Bishop Robert Barron’s work is the gold standard for Catholic evangelization. I met him while he was the theologian-in-residence at the North American College in Rome during my deacon year (2006-2007). He gave some outstanding conferences during his stay. I have read many but not all of his books and have seen quite a few of his videos. His bracing book-length interview with John Allen, To Light a Fire on the Earth (2017), has filled my mind and heart with evangelical possibilities.
However, there is one point he makes repeatedly in the book with which I dare to quibble. For Bishop Barron, the Church’s insertion into the culture war on issues regarding human sexuality has become like the British attempt to take Gallipoli in World War I, wherein thousands of British troops were slaughtered in an attempt to take a key position where Asia and Europe meet between the Mediterranean and Black seas. Finally, the time came for the British to admit that the campaign had failed and they had to withdraw.
In a similar way, Barron claims that the Church has been fruitlessly pouring resources into promoting the Church’s teaching on sexuality in the past generation. The campaign, no matter how well-intentioned, has not yielded the hoped-for results and it is time to deploy our resources elsewhere. This diversion of resources does not amount to abandoning the Church’s demanding sexual ethic, he said. Rather, it involves employing a new strategy in evangelization and trying to find more favorable terrain on which to engage in the evangelical enterprise. It is better to divert our resources into more winnable battles. After all, says Barron, who in the world would put down the Gospel of Saint Matthew after having read it and conclude that the first thing that he needs to do is get his sexual life in order?
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As a priest with just over nine years of parish experience, I support his call to use the most effective strategies to reach a skeptical and unreceptive public. However, I find his use of the Gallipoli campaign as a description of the Church’s resistance to the Sexual Revolution as less than convincing.
Can anyone seriously claim that the Church has been pouring resources into combating the Sexual Revolution in the past fifty years? I was born in 1979 and went to eight years of Catholic school in a very conservative state and continued going to religious education for three years in high school. I can count on one hand the number of times that I heard anything resembling an attempt to present the Church’s teaching on human sexuality in a robust way. During my middle school years, I had non-Catholics teaching religious education in a Catholic school, to which my parents sent me at considerable expense, precisely to ensure that I would be instructed in the Catholic morality and faith.
One year, my Protestant religion teacher admitted to a class of eleven-year-olds that she was sexually active before marriage. She also informed us that she disagreed with the Catholic Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. Other teachers made it clear that while they personally disagreed with aspects of what the Catholic Church taught on sexuality, they had some nebulous respect for her high moral aspirations. Anecdotes like this abound in the post-Vatican II Church, even among priests sharing their experiences of their moral theology professors during seminary formation.
When Bishop Barron uses Gallipoli as the image describing the Church’s presentation of her sexual teaching, he conjures a vision of droves of faithful bishops, priests, religious, and catechists all marching shoulder to shoulder while being mowed down by opposition as they try to teach the Theology of the Body. If this were the case, there ought to be plenty of evidence for such an expenditure of resources. At the very least, the opinions of Catholics on matters sexual should differ somewhat from the general population, who have lacked the benefit of the resources that the Church has been pouring into claiming a beachhead year after year.
In fact, Catholic opinions on sexuality show little variation from the general population. If anything, they show greater distance from the Church’s teaching among Catholics than non-Catholics, which serves to illustrate the failure of catechetical efforts. Pew studies on religion and attitudes toward same-sex “marriage” show that Catholics have consistently supported it at a level higher than the general population since 2001 to the present day. When comparing Catholic views with those of other Christian groups, Catholics are just as likely to support same-sex “marriage” as mainline Protestants, twice as a likely as white Evangelicals and significantly more likely than black Protestants. Another survey from 2012 indicated that Church-going Catholics approve of divorce at a much higher level (31 percent) than the general population (23 percent). If Bishop Barron is correct and the Church has been pouring resources into promoting Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, there has been a colossal level of institutional incompetence in executing the campaign.
There might be a more charitable and accurate way to see things, however. The same Pew survey of 2012 also sought to evaluate the United States Bishops’ attempt to resist the Obama Administration’s Contraception Mandate. It noted that only 32 percent of those who attend Mass weekly reported that their priest had raised the issue of the Contraceptive Mandate at all. This statistic speaks volumes about the Church’s failure to find a voice willing to enter into the wider discussion on marriage and sexuality in the past generations. In other words, the Church did not deploy an overwhelming force of well-equipped and trained soldiers into the battlefield to engage the enemy; only a third of her soldiers were deployed at all guaranteeing defeat.
Gallipoli simply will not do, but one need not abandon military history entirely when looking for images to capture Catholic responses to the Sexual Revolution. A much better example comes from the film, Braveheart, and describes thirteenth-century Scotland. When faced with English aggression, the Scottish nobles would assemble an army to meet the English in battle. But battle was the last thing on their minds. The nobles had assembled a fighting force in order to gain more generous terms of surrender. They had reconciled themselves to the reality that the English had a superior force and that meeting them head on would only lead to defeat. They believed that they had no choice but to accept the brute fact: The Scots were a subjugated people.
Barron’s proposal to calibrate tactics when it comes to addressing human sexuality is welcome in an increasingly secular culture unreceptive to the Gospel message. But such tactics will always fall short if Church leaders are not fully committed to achieving victory. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support Barron’s contention that Church leaders poured enormous resources into defending Catholic sexual ethics over the last quarter century.
(Photo credit: CNS photo/Jeffrey Bruno)