Last week, Pope Francis appointed three priests as auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles. One of them is the popular host of Word on Fire (and rector of Chicago's Mundelein Seminary), Fr. Robert Barron, who has become increasingly controversial these days primarily as a proponent of an "affirmative orthodoxy" as well as of a "masculine" Christian spirituality.
Barron's episcopal appointment has drawn groans from some center-left and progressive Catholics. Speaking personally, I do take issue with some of Barron's work. For instance, I have written for NCR about how bizarre I found the "heroic priesthood" model he has apparently attempted to inculcate at Mundelein.
More recently, I couldn't help but feel that his now-infamous analysis of Caitlyn Jenner's gender transition not only missed the point in substituting an arcane intellectual history of Gnosticism for pastoral sensitivity, but also failed to consider that Jenner's desire to bring her biological sex and psychological gender into harmony with one another could be seen in the spirit of body-soul unity rather than of Cartesian dualism, as he supposed.
Yet here are a few points to consider in reacting to news of last week's appointments.
First of all, Barron was not the only priest named to the Los Angeles episcopacy. On any other day and if Barron had not been appointed, I suspect the banner story would have been how Bishops-elect Joseph Brennan and David O'Connell are priests in a Pope Francis mold, having spent combined decades of experience working on violent peripheries and socioeconomic margins in Los Angeles parishes. Rocco Palmo even points out that O'Connell has been cited indirectly as a proponent of married and female clergy.
Covering Climate Now: NCR joins more than 250 news outlets in a weeklong collaboration of climate change coverage. Learn more
In other words, Barron brings to a heavily pastoral trio of appointments his own gifts for media-savvy evangelization. Taken together, the nominations seem to indicate that Pope Francis has understood the wide range of pastoral needs -- and evangelical opportunities -- presented by this massive archdiocese, one of the most important in the United States.
Second, although Barron has indicated in a press statement that Word on Fire ministries will continue, it is clear that being an auxiliary bishop of a 5-million-member archdiocese will cut deeply into his time and energy. Those who are upset about "promotions" of prominent conservative thinkers can perhaps console themselves that at least this will not be a redux of the "demotion" of Cardinal Raymond Burke, another proponent of "masculine" Christianity who has only had more time for inflammatory interviews since leaving the Apostolic Signatura.
(I do not, however, mean to say that Pope Francis intends to silence Barron or cut back on his agenda. If any readers have more of a sense than I do of whether the American laity's division over Barron's theology would have factored into the Vatican's decision, I hope you will write in.)
One question now, it seems to me, concerns the vision of Barron's CEO at Word on Fire, Fr. Steve Grunow, who will be responsible for keeping the ministry going. It will be interesting to see what direction Word on Fire takes next.
Third, with Barron moving to California, center-left Bishop Blase Cupich is now free to appoint a new Mundelein rector cut from his own cloth. Not even a year into his episcopal ministry in Chicago, Cupich has already acted boldly in creatively restructuring the archdiocesan curia. Probably the biggest job left untouched by that restructuring was that of the man most responsible for forming many of the Midwestern dioceses' clergy-to-be.
Finally, I think it is worth pointing out that while I and others may not agree with everything that Barron has written or said, we can all learn a lot from his extraordinary vision. He has understood what evangelization means in a technological age and has embraced media that the church in general has been far too slow to explore. Somehow, even miraculously, he has done so -- and become popular for it -- without sacrificing intellectual seriousness and sophistication. He has connected with innumerable lapsed Christians or agnostics, presenting the faith in a reasonable and attractive way. Finally, he has provided parishes across the country with resources for continuing adult faith education. This is one of the church's most critically under-addressed needs, and Barron's user-friendly and well-produced works have been a godsend.
Those who are not happy with Barron's particular theological style -- which, for that matter, is perhaps not so far beyond the pale of where most American clergy find themselves today -- may take heart in the idea that if Barron has sparked many people's interest in the faith, they can now take their religious development into their own hands, read more widely, and get a fuller sense of the church's intellectual tradition(s).
All told, I think it will be interesting to see what Barron does next in Los Angeles.