Through his extremely popular “Catholicism” video series, Fr. Robert Barron is imparting a wealth of information and insight on the Catholic faith and the nature of the Church to large numbers of people, both Catholic and otherwise, who desperately need it.
The series is well produced, and serves as an effective showcase for Fr. Barron’s remarkable ability to communicate deep theological principals in a compelling and approachable way.
In spite of the excellence of the overwhelming majority of the content, it must be said that some of the propositions put forth in the series need clarification, apart from which error is all but invited.
In the present case, I’d like to take a closer look at Fr. Barron’s treatment of the unity of the Church.
“It calls to mind what Vatican II said, that there are rays of light, elements of truth in all the great religions of the world,” he said.
While it is exceedingly commonplace in this post-conciliar age for churchmen (including our Holy Fathers) to speak of the “great religions of the world,” the very notion that there exists among the many false religions of the world those that are appropriately considered “great” is every bit as dangerous as suggesting that that there are numerous “great” gods in the world.
Religious “greatness” presupposes religious truth, and there is really only one “great” religion; namely, the Catholic faith, the solitary religion that worships the Father in truth as He Himself demands. This, my friends, may shock modern day sensibilities, but it’s really just basic Catholicism.
About those “elements of truth,” found in other religions, Fr. Barron states, “Newman said, ‘The Church has the power of assimilation, like a healthy organism that is able to move into its environment, holding off what it must, but assimilating to itself what it can.’”
“So the Church at its best down through the ages,” he continues, “drawing (sic) all that is good and true and beautiful into its own unity. The oneness of the Church is not a crushing totalitarian oneness; rather, it is an assimilating and living unity.”
When asked by an off-camera interviewer about the allegation that the Church, in her recognition and teaching of Jesus as “the One,” somehow “eliminates” religions like Islam, and paganism, Fr. Barron says, “But we don’t. Because (Jesus) is the Logos, all the other logoi – the smaller expression of God’s truth – can find relation to Him.”
“So we can find rays of light; elements of truth in all the great religions. We can find elements of truth in all the great philosophies. We can look at every culture and say, ‘That’s good, that’s good, that’s true, that’s right, that’s just,’ and Christianity can assimilate all of those things to itself,” he concludes.
Beyond the repeated, and very troubling, use of the phrase “great religions,” another concern lies in Fr. Barron’s unintentional convolution of two very different concepts; namely, the way in which certain cultural elements may be assimilated into the rituals and disciplines of the Church, one the one hand, and the implication that the Church assimilates truth to herself in a doctrinal sense, on the other.
The latter notion is problematic.
To say that that the Church assimilates to itself “elements of truth” such as they can be found in other religions, apart from further explanation, invites the erroneous view that the Catholic Church somehow discovers a “truth” that exists outside of herself and then makes it her own.
Properly speaking, however, the fullness of truth already belongs to the Catholic Church by virtue of who she is; the Bride of Christ to whom the Bridegroom gives Himself without measure or limit.
This means that those “elements of truth” in other religions are, ever have been, and always will be, the property of the Catholic Church.
So what did Newman mean to say?
In his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Newman states, “The conduct of Popes, Councils, Fathers, betokens the slow, painful, anxious taking up of new truths into an existing body of belief.”
This phrase, “new truths” as Newman employs it is highly problematic as well, especially if one reads it out of context. (In fact, I would say that it is unadvisable to employ this phrase in any context relative to the doctrine of the Church.)
The reality is, the Church does not, indeed cannot, add to the deposit of faith, as if the “existing body of belief” is going to grow over time; rather, the Church can only increase in her ability to articulate the fullness of truth that has been entrusted to Her by the Lord.
In any case, a close reading of Newman’s Essay reveals that this is precisely what he attempting to describe, albeit very clumsily in the sentence quoted.
He states that the Church can even find and treat as “raw material” for teaching certain of the words and expressions of heretics! For example, he speaks of how shades of “Tertullian, in his almost heretical treatises, may be detected in the most finished sentences of St. Leo” (cf John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Part Two, Chapter 8).
In other words, the Church will at times make use of certain modes of expression such as they are found in other religions, but only to the extent that they admirably reflect the truth. It cannot be said, however, that the Church is in any way adding to that which she already possesses.
The confusion that Fr. Barron’s teaching invites is noteworthy as the erroneous view just discussed is quite commonplace, particularly as it is expressed in the modern day ecumenical movement.
How often we hear our churchmen speak of ecumenical dialogue as a “common search for unity,” as though Catholics and non-Catholics alike are in some way lacking.
No! The Catholic Church lacks neither truth nor unity, and the only way for those outside of the fold to possess either one (indeed unity is the fruit of truth) is through conversion to the Catholic faith.
Averting the potential for confusion with explanation, as we have done here, is always a worthy endeavor in itself, but the broader point is perhaps even more important in our day:
Neither St. John Newman, nor Fr. Robert Barron (for all of his admirable work), is the Church, the keeper of sacred Tradition. (In fact, I am confident in saying that Fr. Barron would be the first to say this as well!)
In any case, the lesson is clear: It is absolutely necessary for those who wish to remain in the light of truth to measure every religious proposition they encounter, regardless of the messenger or medium, against the Tradition of the Church as it has been handed down to us by the Church throughout the centuries.
This is even the case as it concerns the text of Vatican Council II, lest we fall into the trap of which Cardinal Ratzinger once warned, treating the Council as a sort of “super-dogma” that discounts the importance of all that preceded it.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com