The dumbing down of the faith has been a pastoral disaster, significantly contributing to the mass exodus of now two generations from the Church. A childish, intellectually shallow religion simply cannot stand in the face of the trials of life and the questions of an adult mind.”
So suggested Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, which produces the renowned series “Catholicism,” as he delivered the 30th annual Erasmus Lecture Oct. 30 at the Union League Club in Manhattan.
Sponsored by First Things, Bishop Barron’s early evening talk was titled, “Evangelizing the Nones.”
First Things, headquartered in Manhattan, is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational organization.
An evangelization “new in ardor, new in method and new in expression” continues to be a governing priority of the Church Catholic, Bishop Barron said. That it is needed now in this country has been borne out, he added, by some recent and deeply disturbing statistics.
“By far the fastest growing religious…group in the United States, are the ‘nones,’ that is those who claim no religious affiliation,” he said.
He cited a recent Pew survey that “fully 25 percent of the country say now that they have no formal religion. And the increase in this regard is nothing short of startling,” Bishop Barron said,
In 1970, only 3 percent of the country would have identified as a none, and in the last 10 years, the number has increased from 14 percent to 25 percent, Bishop Barron said.
“When we focus on young people, the picture becomes even more bleak,” he said of those who claim no formal religion. “Fully, 40 percent of those under 30 are nones. And among Catholics in that age group, the number rises to 50 percent.”
He conceded the statistics “are in many ways an unnerving commentary on the ineffectiveness of our evangelical strategies, despite all the encouragement from popes, council and encyclicals.”
The statistics are “a wake-up call” for teachers, catechists, evangelists, apologists, priests and bishops, he added.
Bishop Barron posed a number of paths that an effective evangelization ought to follow, based in part on years of practical experience “evangelizing nones, atheists, agnostics and seekers who dwell in that shadowy but fascinating space of the virtual world, our version of Paul’s Areopagus.”
First, he spoke of “the beautiful,” citing Hans Ur von Balthasar, Plato, James Joyce and Dietrich von Hildebrand, among others.
“In our radically relativistic time,” Bishop Barron continued, “it does seem to me advisable to commence the evangelical process with the winsome attractiveness of the beautiful, and thank God Catholicism has plenty to offer in this regard.”
Evangelically compelling beauty does not exist merely at the rarefied level but at the popular level as well, he said.
“John Paul II obviously had a deep appreciation for the finest of the fine arts, but he also had a sure feel for forms of popular devotion and religiosity,” Bishop Barron said.
“The same can be said of Pope Francis, who loves German opera and who has also developed a spirituality that draws from the wells of the devotional lives of piety of ordinary believers—processions, relics, statues and images of the saints.”
And, Bishop Barron continued, “as John Paul in particular realized, the Church is most beautiful precisely in her saints...We show the nature of Christianity best, perhaps, in its heroes, the saints.”
Offering another suggestion of effective evangelization, Bishop Barron said bluntly, “Stop dumbing down the faith.”
He cited John Henry Newman, who said one of the principal indicators that Christianity is properly developing and not falling into corruption is that its representatives are stubbornly thinking about the data of revelation.
“We who would evangelize simply have to become better theologians, that is to say articulators of the truth about who God is,” Bishop Barron said.