Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
In an effort to present a pathway for evangelizations, we come to the last of the transcendentals, namely truth. By way of a reminder, allow me to restate the definition of the transcendentals, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (40, 41):
Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking. All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures - their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures" perfections as our starting point, "for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
John L. Allen, Jr., in his interview with Bishop Robert E. Barron (To Light a Fire on the Earth), states:
In Christian tradition, beauty, goodness, and truth are known as “transcendentals,” linked to the three core human abilities to feel, to wish, and to think. Jesus refers to them in the Great Commandment when he talks about the mind, the soul, and the heart, and inducements formed the core of his temptation scene in the Gospels. (41)
Bishop Barron’s way of evangelization, as we have seen, is to begin with beauty, beguiling as it is, alluring in its very nature. Beautiful music, fine art, profound literature, all of this has a tremendous place in the Church and in the culture and, as it lifts the human spirit, that spirit can be directed to the All-Beautiful One, our Lord Jesus. A dear friend who is a monk and a liturgist describes some liturgies that are sloppily executed and poorly and un-prayerfully prepared as “less than beautiful” and he is correct. Simply put, beauty and order attracts; ugliness and chaos is found to be repellant. To use an old adage, “one catches more flies with honey that with vinegar.” And, to be very honest, who does beauty better than the Catholic Church? Living in Rome, this fact is brought back to me time and again. From my window as I write this from my desk, I can view Saint Peter’s Basilica, a masterpiece in Church architecture and a visible, tangible testimony to the glory of God in his Church!
Having been enticed by the wonder and fascination of the All-Beautiful One, our hearts, minds, and souls can then be inspired by the goodness of others, particular by the saints, those blessed women and men who were so in love with the Lord that they changed their lives and, in doing so, they changed the world. The Poverello of Assisi, Saint Francis, and the pugnacious “Dog of the Lord,” the preacher Saint Dominic are merely two examples of this from our Church’s rich tradition. The ultimate example of devotion and adherence to the One Who is Good, our Lord Jesus, comes in the form of the martyrs. Divine Revelation is made credible in the witness of the martyrs.
And now, we come to truth. In an age of “alternative truth,” during a time-period where the very concept of objective truth is scoffed at in some circles, when it can seem that truth, especially the at-times inconvenient truth of Christ, calling us to repentance, will repel as many people in the world, how can truth really be considered a transcendental, something that reflects God and something that can lead us to God?
In order for us to really understand Bishop Barron’s approach to truth as transcendental, perhaps it might be best for us to present it in three ways: first, the context in which we as 21st-century Catholics in the United States often find ourselves, something that Bishop Barron terms “beige Catholicism;” second, we need to understand “affirmative orthodoxy,” an approach to evangelization that firmly has its footing in the unchanging teachings of the Church in a positive manner to the contemporary world; and third, the necessity to ground the truth in the “priority of Christ,” which also happens to be the title of the Bishop’s primary theological treatise, first published in 2007. I would like to present this to us over the next three installments, concluding this particular study of the transcendentals according to Barron before moving to a discussion of other aspects of Barron’s thoughts. With this being stated, let’s move to the first aspect, putting things into context and coming to an understanding of “beige Catholicism.”
In his book-length interview with John Allen, To Light a Fire on the Earth, Bishop Barron speaks about the necessity of the evangelist himself or herself clearly knowing the doctrinal truth of the faith. If one does not know the content of the faith, if one does not understand the truth of Christ and his Bride, the Church, then one cannot successfully and credibly transmit the faith. Barron states:
I always go back to what John Paul said about the New Evangelization, which is that it’s really the old Evangelization, meaning it declares that Jesus Christ is Lord. What’s new about it, he said, is that it’s new in ardor, it’s new in method, it’s new in expression. He too was worried about beige Catholicism, that we’d lost our edge, lost our fire. We had fallen into a relativism, thinking that if all religions are the same, what’s the point in drawing people to Jesus? Aren’t we all walking up the holy mountain on different paths, and so on? I think that led to a loss of ardor, and I think that’s what Ratzinger feared when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism.” I’ve got my truth, you’ve got your truth, and so we’re all on this big lake and we’re all floating along with our private opinions. I’m not going to get in your way, and you won’t get in mine. You’re not going to become an evangelist under those circumstances (109-110
According to Bishop Barron, “beige Catholicism” is prevalent in the Church today. The “beige” comes from the Bishop’s description of the suburban church of his youth. His own definition of it is as follows:
It’s a Catholicism that’s become bland, apologetic, unsure of itself, hang-wringing, overly accommodating, that’s allowed its distinctive color to blend into beige, so that it’s hard to distinguish it from other religions and the wider culture. That’s what I was worrying about, and it was the Catholicism of the postconciliar period and the poor reception of the council. It was the church I grew up in, the church of the 1970s, and 80s. (89)
“Beige” Catholicism is a “dumb-down” Catholicism, one that offers no compelling reason to follow the faith. In many ways, it is almost like describing what sociologist Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, describe as “MTD” or “Moralistic therapeutic deism.” The basic assumptions of MTD are as follows:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die. (162-163)
These beliefs are basically what the 20th-century Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would described as “cheap grace” in his 1937 work, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer describes “cheap grace” as:
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?...
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Now contrast that to what Bonhoeffer calls “costly grace”:
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
A major part of Bishop Barron’s concept of truth as a transcendental is spent combating “beige Catholicism.” John Allen, in To Light a Fire on the Earth, describes Barron in this manner:
…the distinctive Barron touch: being utterly, completely convinced of the truths of Catholicism, every eager to plumb those truths more deeply, and prepared to defend them against all comers; yet at the same time, never fussy or rancorous in the way he presents, never polemical or pugnacious with people who don’t share those truths, and fully aware that the Church itself may share some measure of the blame for creating a cultural context, at least in the West, in which many people find the truth claims of Catholicism hard to swallow. All of that is generally blended with a deep calm, a lack of any agitation and angst. (88)
Yes, that is a great gift that Bishop Barron possesses, one that he shares with the Church in the mission of evangelization. In my next section on Bishop Barron and the transcendental of truth, we will explore the concept of “affirmative orthodoxy” which will lead us to an understanding of the “priority of Christ” and the foundation of the bishop’s Christology.