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A New Apologetics: Bishop Barron’s Youth Synod Intervention

Why do young people in our own Catholic secondary schools read Shakespeare in literature class, Homer in Latin class, and Einstein in physics class, but, far too often, superficial texts in religion?

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron, center, leaves the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

NOTE: Bishop Barron offered the following intervention at the Vatican during the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. For more Synod content from Bishop Barron, visit WordFromRome.com, where you’ll find behind-the-scenes videos, interviews, commentaries, and more.

Jesus’ encounter with two erstwhile disciples on the road to Emmaus provides a beautiful template for the Church’s work of accompaniment across the ages. The Lord walks with the couple, even as they move away from Jerusalem, which is to say, spiritually speaking, in the wrong direction. He does not commence with a word of judgment, but rather with attention and quiet encouragement. Jesus continues to listen, even as they recount, accurately enough, all the data having to do with him. But then, knowing that they lack the interpretive pattern that will make sense of the data, he upbraids them (“Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”), and then he lays out the form (“beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.”). He listens with love, and he speaks with force and clarity.

Innumerable surveys and studies over the past ten years have confirmed that young people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what has prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it. Chief among these are the convictions that religion is opposed to science or that it cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, that its beliefs are outmoded, a holdover from a primitive time, that the Bible is unreliable, that religious belief gives rise to violence, and that God is a threat to human freedom. I can verify, on the basis of twenty years of ministry in the field of online evangelization, that these concerns are crucial stumbling blocks to the acceptance of the faith among young people.

What is vitally needed today, as an aspect of the accompaniment of the young, is a renewed apologetics and catechesis. I realize that in some circles within the Church, the term apologetics is suspect, since it seems to indicate something rationalistic, aggressive, condescending. I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytizing has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally-sensitive explication of the faith (“giving a reason for the hope that is within us”) is certainly a desideratum. There is a consensus among pastoral people that, at least in the West, we have experienced a crisis in catechesis these last fifty years. That the faith has not been effectively communicated was verified by the most recent Religious Landscape Study, from the Pew Research Center in America. It indicated that, among the major religions, Catholicism was second to last in passing on its traditions. Why has it been the case, over the past several decades, that young people in our own Catholic secondary schools have read Shakespeare in literature class, Homer in Latin class, Einstein in physics class, but, far too often, superficial texts in religion? The army of our young who claim that religion is irrational is a bitter fruit of this failure in education.

Therefore, what would a new apologetics look like? First, it would arise from the questions that young people spontaneously ask. It would not be imposed from above but would rather emerge organically from below, a response to the yearning of the mind and the heart. Here it would take a cue from the method of St. Thomas Aquinas. The austere texts of the great theological master in point of fact emerged from the lively give-and-take of the quaestiones disputatae that stood at the heart of the educational process in the medieval university. Thomas was deeply interested in what young people were really asking. So should we.

Secondly, a new apologetics should look deep and long into the question of the relationship between religion and science. For many people today, scientific and rational are simply equivalent or co-extensive terms. And therefore, since religion is obviously not science, it must be irrational. Without for a moment denigrating the sciences, we have to show that there are non-scientific and yet eminently rational paths that conduce toward knowledge of the real. Literature, drama, philosophy, the fine arts—all close cousins of religion—not only entertain and delight; they also bear truths that are unavailable in any other way. A renewed apologetics ought to cultivate these approaches.

Thirdly, our apologetics and catechesis should walk the via pulchritudinis, as Pope Francis characterized it in Evangelii Gaudium. Especially in our postmodern cultural context, commencing with the true and the good—what to believe and how to behave—is often counter-indicated, since the ideology of self-invention is so firmly established. However, the third transcendental, the beautiful, often proves a more winsome, less threatening, path. And part of the genius of Catholicism is that we have so consistently embraced the beautiful—in song, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and liturgy. All of this provides a powerful matrix for evangelization. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar argued, the most compelling beauty of all is that of the saints. I have found a good deal of evangelical traction in presenting the lives of these great friends of God, somewhat in the manner of a baseball coach who draws young adepts into the game by showing them the play of some of its greatest practitioners.

When Jesus explained himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts began to burn within them. The Church must walk with young people, listen to them with attention and love, and then be ready intelligently to give a reason for the hope that is within us. This, I trust, will set the hearts of the young on fire.

About Bishop Robert Barron 141 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

27 Comments

  1. “I realize that in some circles within the Church, the term apologetics is suspect, since it seems to indicate something rationalistic, aggressive, condescending.” What circles? The liberal circles that want to form a ring around the faith according to their own opinions and meanings; the circle of Pope Francis with its progressive word magicians? Perhaps before we run off doing apologetics we should begin by all agreeing that a “defense” of the faith is not a bad or necessarily aggressive thing. In the circles Bishop Barron speaks of, John the Baptist would have been considered a mean man full of “toxic masculinity”. Pope Francis himself once distinguished between humble sowers of the faith and “apologists for their own agendas”, thus equating an apologist with a sower of strife. This is the equivalent of saying “masculine for their own violence” and Voila! instantly “masculine” becomes a dirty word. St. Justin Martyr and Apologist, pray for us!

  2. In favorable response to Bishop Baron’s points one, two and three…yes, yes, and yes. But then is there still something else?

    Back in the 1970s I posed a question to a reliable (!) Jesuit: “Why are so many priests leaving the priesthood? What doctrinal [or intellectual] difficulty trips them up?” His answer: “It has nothing to do with doctrine. It’s because they already stopped praying years before….three squares and a flop, that’s all.” For the laity, today, how much of the intellectual argument (Baron’s religion versus science) is likewise a facade?

    Still, “yes” to a better apologetic (and Bishop Baron has already shown much on how to do this).

    But this too: whatever the outcome of Cardinal Wuerl’s current problem (for example), he also had the apologetic picture just about right in Rome when he opened the Year of Faith in October 2012: “This current situation is rooted in the upheavals of the 1970s and 80s, decades in which there was manifest poor catechesis or miscatechesis [!] at so many levels of education . . .It is as if a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape, taking with it such societal markers as marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.”

    Impregnated (in more ways than one) by the “secular influence,” do the un-catechized and de-catechized young still ask about such things? Especially when some of the clergy, even at the Youth Synod, seem themselves to be paradigm-shifting away from notions of traditional marriage and family and objective right and wrong?

    Unlike Christ on the Road to Emmaus, when St. Peter accompanied pre-Christians–who were NOT yet disciples–it sometimes went something like this: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this perverse generation’” (Acts 2:40). What then, today, in our not-pre-Christian, but post- and anti-Christian culture—an even lower starting point?

    As part of our New Evangelization, what would deprogramming look like? In addition to how apologetics can be done better, what else has to be purged, maybe even with some fraternal tough love among the Synod fathers?

  3. “However, the third transcendental, the beautiful, often proves a more winsome, less threatening, path. And part of the genius of Catholicism is that we have so consistently embraced the beautiful—in song, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and liturgy.”

    We are waiting for Latin bishops to fix liturgical praxis and restore ad orientem worship.

  4. “What is vitally needed today, as an aspect of the accompaniment of the young, is a renewed apologetics and catechesis.”

    Bishop Barron – with the utmost of respect, the Mass is the preeminent catechisis. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Give young people the ancient Mass of all Ages, give them the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

  5. “He does not commence with a word of judgment, but rather with attention and quiet encouragement.”

    Luke 24:25 Then he said to them: “O foolish, and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have spoken.”
    No Word of Judgement there.

    Today’s youth – and adults for that matter – are ill-formed in critical reasoning, being relativists where truth can contradict truth; they constantly use faulty logic, laden with errors and logical fallacies. The assertion that intellectual reasons are the reasons for leaving the Bosom of Holy Mother Church falls away under any scrutiny. When asked to explain leaving the Catholic Church, the vast majority of lapsing Catholics leave for emotional reasons. You can see the converse in such sources as The Coming Home Network, where over and over, deeply intellectual (and often highly educated) Protestants, non-Christians, and Atheists convert to the One True Faith.

    Catholic Truth is intellectually unassailable, actually.

    Pax Christi in Regno Christi

  6. Bishop Barron,
    OK fine. Begin with our beautiful, timeless liturgy.
    Have the guts to face the Tabernacle of God when saying the Holy Mass.
    Too much to ask? OK fine. Say goodby to even more of the young. No problem.

  7. “The Lord walks with the couple”, They are two men walking down a road – – they are NOT a couple. Is this just a slip or do we see a Bishop who longs to be a Cardinal?

    • The scripture does not say two men. It says two disciples. We know the name of one: “Cleopas.” The other remains unnamed. Yet, Cleopas seems to be going home. The only other mention of this name in scripture is at the Cross (JN 19:25) Mary the wife of “Clopas”. “Clopas” is a variant spelling of “Cleopas.” If he is going home, would he not be going there with his wife? Is his wife who stood at the foot of the Cross of our Lord, not a Disciple? IF you read the passage again with a married couple in mind, there are great theological implications for the sacrament of matrimony. It also makes sense because John begins the public ministry of Jesus with a wedding at Cana; it would only make sense that he would end it with a marriage, one consummated in the Holy Eucharist!

  8. I applaud Bishop Barron for condemning “dumbed down, coloring-book Catholic-ism.”

    My teenage children all agree, with my wife and I, that their required “confirmation classes” are a pathetic, dumbed down, wishy-washy waste of time. My wife has “assisted” as a teacher in the class for 2 years: she said the basic program is junk. The deacon in charge last year threw out the diocesan/parish program and gave the teens something challenging and adult to deal with.

    My wife is yet again re-fighting the same battle this year, to replace the awful, fabricated junk program.

    The Catholic Church has a culture: Jewish roots, and an Apostolic tradition from Jerusalem, wedded to Greek philosophy and Roman Law. And all of the liturgy, art, music and architecture that flowed and flowered from this for 2000 years.

    The alternative “non-culture” of the contemporary Church, “invented” in the 1970s, is a barren wasteland.

    • “My teenage children all agree, with my wife and I, that their required “confirmation classes” are a pathetic, dumbed down, wishy-washy waste of time. My wife has “assisted” as a teacher in the class for 2 years: she said the basic program is junk. The deacon in charge last year threw out the diocesan/parish program and gave the teens something challenging and adult to deal with.”

      When are Latin bishops going to restore the traditional order if not the traditional age for the reception of the sacraments of initiation? 50 years after Vatican 2 and many are still witholding Confirmation until teenage years.

    • “The alternative “non-culture” of the contemporary Church, “invented” in the 1970s, is a barren wasteland.”
      Chris, I fully agree. For many years now I have questioned just how well graduates from my city’s Catholic high Schools know their faith. More to the point, I question if they even know what it means to be Catholic. I am a product of the arguably top (Jesuit) high school where I live. The college- prep was exceptional. The Catholic-prep worthless. I am 57 and many of my generation practice no faith because in the 1970’s we were not taught the Faith. The Baltimore Catechism (eradicated before my time) was replaced with the uninspiring “Gentle Jesus come and squeeze us” and “Why is the grass green? The grass is green because Jesus loves us.” That is NOT teaching the Faith. Bishops: Give the youth the Extraordinary Form of the mass. Take away priest-centric mass. Give youth the Mozart mass and do away with guitars and saxophones. Give youth doctrinally true and hard-hitting homilies and stop with the soft sell regarding matters of mortal sin. Give them Truth. Give them a Catholic identity. They won’t break. They will embrace.

  9. “… the couple” Yes, i found that strange. It is weird to here new words being used with scripture that i have never heard used before. I heard a homily and the priest spoke about how God made people for one another and he never said that God made men and women for one another. Strange.

  10. Does this not amount to an over-intellectualized approach to evangelization? The “modern world” (which survived two world wars, established the UN, the OAS and the European Common Market, along with maned moon missions) really is not all that interested the message about the New Life of faith. Indeed, the polarization witnessed today in American life and the virtual collapse of the Catholic faith in Europe serve as brutal examples of how failed “programs” and appeals giving excessive primacy to the intellect have often proven, for decades now. “Literature, drama, philosophy, the fine arts … [which indeed] entertain and delight …” puts the cart before the horse. No, evangelization must originate from lived example of the virtues: the working of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes. Only then can such a life lived influence culture, the arts, etc. Minds cannot only be changed; men and women must enter into a vital and active relationship with the living God. And let’s face it, those who live the good life (i.e. the life of goodness) are arguably the most powerful witness to that. Paul VI understood this, expressed in his famous 1975 Evangelii nuntiandi quote : “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

  11. While you make a point of “how” Jesus accompanied these two to teach them you neglect to address the fact that many priests, bishops, cardinals don’t walk with anyone. They are too busy being administrators or “buddies” or whatever they are doing leaving their responsibilities to the laity.

    You mention talking about using saints as an example but how many priests today will even tell anyone that becoming a saint and being holy is our goal and purpose? Maybe 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The problem is too often the faith is given with no point, no purpose, and the relative equivalency that everyone is good, it doesn’t matter how you live, we’re all going to heaven anyway. Why would anyone follow that?

    Also, a point is not made to correct those in error but rather let their errors be multiplied. Where are the St. Thomas Beckett’s to tell politicians and rulers when they proclaim to be Catholic but their beliefs and actions and policies they support run opposite to the faith and are mortal sins such as abortion?

    If our “alter Christus” actually pointed people to Christ perhaps people would be led to Him and stay in the faith. Instead too many of our “alter Christus” are leading souls to hell.

  12. Bishop Barron explains the reason why many moderns do not look to religion: “religion is opposed to science or that it cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, that its beliefs are outmoded, a holdover from a primitive time, that the Bible is unreliable, that religious belief gives rise to violence”
    BINGO. But might I say that the usual practice of nodding in agreement when someone has these objections (i.e. Adam and Eve are not literal, the flood is a myth, God didn’t really command a ban it was just a primitive misunderstanding, etc), isn’t helping and only leads to more nonsense and more doubt. So frequently these explainations are invoked without any rational basis (how do you know?), without any development of the rational consequences of such a statements, without any respect for the long held teachings of the church, the inerrancy of scripture, the inspiration of the scriptures, etc. That the world holds the view that our religion is unbelievable isn’t that surprising, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  13. We need teaching about sin, repentance, and salvation, to put a fine point on things. The world is on fire but numbed by material progressivism. And the Church wants to what, figure out how to reach it thru some sort of Nike ad campaign pasted together by Vatican Mad Men? As a graphic designer I was enamored of such dreams myself 20 years ago. I still think delivery methods matter, but not nearly so much as message content. Leaders pontificate about reaching youth while they cannot even keep a house clean from homosexualism and clericalism. I like Barron, but I tend to agree with the voices that called for cancelling this whole Synod. The best witness would be leaders leading like morally responsible adults and not politicos or bureaucrats. Live the faith, teach the faith, and let God worry about results. The problem for the Church today is not reaching youth, but reaching anyone while it stands idly by watching so much moral and doctrinal corruption. There is plenty of beauty already in the world today, but no quite as much unafraid witness to moral goodness and truth. I guess I sound like a rigorist. I’ll go read Pascal!

  14. The bishops are guilty, guilty, guilty! When the pro abort politicians croak the bishops will give them the Kennedy treatment. Where is the exit door for the disgusted catholics

  15. Casteluccio makes a passing and favorable reference to “manned moon missions.”

    Here’s part of the rest of the story, coming from one who had a direct role on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet that in the Pacific recovered the first astronauts to leave footprints on the moon (Apollo XI, July 1969).

    The Commanding Officer was a devout Catholic all his life and regularly attended Mass with members of his crew in the ship’s chapel(Radm. Carl Seiberlich, RIP, Arlington National Cemetery, July 2006). Seiberlich sent a piece of memorabilia to Pope Paul VI, and a month later–under a night sky overflowing with a million visible stars, and from a Church not yet so veiled in shadows–the chaplain read over the intercom the appreciative papal blessing upon all 2,500 members of the ship’s crew, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and undecided.

    We long for the day again when, in Chesterton’s words” the Church grows younger as the world grows old.”

  16. Fifty years of Markan Priority, “Gospels are doubtful” instruction in most Catholic universities and seminaries has reduced Jesus to “thin air,” as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first “Jesus of Nazareth,” xii. It has also undermined apologetics by marginalizing The Gospel according to Matthew, which, as Papias and Irenaeus affirm, Matthew wrote not in Greek but in Hebrew. With Matthew written anonymously in Greek a generation later and Mt. 16:18-19 thus discredited by the dominant “Markan Priority Two-Source Hypothesis,” Peter was probably not named the “Rock” nor given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. All four Gospels may well be just anonymous hearsay. As explained in “Jesus: ‘thin air’ no more on the Catholic campus,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13TquB_lcI4
    Matthean Priority restores papal primacy, but it is our Hebraists who can now restore Gospel credibility. Thanks largely to study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, at least 20 have concluded that at least the canonical Greek Gospels of Matthew and Mark are TRANSLATIONS of earlier Hebrew or Aramaic texts, probably written by those evangelists. (J. Carmignac, “The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels”) May those studies soon displace faith-undermining Markan Priority in our universities and seminaries and thus reestablish a rock-solid foundation for apologetics!

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