Bishop Barron: How the Church can defeat relativism

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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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.