Interview: Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron

Recently consecrated as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States, Bishop Robert Barron has achieved a recognised position as a leading voice in Catholic theology and life. He is known through his books, talks, movies, and television productions, all of which have a significant YouTube presence. Through his Word on Fire online ministry, he has shown that he is not afraid to pour old wine into new bottles. Mingling short videos on medieval philosophers with critical, theologically-minded Woody Allen movie reviews, he is working to give new expression to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Barron was appointed bishop by Pope Francis on the basis that he would be a vital player in the campaign for “New Evangelisation”; to work as a voice crying out in the wilderness of secular society. He provides a bold challenge for his readers and listeners to a deeper engagement with theological issues which are too readily ignored and, consequently, forgotten. A Doctor of Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris who is fluent in English, French, German, Latin, and Spanish, and certainly no stranger to the halls of academia, the striking accessibility of his ministry is perhaps surprising. Bishop Barron aims to offer insight both to weathered theologians and laypeople inside and outside the Church.

Barron speaks of how we need to “turn the world upside down, because it is currently upside down, so if you turn it upside down again we’re just setting it right.” The post-Christian world is not some great bogeyman, for “modernity is not some serious enemy of Christianity, modernity is a kind of bastard child of Christianity… We’ve been treating them [the secular world] like we’ve been at war for the past 500 years, but in fact it’s literally more like an adolescent child that’s rebelling against its mother.”

In this way his outreach is characterised by a boldness tempered with a sensitive intellectual gentleness, seeing in modernity a great opportunity for the Catholic Church to clarify and re-articulate its faith. He notes that it has been “taken for granted that secularism has obviously won the day” that the Church has been pushed to “our own little niche over in the corner. I say forget that: I think we should just wade right into the thick of it.”

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For the Bishop, “the Church’s job is to be continually witness to God and to continually grab you by the lapels and speak of God and witness to God”. In this vein, he says that his “major task is to awaken a deeper sense of God. So, whatever I’m doing, that’s the ultimate purpose because secular society is suffering enormously because they’ve lost sense of God. And when you lose the centre, everything tends to fall apart, and I see it all the time; that’s when people get lost existentially. And there’s deep suffering that comes from secularism. So my approach has always been to try to find the route of access back to God, how to bring him back into the equation; now whether that’s through a movie or through a song or through a popular book or through whatever is happening through politics: that’s my ultimate purpose, which is to bring God back into the picture.”

In pursuit of this goal, which is both pastoral and didactic, he engages confidently with the “New Atheists — who are new only in their nastiness.” He emphasises the great depth of the intellectual tradition which feeds into Catholicism, with a truly modern vision of being grounded in the giants of the past while making strides to a new making and ever-growing Church. Though “not a Thomist of the strict observance”, he points to Aquinas’ “perennial” relevance, especially in contemporary popular theological and philosophical dialogue. Partial to his “deep realism” and daring rationalism, he told me that “Aquinas would read the New Atheists and he would peck them on the head and say, ‘Well, yes, of course what you’re objecting to is so silly — a strawman— it’s a primitive perception of God.’ Because I think Thomas would just kind of blithely accept much of the criticism and would say ‘I agree with that, I even critiqued the same thing,’ and then open their eyes to a much more authentic understanding of God.”

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Of course, the world is not divided between Catholicism and secularism, and the Bishop is equipped with a resonant and simple ecumenical call for our time: “I think the Church should make common ground [with other churches and religions] and bracket for a time for 16th-century debates and we should talk about God together. This directly goes for Jews and Hindus. We should speak of the transcendent dimension together because the common enemy is secularism. We could all [be] witness to God together.”

Speaking of another of his theological influences, the Oxford alumnus Cardinal Newman, the Bishop offered his comments on ‘On the Idea of a University’: “I agree with Newman in that the goal for the university should be in producing what he called the ‘gentleman’ with a liberal type of mind, someone who is liberally educated, a person who is grounded in a wide variety of sciences so he doesn’t have a narrow view. Produce the gentleman who has a liberal education…I think that’s right, the university should produce someone who has a liberal frame of mind, a liberal education. If seeking for knowledge for one’s own sake, why not widen the field? At the centre of which is found religious knowledge. Natural theology belongs at the university. I would subscribe then to Newman’s vision.”

He assured me that, even though he has now assumed the weighty responsibilities and all the business of a bishopric, his output, from his YouTube channel to columns, books and talks, will continue in a more or less ceaseless fashion. In the era of what he calls “the Pope of the provocative gesture”, Bishop Barron’s work will make up a key part in the  reinvigoration of the Catholic Church, crucially maintaining the perpetual relevance of its voice.