Bishop Barron: How the Church can defeat relativism

Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, best known for his Word on Fire Ministry, spoke about the origins of relativism, the challenges it brings to evangelization and the different ways to engage it at the St. John Paul II Lecture Series, he Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo., Feb. 6.

Bishop Barron called all the faithful to action after explaining the genealogy and challenges of relativism that is embedded in today’s society.

“We Catholics need to be right in the center of the culture, right in the middle of the public conversation, and speaking against this flattened-out, trivializing relativism, in favor of… great objective values,” he said.

To understand the problem of relativism – the view that there is no absolute truth, only particular truths conditioned by culture, space and time – Bishop Barron spoke about its origins in voluntarism and Cartesian subjectivism.

“The coming together of the voluntarist and Cartesian strains provides the breeding ground for much contemporary relativism, namely the subject’s assertion of truth through a sovereign act of the will… In other words, ‘I decide. My freedom decides,’” he said.

Voluntarism is the idea brought about in the Middle Ages that God’s will trumps his intellect, meaning that whatever is true is so because God willed it. This philosophy would lead to see God as a threat and eventually to get rid of him, as Ludwig Feuerbach did, reducing him to a mere invention of the human mind, Bishop Barron explained.

Nietzsche and Sartre built on this idea and considered the human person beyond truth, meaning that freedom came first and the greatest threat to a person’s freedom was God. Nietzsche would then use this premise to proclaim God “dead.”

“[This] is the default position of so many of our young people today,” Bishop Barron said. “[Namely, that] God is a threat to our flourishing, a threat to our freedom, a threat to our humanity.”

Bishop Barron highlighted the role of the Church in the fight against relativism, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

Challenges

Bishop Barron mentioned some of the many dangers that this voluntarist relativism brings to those who want to announce the Gospel: A frustration of the mind’s desire for truth, its radical individualism and spiritual laziness.

“The minute you say will trumps the intellect, that means the intellect’s desire to know, which is one of the most fundamental drives we have, is… frustrated,” the bishop said. This causes “restlessness of the heart and deep frustration of the mind” in young people because they feel they cannot grasp something solid.

Relativism also produces radical individualism and hence, necessarily, divisiveness, he said. If there are only different wills and freedoms, there’s room for “toleration” but no connection to a common truth, value or purpose: “Objective truth, in fact, is one for the most powerful forces that draws us together.”

Bishop Barron recalled Cardinal John Henry Newman’s metaphor of the river to illustrate how voluntarist relativism produces spiritual laziness. “It is the objectivity of the good and the true that give drive and energy to the human project,” he said. Like a river, if the banks are taken away in the name of freedom, it will turn into a lazy lake.

“[Because of relativism], many young people are floating in a lazy lake without purpose or drive,” he added.

Bishop Barron exhorted the Church to boldly proclaim objective values, which bring about authentic freedom. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

The Church responds

To conclude, Bishop Barron mentioned two key ways to address contemporary relativism, namely the defense of objective values and the proclamation of true freedom.

Drawing on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s distinction between the subjectively satisfying and the objectively valuable, he said that the Church should continue to be the one to unleash the power of objective values that transform the human person.

That which is subjectively satisfying is something that not everyone has to like, such as pizza, he explained. Nonetheless, there are real objective values that in their goodness, truth or beauty, transform the human person and rearrange his subjectivity, such as seeing the Sistine Chapel or listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

“Relativism flattens out life,” he said. “We take the best things and we trivialize them to the level of pizza.”

Finally, he distinguished between freedom of indifference, which reduces to the freedom to personally decide something, and freedom for excellence, which he defined as “the disciplining of the desire to make the achievement of the good, first possible, then effortless.”

The main difference is that freedom of indifference makes an enemy out of law, while freedom for excellence internalizes the law to make it part of who he is, Bishop Barron explained. Internalizing the law helps the person become what he is meant to be, in congruence with God and the deepest purposes of his being.

“It’s the Church above all that speaks these abiding, objective truths that ground true and authentic freedom,” Bishop Barron concluded. “That is the best way to engage relativism… We acknowledge it and then we… redirect it.”

COMING UP: Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

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Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

Film shows suffering of the poor in five countries, hope brought by Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

Roxanne King

Powerful. Disturbing. Beautiful. Inspiring. That’s how viewers are describing award-winning Outcasts, the latest film by Joe Campo, owner and producer of Grassroots Films.

For mature audiences, Outcasts documents the hard, dark struggle of the poor living in New York and New Jersey, Nicaragua, Honduras, England and Ireland, and the light and hope of Christ brought to them through the ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (C.F.R.). Seven years in the making, it won “best film” at the Justice Film Festival last fall.

Campo, 65, a Third Order Franciscan, also runs St. Francis House in Brooklyn, N.Y., a home for young men in need of a second chance.

“The film company comes second, the guys come first,” Campo, whose’ Grassroots Films was also responsible for 2008’s award-winning The Human Experience, told the Denver Catholic.

The home Campo oversees was established by his friend, the late Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., who co-founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal order in New York in 1987. The friars live in poor neighborhoods around the world and have a two-fold mission: to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the destitute and homeless, and to evangelize.

A July 13 screening of Outcasts at Light of the World Parish in Littleton drew 400 people. Campo recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about the documentary.

DC: Why did you make Outcasts?

JC: I’ve been with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal since 1988 and I know the work that they do and their great love for the poor, which I share. I thought it would be a call to action — that people would see this film and their hearts would open up. Hopefully, through this film, people will experience things about working with the poor that normally they would never be able to see their entire lives.

DC: What is the film about?

JC: It’s really about the poor. It’s more about the poor than it is about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The friars don’t do any preaching in this film, the poor do. You see the friars, but you don’t hear them. The words of people speaking about God are from the poor: the destitute, the drug addicts, those suffering from HIV.

DC: The trailer features a voiceover from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which is incredibly moving juxtaposed against scenes of people suffering. What was the inspiration for using that speech?

JC: We actually had another trailer for Outcasts, but we ultimately couldn’t use it. We were fortunate to be able to get Charlie Chaplin. It was a comedy of errors, really, which proves that God writes straight with crooked lines.

DC: What do you hope people will take away from the film?

JC: An understanding of the poor. I hope that as people are introduced to the friars through this film their hearts and minds would be changed toward those who are poor or destitute and that they’ll see that these people are victims. When you talk with the poor and experience their lives you begin to realize three things: 1) That it could happen to anyone. 2) None of them planned for their life to turn out this way. 3) All they want is to be accepted — not for what they do, the negative stuff, but as people.

Outcasts producer Joe Campo (center) with some of the Fransiscan Friars of the Renewal who appear in the film. (Photo provided)

A lot of people don’t realize this: the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8, Matt 26:11). So, it’s really our duty — and it should come from our hearts — to help those we can help.

Too, there’s not one person that doesn’t need to find a way to forgive someone or to be forgiven. That’s where we start in all of this — in our families and we go from there.

DC: How would you describe this film?

JC: It’s really a work of evangelization, but we never say that in our films. The world is always telling people: don’t age, don’t die and don’t suffer. But we all experience suffering. And we learn from the poor, from people who are suffering, how to suffer.

DC: The screening of Outcasts at Light of the World in Littleton drew a full house. What was that like?

JC: First, I want to thank Kathryn Nygaard [LOTW communications director], Dakota Leonard [who fundraised the $4,000 screening cost], the pastor Father Matthew Book, [parochial vicar] Father Joseph LaJoie and all the people who attended. I was tremendously overjoyed.

The questions people asked at the Q&A after the screening were fantastic. People could sign up for different ministries after seeing the film: Catholic Charities, [Christ in the City] homeless ministry, prison ministry, [Light of the World parish ministries]. Some did. I was overjoyed. You always want your films to be a call to action.

Outcasts

To view the trailer or to schedule a screening, visit: outcaststhemovie.com