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‘The closer God is, the more alive we are’: Bishop Robert Barron says Catholicism augments academics across disciplines

| Friday, March 3, 2023

Bishop Robert Barron, second-most-followed priest on social media and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, spoke at Notre Dame Thursday evening and urged the University to commit itself to its Catholic character in all that it does.

Liam Kelly | The Observer
Bishop Robert Barron spoke to an audience at Notre Dame in Downes Club in Corbett Family Hall.

“A Catholic university is one in which Christ holds a central and organizing place in all the disciplines and activities of the university,” Barron said.

In addition to serving as bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, Barron is also the founder of the Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire. Barron’s homilies have amassed hundreds of millions of views online, causing him to become one of the most popular Catholic priests in the world.

Barron emphasized that in a truly Catholic university, “the relationship between Christ, the Logos, and all other disciplines and activities is explored and celebrated.” 

In explaining this vision of a Catholic university, Barron compared the proper role of faith in academics to the proper role of God in the life of human beings.

Central to this understanding, Barron argued, is the idea that “God is not a being.” 

“If He were, we’d be in a competitive relationship,” Barron pointed out. Instead, God is “ipsum esse,” or being itself, Barron said.

In this framework, Barron asserted, humans become uplifted by God’s presence instead of controlled by it. 

“The closer God is, the more alive we are. God is not in the business of supplanting us or dominating us but rather lifting us up,” Barron said.

The same, then, is true of the relationship between God and a university, Barron argued.

“I don’t think theology comes crashing in and pushes the physicist aside, pushes the chemists aside, pushes the mathematicians systems aside or pushes the philosophers aside,” Barron emphasized. “No, no. God opens up a depth dimension to all these disciplines.”

Barron explained how this approach to God can be applied to seemingly disconnected subjects such as mathematics. Mathematical concepts, much like God Himself, Barron said, are not always readily apparent to the visible eye.

“Pure numbers, pure mathematical intelligibility, those don’t belong to the world of ordinary human capacities and experience. Those are invisible things,” he said.

To Barron, this “different, higher, stranger world … touches upon the absolutely, sure intelligibility of God.”

Barron also applied this concept of intelligibility to the sciences.

“All the sciences rest upon the fundamental presumption that the reality we operate in is imbued with intelligibility. It’s imbued with something like a pattern or form that can be understood, that corresponds to the inquiring mind,” he said.

The connection from an intelligible universe to an intelligent creator is then an simple one, Barron argued.

“The only way finally to explain the universal intelligibility of our experience is to recourse to a creative and personal intelligence that has thought it into being,” he said.

When it comes to history, Barron pointed out that most historians don’t look at history merely as a sequence of events but rather try to organize these events into a “meta narrative” that gives them meaning.

Barron described how the predominant meta narrative today is one of “secular modernity.”

“The idea is that there was a long period of oppression and then in the 17th and 18th century there was this marvelous Enlightenment, focused on the physical realm, that overcame all the centuries of oppression, oftentimes tied to religion,” he said.

While affirming the benefits of the advancements in modern science brought about by the Enlightenment, Barron urged Christians to develop a different meta narrative in their view of history.

“The climax of history is not in the 17th and 18th century,” he said. “We think history came to its climax on this squalid hill, outside of Jerusalem around the year 30 A.D. when this young rabbi was dying on an instrument of torture. We think the dying and the rising of the Son of God is the climax of history.”

“What would history look like if we take seriously that that’s the meta narrative?” Barron questioned his audience.

On the subject of literature, Barron elaborated on the point of American writer William Faulkner who said that “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” 

All writers “are talking about that reality,” Barron argued. To Barron this problem in the human heart “comes when we tie our inner desire for God onto something less than God.”

Barron urged the University to explore the relationship between God and human discontentment “in relation to literature.”

Shifting his focus to law, Barron made the point that there is an unshakable relationship between human law and God’s law.

“Law opens up onto morality and morality opens up onto theology. There’s a relationship between law, morality and God which is inescapable,” Barron said.

Barron argued that this theological approach to law has the same principles as the theological approach to science.

“These moral intelligibility that we discern in the world come from the great Logos that gave rise to the world just as the intelligibility we explore in the sciences come from that same source,” Barron pointed out.

Concluding his address to a packed crowd, Barron called upon the University to take pride in its Catholic roots.

“Pope John Paul II said, quite correctly, that universities emerged “ex corde ecclesiae” — from the heart of the church,” Barron recounted. “That should be a point of pride, especially in a place like this.”

Finally, Barron implored his audience not to think of the Church and the University as opposite forces, but rather as compliments that have the power to lift each other up.

“I do think that one of the tragedies of our time is that we’ve forgotten that relationship and, at times, have even set Church and university at odds with each other,” Barron lamented. “I’m here to argue precisely the contrary. The more we recover this idea of the university itself coming from the heart of the Church, the more the University is authentically itself.”

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