The War on Beige
Thomas Baker September 26, 2011 - 11:57am
A Journey to the Heart of the Faith
Doubleday Religion, $29.99, 279 pp.
DVD Boxed Set, Word on Fire, $149.95
The search for good resources for adult religious formation is not an easy one. There is the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself, of course, authoritative and imposing, but using it as a text in a parish setting is too much like trying to teach people about baseball with the Baseball Encyclopedia instead of taking them to a game. At another extreme, there are colorful four-page lesson handouts from many publishers, with quick, middle-school-level treatments of many Catholic topics, but studiously avoiding anything that might look too much like doctrine or history. For years, the field has been wide open for someone who could combine actual substantive content with an engaging yet adult-worthy teaching style.
Into this breach comes Catholicism, not just a book but a multimedia extravaganza with ten lavishly produced fifty-minute video programs along with teaching and discussion guides. It is not strictly speaking a catechism: there’s no systematic presentation of the sacraments, morality, Catholic social teaching, or many other staple topics. Instead, it’s a meta-introduction to all that, an attempt to ground us in some creatively presented fundamentals of Scripture and tradition supported by a huge dose of Catholic history and art. Catholicism is apologetics in the grand tradition: triumphant, literate, unashamedly partisan.
The confident tone is no accident. Catholicism’s guiding spirit, Chicago priest and Mundelein seminary professor Robert Barron, believes Catholics have been crippled by an era in which “the Catholic story is being told by the wrong people in the wrong way,” and he has set out to create an inspiring corrective in which the wrong story (whatever that might be) doesn’t have equal time. Several years ago, Barron coined the phrase “beige Catholicism” to describe a church leached of its intellectual traditions, great saints and art, history, and glorious rituals; on his Web site, Barron points to blandness as the main reason for such discouraging trends as the Pew Forum’s evidence of dramatically declining Catholic allegiance. You won’t, therefore, see neutral colors here: Barron wants to wring every ounce of spectacle from the tradition, and isn’t averse to black and white, either, when it comes to presenting a vision of church.
Even with this somewhat combative agenda, Catholicism (both the book and the videos) starts out on exactly the right note with two outstanding chapters on Jesus and his teaching. Barron is clearly a wonderful preacher. His choices of Scripture passages for detailed focus are unerring, and his interpretations are arresting and memorable. I found myself immediately planning to use at least these two chapters to teach RCIA candidates, and I have already stolen one of his ideas for a talk (surely the ultimate compliment). Much of the series is at this high level: the summary of eucharistic theology and the “real presence,” for example, is clear and detailed, and the extensive and enthusiastic use of religious art to illustrate scriptural and doctrinal points is usually insightful and unpedantic. (Only four of the ten video episodes were made available for review.)
The credit for Catholicism’s successes goes to Barron himself. Erudite, interesting, and natural on camera, he generally avoids the professional apologist’s pitfall—condescension—and is nothing like the variously smarmy or hypertense clerics who often populate EWTN and other Catholic media. With the release of this series, Jesuit James Martin may now have competition for the role of America’s Favorite Priest. (Fr. Martin has his multiple bestsellers and a Colbert Report gig, but now here’s Barron with this video blockbuster. Does the mantle—as well as the cape and blackboard—of Fulton Sheen hang in the balance?)
In a project as ambitious as this, there can always be objections about what is included or excluded, emphasized or neglected. (For one example here, there’s plenty on the papacy and the Immaculate Conception, but very little on the Holy Spirit.) The point is not comprehensiveness however; it’s selling the best of the Catholic aura: beaming Sisters of Charity, vast crowds of pilgrims, great names from Edith Stein to Dorothy Day to Thomas Merton, seemingly every European cathedral and Roman basilica, artists from Bernini to Grünewald. (Sadly, the companion book, made up of expanded versions of the video scripts, reduces most of the beautiful photography to muddy black and white.) Surely no other Catholic media project that made such a serious investment in travel, cinematography, and quality, and an attempt to be both upbeat and uncompromisingly educational has come so close to success.
The ebullient intellectual warrior G. K. Chesterton is a frequently cited hero of Catholicism, and I was reminded more than once of the victorious tone of Chesterton’s own somewhat dated apologetical masterpiece Orthodoxy: “the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” Here, with more technology than Chesterton could have imagined, is the visual equivalent: glorious colors and crowds, great art and music and saints, the spectacular buildings of our past. (Especially the huge ones; the series has a near fetish for ceilings.) At its best, Catholicism marshals and succinctly interprets an impressive cross section of the church’s great names and places. If it stimulates even a few of its viewers to find out more about Thomas Aquinas or Peter Maurin, or to visit San Clemente in Rome, this war on beige can claim a victory.
It must also be said that this vision is so intensely Catholic, so proud of all these riches, that the world outside can seem unnecessary at best. In Paris, looking at Notre Dame, Barron envisions the great cathedral as a ship, an image of the church navigating rough and dangerous seas, and in Catholicism it’s very much a ship that has little need for supplies from shore. Near the beginning and end of his book, Barron gives us several lists of what can inspire our faith and give us daily evidence of the Incarnation in the world. They are beautifully written, but every item he names is explicitly Catholic: it’s Catholic poets and musicians and buildings and holy people, it seems, that are what support our faith in our all-Catholic world.
I’m sure Barron does not mean to say that Mozart’s Requiem can be a support for us, but not so much Brahms’s. But in his eagerness to surround us with the glories of our heritage, he also places us in something of a walled garden where Catholic culture and Catholic faith are bound exclusively together. In other religions and cultures there are elements, he assures us, from which the church over time will carefully select and adapt what is useful for its purposes; but the non-Catholic world and its political and social beliefs seem only a potential target for confrontation rather than a source of any possible inspiration. He is of course right to suggest that it is the church’s duty to shun any influence that would dilute the radical nature of its message. But the idea that the church itself has a powerful, very human social culture that may in its own way be flawed and incomplete is not part of the story here. The failings of individuals, yes; a flawed system, no.
At times, too, when the musical score pounds too heavily (something like The Lion King with a Gregorian mix-in), the uplift on certain topics can turn into spin. To illustrate how Catholic faith should engage with and change the world: Is the best example the overstated if now-frequent claim that John Paul II personally defeated the Soviet bloc and its leaders? In general, the papacy gets quite a marketing effort, and the emphasis on its centrality and the capabilities of its occupants at times seems excessive:
The integrity of this ekklesia will be guaranteed up and down the centuries, not through appeal to popular opinion (as instructive as that might be), not through the ministrations of an institutional or theological elite (as necessary as those might be), but rather through the pope’s charismatic knowledge of who Jesus is.
It’s one thing to mount a spirited defense of papal infallibility (which Barron is doing here, of course) and quite another to paint a picture of church that sets other bishops, ecumenical councils, the faithful themselves, or (again) the Holy Spirit quite this much in the background.
For catechists on the front lines, Catholicism will leave unanswered some questions they regularly encounter. Those new to the faith (as well as grizzled veterans) often wonder why the church must be quite so opposed to that surrounding culture of ours, some of which is, after all, both enlightened and positive. Annoying issues of gender, leadership, and governance can’t be easily dismissed with a gorgeous ceiling, or with grand claims of the church’s essential givenness and otherness. In the context of Barron’s soaring vision, perhaps they are part of that wrong story the series hopes we forget for a while. Here, it’s morning again in Catholicism.
Yet it’s a sign of the overall quality of the series that despite this focus on a victorious, self-sufficient church, it is a valuable teaching resource, more creative and attractive than anything currently on offer, and it should certainly be tapped by anyone concerned about Catholic catechesis and evangelization. Even if you don’t seek it out, you will probably have a hard time avoiding Catholicism: there is an effective, well-funded marketing campaign that will surely bring it to a parish near you soon. The diocesan screening I attended last month attracted a large crowd of pastors, deacons, and catechists, all mostly impressed with the ambition and spectacle of the series. “It will make people proud to be Catholic,” raved one enthusiastic attendee. “A lotta hype,” whispered a woman in the pew ahead of me. In the grand tradition of the Chestertonian paradox so admired by Barron, it’s entirely possible both were right.
Related: William Portier's review of Robert Barron's The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism
About the Author
Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.