The Hierarchy Doesn’t Understand Shia LaBeouf’s Conversion

Barron and Labeouf
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Last I checked, Bishop Barron’s interview with Shia LaBeouf had almost 1.5 million views on YouTube and thousands of comments. I was impressed to see how many people in the comments mention their being profoundly inspired by LaBeouf. One was encouraged enough by his testimony to “pray the rosary for the first time since elementary school,” and many others say that they are returning to Mass after long being absent, some even mention wanting to attend the Latin Mass (and one of these a Protestant!). Let us hope that LaBeouf’s impact will be a lasting one for a Church in need. 

Why, then, did Bishop Barron come across as somewhat reluctant to really delve into the heart of LaBeouf’s conversion? I mean, of course, the role that the Latin Mass played. It is no secret that the current pontiff has, for some reason or other, chosen to do battle with the traditionalists and the Tridentine Rite for the sake of “unity” (he and Biden seem to be on the same page—strength through unity!), so we can understand why Barron squirmed when LaBeouf mentioned (repeatedly) that it was the Latin Mass that brought him into the Faith. 

Whenever LaBeouf was about to peel back another layer to his conversion experience, Barron would retreat. I assume that most viewers, like me, were captivated by LaBeouf’s honesty and candor and hung on his words. Barron’s rhetorical pirouetting was, therefore, something of a letdown and seemed, at times, to prevent LaBeouf from finishing his thoughts. Was this intentional?

In a way, this interaction between Barron and LaBeouf represents a microcosm of the Church today. Barron, to be sure, is on the “conservative” side within the Church hierarchy, in that he is not actively pushing a woke political agenda. However, he is one of the Boomer churchmen who come across as generally unaware of the real reasons why people are leaving the Faith in droves and why younger generations are not drawn to the Church. 

A couple of years ago, at the General Assembly of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, Barron laid out a five-step plan for bringing young people back to the Church. None of his prescriptions, however, recommend that which finally converted LaBeouf. He mentions the “way of justice,” “missionary outreach,” and “creative new use of media”—but these were hardly more than fluffy talking points for a room full of bishops who more and more resemble the out-of-touch, globe-trotting elites of the political sphere.   

Barron’s suggestion to the bishops to “beef up the intellectual content of our religion classes” may be somewhat helpful—most Catholics are almost completely ignorant of what the Faith actually teaches (I was one of these). However, as LaBeouf points out, Padre Pio “didn’t touch people through profundities” but by appealing to the imagination through his own witness to Christ. He is still moving people in this way, as LaBeouf’s conversion attests. More than an increase in rational understanding of the Faith, what is needed is a better way of capturing the imagination—reclaiming it from the powerful grip of militant progressivism and sentimental romanticism. 

Barron is on the right path when he highlights the role of beauty in this regard. The Sistine Chapel and Dante, for example, show the Faith rather than explain it, he says. “How beautiful are our churches? How beautiful are our liturgical spaces?” (Notice that he does not say “the liturgy.”) He is aware of the power of the Church’s rich aesthetic tradition, but like his discussion with LaBeouf, he draws back from confronting the full implications of his insight, which would lead to a reconsideration of the very unaesthetic choices that have been made in the Church over the last 60 years. 

Look no further than the Vatican’s “nativity” displayed during Christmas 2020. Churches built after the Council look much like their drab, lifeless Protestant counterparts—and the same could be said of many Novus Ordo liturgies when they aren’t trying to resuscitate the form with bubbles and guitar blessings. Yet this desire to bring life back to the Church (literally and figuratively) illustrates just how out of touch many priests and prelates of the Boomer generation are. 

For Barron’s part, he suggests we make church websites more beautiful. On one level, Barron gets it, hence his mention of Dante and Flannery O’Connor. In a moment of candor, Barron admits to LaBeouf what a failure was the post-1960s decision to advise priests to discuss their “experiences” over the Bible. But at the same time, Barron is beholden to the post-Vatican II belief that the liturgy and the churches ought to try to accommodate themselves to the times, to go digital, to create a nice app! 

Do young people really find satisfaction in the virtual hellscape, or are they hoping for something more? One of the most moving moments of Barron’s interview is when LaBeouf discusses the challenge of representing the sacrifice of the Mass on camera. The weight of it, LaBeouf says, at times was too much. He would pray with Br. Alex, whom he brought to Italy and who became his close friend. He would tell him he loved him and they would pray together to be guided through the scene. It was the Latin Mass, LaBeouf says, that drew him “out of the realm of the intellectual” and put him in the realm of “feeling.” He felt as if he was “being let in on something that is very special.”

This is precisely why LaBeouf made Barron so uncomfortable. LaBeouf’s conversion suggests that all of the five-step plans and compassionate platitudes about “meeting people where they are” will not do, that the aggiornamento failed. Beating the drum of “modernization” and “freshening up” manifests as the Church trying to be something it is not; because, ultimately, it cannot conform to modernity if it is to retain the message of Christ. The churchmen who try to push this end up looking like car salesmen, to paraphrase LaBeouf. 

It is the more orthodox and traditional Christian communities that refuse to stray from the difficult message of repentance, combined with the message of joy that attends the life rightly lived, that are growing amidst this crisis of the “nones.” Four years ago, the chapel where my family first began attending the Latin Mass was only about half full on any given Sunday. Today, the overflow room is nearly full. I have heard that same story from others I know in parishes across the country. And the pews of these traditional Masses are filling with young people—couples engaged, young families, and big families. My Orthodox friends report a similar trend at the Divine Liturgies they attend. 

Even the media has taken notice. It is not without reason that NPR, the Washington Post, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League try to defame these traditional Christian groups. If they really were just a fringe minority, they could be ignored. But these God-fearing, big families—the extremists!—represent a great threat to the globalist progressives. 

There are plenty of young people who are not looking for another version of the secular culture to affirm them. They are not looking for fancier websites or to be “community organizers” à la Saul Alinsky (Barron’s words, incredibly). They are looking for meaning. And for Shia LaBeouf at least—someone who knew depression and depravity well—the traditional form of the liturgy provided something radically opposed to the unhappy ways of modernity. It opened his soul to God. Take a look at the comments alongside the interview and you will see that he is not the only one for whom such a conversion is possible. 

At this juncture in history, Catholic thought could greatly benefit from a serious look at the role that imagination plays in conveying truth. Doing so would almost invariably lead the Church on the path of beauty—actual beauty, which, it turns out, is largely to be found in the tradition before the 1960s, in church architecture and art, and in its music, smells, and liturgical form. Restoring those elements that impress the senses and nourish the heart and mind would draw in the souls of people starved for beauty and seeking, like LaBeouf, to find peace in an order not of their making. 

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Emily Finley is the author of The Ideology of Democratism (Oxford University Press, 2022). She holds a PhD in Politics from The Catholic University of America.

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