Bishop Barron on the pro-life/social justice split: ‘A tragedy for the church’

Bishop Robert Barron will give a keynote address at the Cornerstone Catholic Conference in Tacoma Oct. 20–21. Photo: Courtesy Word on Fire Bishop Robert Barron will give a keynote address at the Cornerstone Catholic Conference in Tacoma Oct. 20–21. Photo: Courtesy Word on Fire

Bishop Robert Barron, perhaps the most sought-after Catholic speaker in America, will give one of the keynote addresses at the Cornerstone Catholic Conference in Tacoma Oct. 20–21.

An auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Bishop Barron is also the founder of the Word on Fire multimedia ministry, a prolific author and the host of the Catholicism video series, which aired on many PBS stations.

Bishop Barron said he is “joyfully looking forward” to visiting the Archdiocese of Seattle. “I’ve got a lot of connections to Seattle,” he said, “and I’m very eager to get up there.”

He’s been here before. He preached the Good Friday Tre Ore service at St. James Cathedral in 2009, and during the 2013 Year of Faith he gave a talk on the New Evangelization to an overflowing crowd at Holy Rosary Church in Edmonds.

Bishop Barron taught many priests of the Archdiocese of Seattle as a longtime theology professor and then rector/president at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. And, he said, he knows Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain well: “He’s one of the churchmen I admire the most in the American church.”

The bishops of Washington state created the Cornerstone conference, first held in 2014, “to inspire and educate Catholics and others to continue working together to protect human life: the unborn, individuals who live in poverty or on the margins of society, and people at the end of life,” in the words of the conference’s mission statement.

Bishop Barron’s Cornerstone keynote address will be titled “The Eucharist: Spiritual Food to Sustain Our Witness.” He spoke with Northwest Catholic by phone Aug. 28 about some of the themes of the conference.

NWC: The Cornerstone conference arose in response to this division between “pro-life” Catholics and “social justice” Catholics — this lack of communication and cooperation, sometimes distrust and even disdain. What should be our attitude toward this dichotomy within the church?

Bishop Barron: Well, we should be against it. To me, it’s one of the bitter fruits, in some ways, of the post-conciliar period — mind you, not the council; Vatican II is very clear on this. But in the post-conciliar period there was a tendency within Catholicism to fall into these two camps, and I’ve watched that all my life in the church. Call it left-right, liberal-conservative, or, as we see it in the Catholic context often, this: Are you more on the life issues or more on the justice issues? And it’s just a false dichotomy, and it’s not in the great saints, it’s not in the teaching of the church, it’s not in Vatican II, but it’s a divide that happened in the wake of the council. And I think it’s really regrettable.

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ. Photo: Icon of Christ Pantocrator, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Wikimedia Commons

What we have to do is go back to Christ. You return to Christ, and what you find there is this integrated view of life. And you see, of course, this profound concern for the inherent dignity of every individual person and the respect for life from conception to natural death clearly on display. At the same time, you see a clear passion for justice, from the Hebrew prophets all the way up to Jesus and then through the great tradition. So, to my mind, it’s just glaringly obvious: These two things have to be central to the church’s preoccupation.

So that’s speaking generally. Where people debate sometimes is over prioritization. Yes, the church will say things that are intrinsically evil have to take a certain priority. So euthanasia and abortion are prime examples of things that are intrinsically evil, so they have to be opposed in a kind of prioritized way. But I think this should never blind us to the mutual implication, really, of these two sides. So, anyway, that’s a general remark about, I think, the regrettable division between these two.

What do you think are some concrete steps we could take, institutionally and as individual Catholics, to begin to heal this divide in the church?

Well, what I’m going to talk about, actually, at the conference is the Eucharist and the Mass. Because I think, in my mind, what brings together the great pro-life people and the great social justice people in our tradition is a love for the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we have Christ really, truly and substantially present. We have Christ offering himself to the Father. We find the unity of the mystical body in Jesus, and we find therefore this deep, deep connection to all people in the mystical body.

So I would take the Eucharist as the way forward — the Mass itself, that feeds both a deeply pro-life perspective and a deeply social justice connection. That’s what I’ll be urging: the Eucharist and the Mass as the thing that draws us together and shows us the way forward.

What relationship do you see between Catholic social teaching and the church’s mission to evangelize?

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II. Photo: Agência Brasil/José Cruz, Wikimedia Commons

Oh, it’s huge. And I’m with John Paul II when he said that essential to the New Evangelization is the church’s social teaching. So I think it has a huge evangelical impact, and here’s why: We can talk about the teaching of the church on God and Jesus and the Trinity and the Eucharist and so on, but it’s seeing the church in action that often evangelizes people. And then go back to the early centuries — “how these Christians love one another” — that’s what grabbed the attention of a lot of pagans. And then I think up and down the centuries, it’s people living the Christian life in its radical form that has a huge evangelical power.

And I don’t think John Paul would mind this at all when I say he was the second-greatest evangelist of the 20th century — because the first, in my mind, was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. That no one evangelized more effectively than she is because of this radical commitment to the church’s social teaching. So it has a huge impact for evangelization, which is not just a matter of ideas but often a matter of witness.

One of the watchwords of the Cornerstone conference is defending the dignity of the human person. Are there any threats to human dignity in our society that you think Catholics ought to be paying more attention to?

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche. Photo: Gustav-Adolf Schultze, Wikimedia Commons

Well, we can look at all the specific issues, obviously, from euthanasia to abortion and everything else. But you know what I think, more generally? It’s this idea that we invent our own value system. I think that’s the most abiding ideology today, is that my will determines what’s good and right. To give it its formal name, it’s voluntarism — the dominance of the will over the mind, or of my desire over truth. And see, what that does is then it brackets the essential dignity of the other. If I’m making up values as I go along, then as people get in the way of that, well, they become expendable. It becomes, as Nietzsche said, the will to power. I think that’s the abiding and underlying problem, is this sort of Nietzscheanism, this voluntarism — that I invent my own values.

What’s key to the Catholic thing is that values confront us, we don’t invent them. Great values confront us, and we conform our lives to them. And the supreme value, at least as it appears in the world, is the value of a human life. If I start making up as I go along, there’s your Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision from 1992: It belongs to the essence of liberty to determine the meaning of my own existence. Well, if that’s true, then human dignity is going to be out the window pretty quickly. To me, that’s the greatest threat to it.

What would a really robust and cohesive commitment by Catholics to life, peace and justice look like today?

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It would look like Mother Teresa. I don’t know anybody in the last hundred years more committed to the church’s social teaching and care for the poor, right? At the same time, whenever she had a chance, whenever they gave her a major public forum, what did she talk about? Abortion. And in her mind, there was absolutely no contradiction.

Dorothy Day comes to mind as well. I mean, who’s more devoted to the church’s social apostolate, but who also had a radically pro-life perspective? So look at the saints. It would look like these great figures. Sadly, I think it got ruptured in the last, let’s say, 40, 50 years, and that’s just been a tragedy for the church.

To go back for a minute to the idea of the Eucharist and the Mass as this key: What would that look like, in the lives of Catholics and of the church, to live out of the Eucharist in our action on behalf of pro-life and social justice?

Look at just the way we gather for Mass. We come from every walk of life, every corner of the world, every educational background — we come together without the divisions that characterize ordinary society. We sing together — so the singing is not just decorative, but it’s part of what we’re about at the Mass. We listen then to the great stories of the Bible — not the stories of the world, not the stories of contemporary literature or contemporary political discourse — we listen to the stories of the Bible. We join ourselves to the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of the whole world: This is my body given for you, my blood that’s poured out for everyone.

We’re becoming, in that process, conformed to Christ. We’re becoming conformed to him. And then, at the end, we’re sent back out. So those are the very sacred words of dismissal, when you’ve been sent out now into the world, to take what you’ve gotten here and then make real. So the cohesiveness of our coming together, of our singing together, of our listening together to the word of God, and of our being conformed to Christ, now sent out into the world to evangelize, to care for the poor, etc. So the Mass is it, man — the Mass is the source and summit.

That’s why, I haven’t finalized the talk yet, but I’m sure I’ll make the point that from a social justice standpoint, it’s tragic that 70, 80 percent of our Catholic brothers and sisters don’t come to Mass — from a social justice standpoint. Because you stay away from Mass regularly, what’s going to happen? You’re going to be shaped, willy-nilly, by the wider culture — and we would say that’s going to be, in the end, inimical to the cohesiveness of the body of Christ. So you want to work for social justice? I’d say: Go back to Mass.

You’ve mentioned Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day as examples. Is there anyone today that you would point to who really exemplifies this unity of the church’s pro-life and social justice concerns?

Pope Francis
Pope Francis. Photo: Korean Culture and Information Service/Jeon Han, Wikimedia Commons

Pope Francis. I mean, everyone sees automatically the social justice side of Francis. But listen to him, listen to him regularly, and he’s railing against abortion whenever he can — this ideological colonialism he talked about, where we’re exporting our own kind of poisonous views on the rest of the world. Listen to him on the whole gender issue. He’s very strong on the life issues, and he sees no contradiction — in fact, just the opposite — between those and the social justice side. So I’d listen to him. Watch Pope Francis.

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at

Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: