Dear Father Barron: An Appeal
If any Catholic media outlet were to nominate Father Robert Barron as their Catholic Person of the Year for 2011, they’d have my support. His Catholicism Series is probably the single most exciting media initiative in what John Paul II called the New Evangelization. I pre-ordered it and am currently part of a team running it at the Newman Centre here in Toronto.
Readers here will know that I am a long-time Barron fan. He is clear, balanced, and Catholic. I listen to his homilies weekly and I have found his Youtube videos very useful for helping people understand all kinds of things that are commonly misunderstood about Catholicism. I have even found some of his more academic work helpful in my doctoral dissertation. He is one of the only public Catholic voices that I can endorse without qualification.
All of which is why I found this video so disappointing:
The video starts off very well. Father Barron should of course be commended for drawing attention to the plight of persecuted Christians the world over. But at 5:26 the video takes a turn for the worse. Father Barron confesses that his inspiration for this video lay, at least in part, with the National Catholic Reporter’s choice of Sister Elizabeth Johnson as their Person of the Year. Sister Johnson, of course, was at the center of controversy last year when the doctrinal arm of the USCCB found fault with one of her books. The controversy, it must be noted, did not focus to any large extent on the actual content of the criticism or the simple fact of the criticism, but on the procedure that surrounded the criticism. Here is not the place to rehash all the details, but it should be enough to point out that Sister Johnson was not even contacted by the office responsible during their investigation.
According to Father Barron, the NCR’s choice of Sister Johnson perpetuates “the 1970s era narrative of the brave progressive theologian fighting against the repressive Church” – “a very tired and utterly unilluminating” narrative. And on this I agree with him. In certain quarters, including the NCR, this narrative is seized upon any time questions are raised about any theologian. I simply cannot imagine the NCR acknowledging actual doctrinal concerns that the USCCB might legitimately have. Furthermore, I am at least a little sympathetic to the specific concerns they had about this particular book, even if I wish they had been a little more respectful in their treatment of Sister Johnson. In sum, while I certainly sympathize with the concerns of the academy that theologians be accorded fair treatment in such circumstances, it would never have occurred to me to call Sister Johnson my Person of the Year.
My problem with Father Barron’s video, then, is not that I support the NCR’s choice. Rather, my concern is that Father Barron has, in at least one way, replicated the Bishop’s failure on the Sister Johnson question. He has failed to engage her. Instead, in this video, she is made into a totem for the dissident wing of the Church and criticized in the abstract. Whether or not you like her theology, Sister Johnson doesn’t deserve this. She didn’t select herself as Person of the Year. And, as convenient a segué as “persecution” provides rhetorically, this is a false comparison. I have no doubt that Sister Johnson, and even the editors of the NCR, recognize the radical seriousness of real persecution. To insinuate that they don’t is disingenuous. They weren’t consciously making a choice between the good Sister and the persecuted Christians whose plight Father Barron rightly brings to our attention.
All of which is to say that I found Father Barron’s own narrative “unilluminating.” Father Barron’s great gift is that of communicating the faith deeply and clearly in language and concepts that are accessible to a wide audience. It is unfortunate that he didn’t use them for that here. I am quite confident, however, that Father Barron could produce a first rate elucidation of exactly the theological question that concerned the Bishops in Sister’s book. The vast majority of Father’s audience has never and will never read the book. A slightly smaller, but still vast, majority has never and will never read the Bishop’s critique. Such a situation provides an opportunity for Father Barron to do what he does best.
Father Barron is usually very illuminating. I hope he will take the opportunity to illuminate on this question.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.