Saturday, January 07, 2012

Broken engagement

Pining after the “old” atheists

The National Catholic Register is a century-old newspaper that was recently acquired by the Eternal Word Broadcasting Network (EWTN): “The acquisition of the Register is the latest in EWTN's efforts to expand its news presence in the global Catholic digital and multimedia market.” As a result, EWTN Radio has added Register Radio to its broadcast schedule, a weekly program hosted by Thom Price and Tim Drake. On January 6, 2012, Register Radio featured the observations of Father Robert Barron on its “Media Watch” segment, wherein mass media treatment of the Roman Catholic Church is examined (and usually found wanting).

Father Barron and his hosts focused their particular disdain on an editorial column penned by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. Back in August of last year, Keller considered the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates. His words did not please the Register Radio commentators:
Tim Drake: In this August 25 editorial—it was titled “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith”— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller scrutinized the religious beliefs of the different GOP presidential candidates and he touched on Mormonism, evangelical Christianity, and Catholicism. And in the editorial he likened Catholics' belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to belief in aliens. He wrote, “If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?” And he later wrote, “Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” And so we thought we would bring on Father Robert Barron with us today to kind of tackle this. Father Barron heads up the “Word on Fire” ministry of the archdiocese of Chicago and is also the creative director behind the new “Catholicism” series, which will be airing on PBS starting September 22. So, Father Barron, thanks for being with us.

Father Barron: Gentlemen, good morning. Thanks for having me on this morning.

Tim Drake: So, first of all, Fr. Barron, what was your reaction to Keller's comments, specifically his description of the Catholic belief in the real presence as baggage?

Father Barron: Yeah, well, it was sadly typical, as you were saying, not just of the New York Times but a lot of the mainstream media. Something I've noticed—you know, I've been following media for a long time—and there's this extraordinary uptick after September 11, I would argue, in anti-religious rhetoric, a tendency to mock religion rather than seriously engage it. I mean, go back to the early twentieth century, and you have the great atheists like Sartre and Camus and company. Well, they engaged religion seriously. They knew they were up against a serious opponent and they disbelieved in God and they didn't like the Church particularly, but they didn't mock it. But now you see after September 11, and the rise of the Hitchens and Dawkins and Bill Mahers and Sam Harrises, you find a shift in tactics. Not even an attempt to understand what the Church means by its teaching, but simply to mock it in the most sort of juvenile way. Sadly, you see it in all the comment boxes and all that on the Internet. People have taken their cues from Hitchens and Dawkins and company and they just sort of dismiss religion with the back of the hand. It's really sad that it's come into, you know, much of the leading mainstream media in the same way. So I'm not really surprised by it. I see it all the time. But it's still, you know, dispiriting and discouraging.

Tim Drake: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. I had never thought, you know, of the sort of the treatment of religion pre-9/11 and post-9/11, but with the rise of the “new atheists” it almost seems like we need a “new apologetics” to kind of respond, don't we?

Father Barron: Absolutely, and I think—I've been thinking about it for a long time—there is a clear watershed at September 11, because what it did, it stirred up in the minds of a lot of people that old Enlightenment Era critique, namely, religion is irrational, therefore it's violent. You go back to Kant and to Schleiermacher and to Spinoza and the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment, that was exactly the argument. Religion is irrational. Therefore you can't really have an argument about it, all you can do is fight about it, which is why religious people tend toward violence. And that old argument from the eighteenth century was stirred up after September 11. People say, well, look, there's these irrational—therefore violent—religious people knocking down the World Trade Center. All religion is like that, you know. So I saw a revival of that. And that's why I think it's no accident that Hitchens and company emerged so strongly after September 11. The difference, of course, is you want people who'll be willing to engage religion seriously, to try to find out what serious religious people actually mean when they use language like, a wafer of bread is transubstantiated into the body of Jesus.
What serious religious people believe about transubstantiation? Why does Fr. Barron think anyone, in the media or otherwise, is puzzled by that? “Serious” Catholics believe that magic happens. It's no big mystery what they believe because the Church doctrine of transubstantiation is very clear: the wafer of bread truly, really, literally becomes the genuine, actual flesh of Jesus Christ himself—except without changing any of its physical aspects. The bread retains its previous appearance, form, and tastelessness. In brief: a miracle without evidence. As I said: magic. And, lacking the least particle of physical evidence, it must be taken entirely on faith. If you're not a believing Catholic, then it's just so much superstitious baggage—to borrow an apt term from Keller.
Father Barron: But I find that there's just an unwillingness on the part of much of the mainstream media even to understand what we mean. It's simply a back-of-the-hand dismissal. That's a problem. And then to your point: Yes, indeed, we need a new apologetics. When I was coming of age, apologetics had a bad flavor. You know, it was seen to be defensive, and it was non-ecumenical, and it was Tridentine and all this, but, you know, what's happened is my generation—I'm fifty—my generation ran out to meet the culture. The culture's good, embrace the culture. Well, I mean, now a large part of the culture has turned against us, with hostility. And so there we are, without any weapons. And so I think, yes, indeed we have to recover the intellectual tradition of Catholicism, which is very strong, and will enable us to meet some of these attacks.

Tim Drake: Yeah, it certainly seems as if the Catholic Church does not receive the same degree of respect that other faith traditions receive. And don't you think that much of that hostility and hatred that is directed at the Church comes from the fact that the Church is one of the only institutions that kind of actually stands for something.

Father Barron: Yeah, Oh, quite right. In some ways it's a back-handed compliment that we get so much attention, you know, so much opprobrium, it's because we're the biggest kid around and, as you say, we actually stand for something. So it is a back-handed compliment that we're still seen as a threat. And it's something I find fascinating, to go back to what I said a few minutes ago, from the Enlightenment on, who is perceived as the great enemy of modernity but the Catholic Church? And so you've seen a revival of that argument. Now as with Vatican II, there were elements of modernity that we can and should reach out to, we should try to engage the modern culture as much as we can, but there are elements of the modern culture that are antipathetic to our program. And it's wrong for us simply to, you know, embrace it all in an uncritical spirit. They've recognized in us an opposition. Okay, good. I'm glad. We are opposed to modernity. In some ways. I think one of the primary ways is modernity loves the mythology of self-creation, you know, that we make ourselves by sovereign acts of the free will. That's a great modern myth: Here I am, an individual with rights, privileges, responsibilities, and I can even create the meaning of my own life. Well, I'm glad the Catholic Church stands against that and I'm furthermore glad that the modern culture recognizes that. They know that we're the enemy of that view. I think we should boldly enter the lists and say, yeah, let's get it on. Let's have a good argument about this.
Fr. Barron fails to recognize that the “ good argument” actually began a long time ago and has been going against his side. His attack on “modernism” is an instructive echo of the Church's long and losing struggle against humanity's slow progress toward rationality. In the Church's formulation, “modernism” is a heresy, much abhorred by popes. Barron joins them in condemning the notion that the meaning in one's life can come from one's own conscious will. In Barron's world, the Church is in charge of doling out meaning. If you don't like it, that's just too bad. Amen?

I don't think so.


Gene O'Pedia said...

Boy, when Zeno wants a vacation, he doesn't repeat blogs, he just cuts and pastes hours of radio show transcriptions. You dog you!

Nonetheless, interesting stuff, although I'm a bit shy about eating toast now.

Michael said...

I once had Fr. Barron patronize me on a blog where I questioned certain Catholic dogma as the Assumption of Mary and transubstantiation. Essentially he told me (a) as a non-Catholic I didn't understand these doctrines and (b) they were mysteries.

The Assumption of Mary is fun. It's official Catholic dogma that Mary didn't die but was "assumed" bodily into Heaven. The story about how this came about is amusing. It's based on the opinion of St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem in 451, who asked by the Byzantine emperor to provide some relics of Mary. Juvenal couldn't produce any and so he said there weren't any because Mary's body went directly to Heaven. Barron wasn't too happy to be told one part of Catholic doctrine came about so a bishop could get his butt out of a jam.

Zeno said...

No cutting and pasting, Gene. I wrote that transcript myself. (Yes, that means I actually managed to listen to that audio file more than once. If I were still a practicing Catholic I could offer it all up for penance!)

Michael, funny thing about those Catholic "mysteries": they are about as opaque to the Church faithful as they are to non-Catholics. It's just that Catholics are more accustomed to them. Most priests and apologists know that it's not wise to claim too much about the faith of their co-religionists. Time and again Catholics have demonstrated in their answers to polling organizations that most of their opinions are little different from those of their Protestant brethren.

Margaret said...

That's a great modern myth: Here I am, an individual with rights, privileges, responsibilities, ...

That's a stark statement of their master/slave mentality. To paraphrase: "I'm not an individual and I don't have any rights."