Bishop Robert Barron and Father James Martin are the two most dominant figures in American Catholicism today. Bishop Barron is the affable producer of popular videos on Catholicism through his Word on Fire ministry; Father Martin is a media darling and a Vatican favorite for his outreach to gay Catholics. As just one indicator of their influence, Father Martin has almost 300,000 Twitter followers, while Bishop Barron has 175,000—both far more than any other American bishop or priest or lay Catholic commentator. For some, the fact that these two men are both extremely popular demonstrates the divide in the Church today. Father Martin represents the liberal (i.e., heretical) wing of the Church, while Bishop Barron is presented as the standard-bearer for the conservative (i.e., orthodox) wing. Yet recently these two worlds met, revealing that perhaps they are not as far apart as some want to believe.
On October 30, Father Martin announced the upcoming publication of his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. It had endorsements from just whom you’d expect: Cardinal Cupich, Richard Rohr, and Helen Prejean—heroes of the Catholic Left. However, it was also endorsed by none other than Bishop Barron, who wrote that “Father Martin is a winsome guide to all those who want to deepen their friendship with the Lord.” Bishop Barron’s endorsement sent shockwaves through conservative American Catholicism. After all, aren’t Bishop Barron and Father Martin supposed to be on opposing sides of the battle for the soul of the Church? What’s going on here?
Bishop Barron’s endorsement revealed a dirty little secret in the Church: most conservative Catholic leaders like Bishop Barron are functionally similar to liberal Catholic leaders like Father Martin. Perhaps they differ when it comes to some theological points, but when it comes to attitude and how the Faith is presented, the results are often the same.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Bishop Barron, like most conservative Catholic leaders, subscribes to the modern view that one must always be “positive” in how he presents the Faith—which, in practice, means ignoring the crisis in the Church. He’s not about to criticize other bishops like Cardinal Cupich when His Eminence defends the veneration of the Pachamama idol at the Vatican. He supports Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who is well known to be associated with the Bernardin-McCarrick episcopal cabal. He won’t condemn someone like Father Martin, in spite of the fact that Father Martin is the leading Catholic voice supporting the grave sin of homosexual activity. Bishop Barron is also an uncritical, enthusiastic defender of all things Pope Francis.
The only people Bishop Barron ever criticizes are his own critics: traditional Catholics who stray from the conservative Catholic party line and call out the failures of our Church leaders.
Too many conservative Catholic leaders like Bishop Barron follow only the letter of orthodoxy, not its spirit. They meticulously adhere to Church teaching, taking pride in their orthodoxy. They may push against orthodoxy’s boundaries (such as Bishop Barron’s flirtation with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s questionable soteriology), but they never deliberately cross those lines. Yet they don’t embrace the spirit of orthodoxy, either—a spirit that not only accepts Christ’s life-giving teachings but also shuns and condemns the errors of heterodoxy. Adhering to the letter of orthodoxy alone does not lead people to Christ, nor does it protect souls from danger; but having a correct attitude, an orthodox spirit, is essential.
A bishop who does not condemn error and cozies up to false religious leaders like Father Martin is little better than Father Martin himself. In fact, he may be worse, because he gives error an orthodox veneer. With a wink and a nudge, Bishop Barron lets people know that Father Martin isn’t that bad, even if some things he promotes are diametrically opposed to Church teaching and natural law. The average Catholic can justifiably assume that if Father Martin can be trusted with the most important human activity—conversing with God—then why shouldn’t he be trusted on other spiritual and moral topics?
Indeed, someone who fully embraces the Church’s teachings on marriage and human sexuality understands how dangerous Father Martin is. Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul after him) included public condemnations in his ministry, because Christians need to be told not only which water is life-giving, but also which water is poisoned. To neglect to point out the poison, and to excuse that neglect by saying you want to remain “positive,” won’t be very comforting to the dead guy who just drank the poisoned water.
Bishop Barron is a product of the post-Vatican II conservative machine. While assiduously staying in the lane of orthodoxy, too many conservative Catholic leaders have allowed massive pile-ups and accidents to occur along the road without any comment or correction. And so it should be no surprise when Bishop Barron takes the next step: not only refusing to condemn the errors of someone like Father Martin, but actively endorsing a priest who has confused and led astray so many souls—all while continuing to insist on his own personal orthodoxy.
Ultimately, what is the practical difference between Father Martin and Bishop Barron? Both endorse the status quo in the Church. Neither condemns the corruption and confusion that comes from the highest levels of the Church. Neither will speak out against the heresy rampant within her. It leads the orthodox Catholic to ask, “With friends like Bishop Barron, who needs enemies?”