CV NEWS FEED // With a line flowing out the doors at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, about 1,000 students attended Bishop Robert E. Barron’s lecture on the Catholic intellectual tradition in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week.
The bishop of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, is well-known for his online presence on Word on Fire and his YouTube channel, which has almost 150 million views, as well as for his talk on religion at Google in 2018.
In a move that may have surprised those on Harvard’s secular campus, Barron graciously clarified common misunderstandings about God and Catholicism, such as the idea that religion and science are separate, and the idea that God wants to dominate us. Through quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Irenaeus of Lyon, to name just a few, Barron shared the Catholic understanding of God as one who makes humanity more free—not less.
Deacon Tim O’Donnell, the Executive Director of Harvard Catholic Forum and a deacon at St. Paul’s Parish estimated that 1,000 people attended, with an additional 300 people following the livestream.
O’Donnell told CatholicVote that they chose Harvard’s Memorial Church over the local parish, St. Paul’s, where Barron celebrated mass the morning of his talk, for several reasons.
“We knew that Harvard’s church would allow us to attract more non-Catholics, seekers, and inquirers than would a lecture at St. Paul’s,” explained O’Donnell. In addition, the Memorial Church’s design optimized it for lectures, he said.
“We wanted to place Bishop Barron’s message about the Catholic intellectual tradition right in the center of the secular university, and in the center of Harvard in particular,” he added. “Even to have hundreds of passersby in Harvard Yard see the long line with hundreds of people waiting to get in, expresses the attraction and vibrancy of the Catholic intellectual tradition for today’s university.”
Local alum Fred Ge, who joined the Catholic Church while he was getting his master’s in education at Harvard, shared his thoughts on Barron’s talk.
“If we can get beyond the headline, the sensational stuff, I think what Bishop Barron preaches, the way he preaches—It’s fertile ground to help people understand the Catholic faith and to invite people to the Gospel of Christ,” observed Ge. “I think there is a lot of fertile ground in these schools. I hope people are not discouraged, [thinking] ‘It’s just these secular kids.’ I think there [are] a lot of people who want to seek out the truth.
Ge, who was confirmed at St. Paul’s, observed that Barron is trying to bring the rich intellectual tradition of the Catholic faith to the forefront.
“I think he’s very good about getting people to be curious about the Catholic faith … especially people who are more intellectual. And I think G.K. Chesterton said, ‘it’s a very dangerous thing to be curious about the Catholic Faith.’”
As a graduate student, Ge was drawn toward the unity and tradition of the Catholic faith. He shared that the intellectual side of Catholicism can often lead people to look more deeply into the faith.
“If you talk more about logical reasoning, or the concept of freedom, people who are interested in philosophy [and] interested in truth, will [say] ‘what he’s saying is right. Even if I’m not Christian, I agree that the modern concept of freedom as very selfish.’”
Ge recalled that Barron distinguished between “the freedom of indifference” of our secular culture and the classical sense of the “freedom to do what is right.”
“Freedom is the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good at first possible and then effortless,” said Barron in his lecture, adding, “the more that God’s law is written in my heart, the freer I become. My desire [is] disciplined in such a way that I can achieve the good I want.”
“Bishop Barron is very inviting to people who are outside of the Catholic Church,” Ge observed, noting that Barron often introduces the good elements of whatever side he ultimately disagrees with.
Barron explained that some modernists mistake God for “the competitive, overbearing god who is a threat to human freedom and human flourishing,” saying “that’s an idol. That’s a false god. A proper understanding of God gives rise to the sweetest sort of humanism.”
He cited Irenaeus of Lyon, who famously said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
“The closer God gets to us, the more alive we are—the more ourselves we are,” said Barron.
Like the burning bush of Exodus, “which is on fire but not consumed,” Barron explained that “the closer God gets to creation, the more luminous and beautiful it becomes without being consumed.”
Barron noted that the Christian understanding of God is notably different from ancient Greek and Roman myths that tell of gods who created the world and dominated it through violence.
“Then there’s the true God, who sets the world on fire, makes it beautiful and luminous, and does not consume it,” he said.
Citing St. Thomas Aquinas, Barron explained, “God is not one being among many, but rather God is the sheer act of ‘to be’ itself … in and through which all finite things come to be.”
“Because the Christian God is a different type of thing, no other being can compete,” Barron said.
This metaphysical understanding of God puts him in a category entirely separate from other beings. This has never been easy to grasp, Barron noted, recalling God’s perplexing statement to Moses: “I am what I am.”
Barron referenced the early church father St. Athanasius, who said, “God became man so that men might become like gods.”
Because of this, Barron said, “There is no humanism … greater than Christian theology…
There’s no aspiration for a human being higher than divinization.”
Barron explained that the Catholic understanding of the incarnation is key to human freedom.
“In Jesus, two wills, divine and human, come together without mixing, mingling, or confusion. In fact the [human] freedom is enhanced by the proximity of the divine freedom,” continued Barron.
Christ’s two wills coexisting, in Barron’s view, proves that man’s will can exist alongside God’s will without being overpowered by it.
Barron argued that religion moves humanity towards science, saying the fact that “we should expect reality in every finite detail to be marked by intelligibility [is what] made the sciences possible.”
“All of finite reality is marked radically by intelligibility,” he said.
“He’s saying [that] science is not [an] antithesis to Faith; that there’s a rich intellectual tradition; God is not in competition with us and our reality,” Ge recalled.
“[In Christianity] God in the center—through God all things holding together—this musical harmony that [remains] because God is singing the universe into being—God delighting in this order and intelligibility and harmony of his creation,” concluded Barron.
This interview has been edited slightly for the purposes of clarity and brevity.