedict's project is to reintroduce Christianity from the ground up, in terms of what it’s for rather than what it’s against.

Cardinal Dolan stated in the aforementioned interview book with Mr. Allen:

The Catholic Church affirms, strengthens, expands what’s most noble, most beautiful, most sacred, in the human project. I like to quote a line from Father Robert Barron, that the Church only says no to another no, and two no’s make a yes. It’s only when the yes of humanity is threatened that the Church will say no, to protect the yes

Further, Cardinal Dolan, in an interview on Oct. 14, 2014 with Zenit, in the midst of that aforementioned extraordinary Synod, stated, building on that interview with Mr. Allen:

The Church is constantly saying, ‘Yes, Yes, Yes,’ to everything that is liberating, true, genuine, in the human condition. So we are saying, ‘Yes to eternal love,' 'Yes to new life,’ we’re saying, ‘Yes to the sexual expression of love between a man and woman in life-long, faithful, life-giving marriage.’ We are saying, ‘Yes to the very poetry that the relationship of a man and women in the sacrament of marriage that actually reflects the love that God has for us.’ We’re saying, ‘Yes to the idea that a family is the closest we come in this life to the blessed Trinity.’ And that’s where we’re saying yes too. We only say ‘No’ to something that might negate that. And a ‘No, to a No, is a Yes.” So, I guess if you ask you what is my greatest pastoral challenge, I guess it would be as how to recapture the extraordinarily affirming, healing, compassionate invitation and nature of the Church’s teaching.

The Church is a yes, always a yes, to everyone and everything that is good and holy and pure (and to that which is striving to be good, holy and pure). Bishop Barron recognizes this and this is why he is open to dialogue even to those who may not at first seem to be “on our side” as a Church. We can see this in his interview with Dr. Jordan Peterson and his interview with Ben Shapiro, as well in his talks at Google and his “AMAs” (“Ask Me Anything”) the Bishop conducts online upon occasion.

In my next entry on the theology of Bishop Barron, I would like to begin a study of what is his academic theological masterpiece, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (2007). I am pleased to use this text next semester in my own theology classes. I plan to discuss what it means to be “postliberal,” what Christology is, what epistemology is, and why our “Christ-haunted,” secular culture needs, more than ever the message that the bishop offers in this classic text.