Bishop Barron on Paris

Our bishops are public figures. All are creatures of the media in varying degrees. In the manner of secular counterparts, they hire public relations staffs to manage not only the image of the institution they represent but—just as critical—their own. None is more media savvy than Robert Barron, host of EWTN’s global ministry Word on Fire.

(Media is the bishop’s family business, so to speak. His brother, John Barron, former publisher and senior V.P. of Sun-Times Media Group, became general manager last year of the Tribune Content Agency, a growing syndicate that sells content to publications around the world.)

From Vatican City to Hollywood or Foggy Bottom, those who court the media understand the synthetic nature of a public persona. It is an identity crafted to appeal to a particular audience. Brand loyalty must be maintained. Federico Lombardi does the job for Pope Francis; Brandon Vogt does it for Bishop Barron.

The bishop’s on-air persona is as much a legitimate object of scrutiny as that of any other public figure. But he must not have been pleased with my essay “The Incredible Shrinking Bishop Barron,” (One Peter Five, November 23). It was written in response to EWTN’s video clip “Bishop Robert Baron on How Catholics Should Respond to Paris Attacks.” I could not respond as instructed. Brandon Vogt, the bishop’s public relations man, took to the comment box to grumble in his employer’s defense.

He equated my judgment of Barron’s unserious, even unhealthy, reflections on the Paris massacre as “character assassination.” That old gripe is the default position of a spokesman in search of a way to avoid the concrete particulars of an argument.

Vogt was mute on the substance of my concern: Barron’s sugary appeal to love, mercy, and non-violence as a response to Islamic terror. There was little he could say. His boss’ posture was an indefensible muddle of canned pieties and historical carelessness. I wrote:

The massacre aroused no outrage, not even a wince of distaste. . . . He found the atrocity “especially poignant” because he had studied in Paris for three years.  And because he remembered some of the locations involved, the attacks were “moving and poignant.”

Moving. Poignant. Had the bishop been watching a film version of the death of Little Nell? The sentiment, and the genial detachment it signified, seemed a bizarre reaction to the slaughter and maiming of scores of innocent Parisians. The syrup thickened:

He glided on to a serene tutorial on mercy, on the obligation to “respond to violence with love,” and “to fight hatred with love.” He enjoined Catholics to mercy and “a non-violent stance.” . . . This time on camera, he confused Paris in 2015 with Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

Barron’s advocacy of non-violence in response to terror is an empty rhetorical stance. It evidences no grasp of the strategic uses, or limitations, of the concept supporting the word.

There is nothing commensurate between the cultural situation of the American civil rights movement and the events in Paris. To try to impose the conditions of that movement onto Islamic jihad is astonishing in its obtuseness. Mercy is vacated of all meaning when it is used as an excuse for blindness to history, or for inaction in the face of present realities.

King adopted Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence because he understood the nature of the correspondence between American blacks and Indians under British rule. In their different ways and to different degrees, both peoples were subordinate. Their only tool against potentially crushing power was civil disobedience, the crucial tactic of non-violence. Without recourse to civil disobedience, non-violence is no more than passivity. Not only is the tactic impossible against Islamic terrorism, calls for non-violence invite further aggression.

Gandhi, trained as a lawyer in London, was intimate with the basic decency of British culture. His insistence on civil disobedience disarmed Britain only because the British were a people steeped in a Christian ethos, in a sense of fair play, and belief in human rights and the rule of law. As King knew, these animated the American soul as well. They do not apply to resurgent Islam.

You can watch the pseudo-interview here. (Pseudo because EWTN’s Catherine Szeltner conducted this set-piece with the demeanor of a dazzled fan. She was there to listen, not to probe.)

Barron is a practiced performer. Effort to deflect attention away from the infirmity of his responses by claiming this was an impromptu talk does not hold up well. Barron is no ingénue in front of cameras. And the EWTN production crew, on hand for the annual USCCB conference, could be expected to approach the network’s own star during his first appearance at the gathering. Despite Vogt’s disclaimer, there is good reason to paraphrase Bill Clinton on his supposed non-relation with Monica Lewinsky: “That depends on what the meaning of the word impromptu is.”

Bishop Barron has an influential platform. If he uses it to promote confusion between Christian love—caritas—and dispassion in the face of the murderous ambitions of Christianity’s oldest enemy, then he will be evangelizing for evil. No matter the Christ talk.