Bishop Barron discusses Catholic intellectual tradition at Harvard

CAMBRIDGE -- When Bishop Robert Barron first landed in France to begin studying theology at the University of Paris, not even a serious case of jet lag could stop him from admiring the north rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Barron, bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota and founder of the Word on Fire Catholic media apostolate, spent 30 minutes staring at what he called a "wheel of color and light."

Like all rose windows in Gothic cathedrals, Christ is portrayed at the center. Everything else surrounds him, spiraling outward in a meticulously organized arrangement. In that window, Bishop Barron sees all of creation.

"It's so much more than a pretty picture," Bishop Barron said. "It's an image... God in the center. Through God, all things holding together."

During a lecture at Memorial Church at Harvard University on Sept. 17, Bishop Barron said that, like the rose window, the entire Catholic intellectual tradition has Christ at its center.

"The Catholic intellectual tradition stubbornly looks at God, the world, the way we organize ourselves through the lens of Jesus Christ," he said. "And we see it according to the divine light."

Over 800 people attended the lecture, which was hosted by the Harvard Catholic Forum and the Harvard Catholic Center.

"Bishop Barron is one of the leading Catholic intellectuals," said Harvard Law School student Luke Schafer, "and the opportunity to hear him at Harvard is a very great opportunity."

Justin Brinkley, a theology graduate student at Boston College, has listened to Bishop Barron online for years.

"I really appreciated his vision of God," Brinkley said. "It's the view that God isn't the same as everything, but that God is in all things."

Bishop Barron acknowledged that he could spend an entire semester discussing the Catholic intellectual tradition, but he only had 35 minutes. In his lecture, he explained the human element of Catholic philosophy, the nature of God and the misconceptions surrounding that nature.

Referencing the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Barron said that God is not a being in the way that a person or a planet is, but rather "is the sheer act of 'to be' itself."

He criticized atheist philosophers for viewing God as a being whose existence can be proven, disproven, or categorized.

"That's precisely what God is not," he said. "Precisely the wrong way to look for God."

To prove his point, he quoted God's words to Moses: "I am what I am."

"God's answer is meant to break all those categories," he said.

Bishop Barron described God as "non-competitive" compared to the gods and goddesses of pre-Christian mythology, who would "bully" their way into human affairs.

"Then there's the true God," he said. "Who sets the world on fire and makes it luminous and does not consume it."

He said that the Catholic intellectual tradition is distinct from all others because its goal is not just the liberation of human beings, but the divinization of them -- the greatest of all human aspirations.

"There is no humanism," he said, "anywhere across the ages, greater than Christian theology."

This, he said, is why Jesus Christ is at once fully human and fully divine, "without mixing, mingling, or confusion" between the two categories.

Paraphrasing the words of the early Church Fathers, he said that "God became human, so that we humans might become God."

Bishop Barron lamented the fact that many atheists view God as a threat to human freedom, a misconception which he said is the product of "bad theology, very bad preaching, and very bad witness."

"The non-competitive God is not a supreme being, bumping against our autonomy," he said. "but the God that lets us be. The more that God is internalized... the freer I become."

He also criticized those who believe that science and religion are in opposition. He called science "the threshold to the religious consciousness" because it allows humanity to understand creation. His strongest words were for the Church itself, which he said has largely abandoned "the faith-reason tradition," contributing to the belief that science and religion cannot coexist.

After the lecture, Bishop Barron took questions from the audience.

Audience members were curious about where the Catholic intellectual tradition fits into today's age of secularism and moral relativism. Bishop Barron said that some of the problem lies at the feet of Catholics themselves, who were "pretty pathetic" when trying to combat the rise of atheism at the turn of the 21st century.

"We haven't communicated our own intellectual tradition very well," he said. "We threw all our weapons away. We dumbed down our tradition."

In his parting words, he told those in attendance to live the values they preach and "fight dumbed-down Catholicism."