Bishop Robert Barron’s essay on World Youth Day, which he published on the website for his Word on Fire ministry on Thursday, July 13, is an excellent example of a concerning trend in writing on serious religious and moral subjects. I don’t mean to say that it is concerning that Bishop Barron takes issue with Cardinal-designate Américo Aguiar’s approach to WYD; some amount of debate over these things is to be expected and even commended. It isn’t even necessarily concerning that Barron is staking out a more “conservative” stance here than he sometimes has in the past. People have the right to let their approaches as public figures grow and develop with time, and seeing this sort of thing as a “conservative vs. progressive” issue is probably wrongheaded anyway. Besides, Barron has, as these terms are generally used, been a “conservative” figure for years anyway, but not an extremist, which is why WPI’s past coverage of him has ranged from very positive to more critical.
What concerns me about this essay of Barron’s is its situation within an emerging genre that I call “theology of the pull quote.” Barron isn’t really writing an essay about WYD or Bishop Aguiar at all; rather, he’s writing an essay about the general issue of post-Christian Western indifferentism (a subject on which he’s a fairly strong, credible voice). Unfortunately, he is using a hot-button point of dispute within the Church as a jumping-off point. Bishop Barron quotes a few decontextualized sentences from Bishop Aguiar that have been making the rounds in the Anglophone Catholic press, concedes that Aguiar has clarified (or “walked back,” which, to be fair, is probably a matter of perspective) the offending remarks, lets Aguiar off the hook with “for the moment, I will let that go and take him at his word,” then warms to his preferred, much broader theme.
The original quotes from Aguiar not only leave their original context but are transplanted into Barron’s preferred stock of subject matter like a scion of a fruit tree being grafted onto a new rootstock. Or perhaps it’s the Aguiar quotes that are the stock and the Barron argument that is the scion, intended to bear the fruit of Barron’s preferred framing and pet issues.
I don’t mean to suggest that taking a controversy that’s in the news and then expanding it into a discussion of a broader issue is a bad way to go about things. It isn’t even necessarily a bad thing if it involves a negative assessment of the person or thing causing controversy. In fact, I’m doing it to Bishop Barron myself right now. What I think makes “theology by pull quote” different — and this is probably something I have done too in the past, because I am a sinner — is its tendency to lose sight of whether the analysis of the initial controversy is correct or fair to begin with.
What’s important to the theologian who writes like this is how a pull quote supports his or her own desired points, not how it connects to a fair and charitable treatment of how the controversy started. The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell accused Thomas Aquinas of a similar style of inverted argument in the case Aquinas made for the indissolubility of marriage, so it’s not like this is a new problem. It is also not as if otherwise talented and considerate children of the Church don’t sometimes do this; although I’ve said in the past that I think Aquinas’s current stature within Catholic culture is somewhat overinflated, he was clearly a brilliant philosopher and theologian. But I think social media and the kind of mass-communications apostolate in which Barron excels present even more temptations than existed in the past for engaging in this kind of writing and thinking.
The last sentence of Barron’s essay reads “I’m scheduled to give five presentations at World Youth Day in Lisbon, and I would like to assure Bishop Aguiar that every single one of them is designed to evangelize” (emphasis in the original). This is a funny, well-written, rhetorically effective bon mot, but it seems to make Barron’s earlier line about taking Aguiar at his word ring false. The strange combination of tones makes it clear, at least to me, that Barron is not really interested in Aguiar except as rhetorical fodder. This kind of thing works well on Twitter and YouTube, and I know enough people who came to the Church partly through Barron’s work on those platforms to believe that he’s done some great things there. In a longer-former essay like this one, however, it seems flippant. Bishop Barron does not seem concerned with determining the real relationship, if any, between the general point being made and the specific case that’s in the news. Anybody writing about Church affairs on the internet should take care to distinguish between this style of communicating and the style appropriate to extended, serious argument.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.