Bishop Barron: How the Church can defeat relativism

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

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: New pipe organ installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

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If a seminary’s primary role is to form the priests of tomorrow – a divine task – then it’s only fitting that the instrument used for adoration and worship during that formation be equally as divine in nature.

A brand-new pipe organ was installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in January, replacing the electric organ that’s been there for the past 20 years. The organ contains over 1,500 individual pipes that fill Christ the King Chapel with the sounds worthy of an angelic choir and was custom-made by Kegg Pipe Organ Builders based out of Hartsville, Ohio. The organ cost $500,000 to build and was funded entirely by private donors.

The electric organ was in dire need of replacement after a dead squirrel was discovered in its components and was causing all sorts of malfunctions.

Pipe organs are a much more practical instrument to have than an electric organ, said Mark Lawlor, associate professor at St. John Vianney. Pipe organs last at least 100 years as opposed to the typical 20-year lifespan of an electric organ.

“We’d be buying four electric organs for [what will last 100 years],” Lawlor said.

More than just practical, there is a distinct difference in the sound produced by a traditional pipe organ versus an electric organ. Electric organ sounds are produced digitally; the pipes on a pipe organ are produced organically with air, similar to the way a human voice speaks, and in the case of the Kegg organ at the seminary, it allows for a wide range of sonic dynamics that allow the faithful to enter into more ardent worship.

Mark Lawlor performs on the new pipe organ installed in Christ the King Chapel at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary during the blessing ceremony Feb. 13. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“It surrounds you with the sound,” Lawlor said. “But as loud as it can be, it can also be so hush, and so angelically soft.”

In addition to the organ’s principal sound, its console contains a variety of different knobs that enable the player to produce a wide range of sounds that fall within the woodwind family of instruments, from a clarinet to a flute. However, the organ also features a trumpet and a brighter-sounding pontifical trumpet, which Lawlor says he only plays for Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

The six-man crew from Kegg built the organ at their workshop in Ohio, then essentially disassembled it, brought it to the seminary and rebuilt it there. They spent two weeks voicing each pipe individually so they all sound even.

It truly is a sight – and sound – to behold.

“It’s custom-made for [Christ the King Chapel], and that’s where the artistry comes in,” Lawlor said. “The master builder was the one who did that. He has great ears, knows what will fit the room and he did it specifically to the men’s voices.”

Christ the King Chapel is utilized many times in the weekly activities of the seminary – from seminarian formation to permanent diaconate formation to various retreats and workshops – which means that the organ is also used a fair amount in any given week.

What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ. We’re tying the whole institution together.”

“We use [the organ] three to four times per day,” Lawlor said.

The organ is an integral part not only to the seminary, but also to the Catholic Church as a whole. Along with the voice, the organ is the preferred instrument for liturgical music. The way an organ functions is congruent with how the human voice functions, and they complement each other perfectly, Lawlor said. Plus, where else do you find an organ besides a church?

“You don’t hear the organ anywhere else, and that’s what makes it special,” Lawlor added.

The original St. Thomas Seminary had a pipe organ made by Kilgin that was replaced with the electric organ in 1997, but many of the original pipes were still intact and were used to construct the new organ. This organ contains 900 new pipes constructed by Kegg, while around 600 of the pipes are from the original 1930s Kilgin organ – meaning some of the same sounds from the 1930s are still being echoed throughout the seminary today.

“What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ,” Lawlor said. “We’re tying the whole institution together.”