Bishop Barron and the Social Media Experiment

Thomas Griffin (8/27/20)

Bishop Robert Barron has arguably done more for the Catholic Church in the modern world than any singular person, lay or clergy, in the past twenty years. His videos and content reach hundreds of thousands of viewers each day and provide rich encounters with the Catholic faith and the person of Christ for people of all ages and backgrounds. One of his latest videos is entitled “Social Media and the Catholic Culture of Contempt” and is a response to events surrounding the previous few weeks. Barron calls for Catholics to “stop tearing each other apart.”

Recently, the bishop has also commented on a statement by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which claimed that St. Damien (who served and died while ministering to the lepers in Hawaii) was an example of white supremacy. Barron was casual and quick in this response while noting that this is a perfect example of “a colossal misguided attack on an enormous figure.” 

Barron also placed a link on his social media accounts to a statement made by California bishops in regards to the destruction of a statue of Junipero Serra and continues to be at the forefront of defending this saint. The letter explained that Serra “made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population,” along with how he “made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors.” These were both objective statements which personified the bishops’ concern about this issue and their desire to help be present to the wider Church. 

Then came the comments. Barron was berated with passive aggressive comments such as, “Yes, but what are you (the bishops) going to do about this?” and “It’s rather pathetic how our Catholic leaders are hiding under their couches.”

While arguments can be made for some clergy and many bishops becoming caught up with fine dining, clothing and lifestyles that separate them from their flocks, Bishop Barron has consistently modeled authentic and humble leadership. He also meets members of society where they find themselves. Word on Fire Ministries, Barron’s evangelization initiative, notes that “to be most effective in this mission, Word on Fire places an emphasis and urgency on the use of contemporary forms of media and innovative communication technologies.”

Engaging the world through social media and online outlets is both necessary and pivotal for the Christification of the world (as Barron often puts it). The struggle with evangelizing over social media though, is that it often opens the door for this unprecedented technology and mode of communal facilitation to become destructive. The downfall of social media is that every single person who registers for an account is automatically given a platform to divulge his or her opinions on the world. 

This can be uplifting and edifying. However, the key word that needs to be used for the material on most platforms is the term opinion. An overwhelming percentage of active users on these apps and websites are not experts in the fields they comment on. Many even note that they “were cradle Catholics” but they don’t practice their faith anymore “because of personal decisions.”

Only until recent history has the stage been handed over to anyone and everyone to voice their opinion on any matter without any prior background in that specific field. Lanes of inquiry are open to all, but there is a dire need for social media users to reflect honestly, ponder compassionately and respond virtuously to those with whom they may disagree. 

In response to Bishop Barron’s posts, many responders were commenting on topics that had nothing to do with Junipero Serra or the topic at hand referencing “billions of dollars used by corrupt Catholic charities” and accusing bishops of refusing “to admit that people are in our country illegally.” Barron was merely an easy target to attack because he has made himself, and Christ, so accessible to the culture. 

The outliers who spewed ignorance, arrogance, and even hatred towards the bishop are most likely dealing with a wound in their own lives that they are not confronting. They’re using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as a way to distract themselves from the struggles in their own lives that they must come to grips with. The issues these commenters have are clearly a struggle with themselves, God, and religion and not with the bishop, which is clearly proven when one scrolls through the hundreds of comments that call him “soft, weak, spineless” and even “ordained under the reign of a false pope.”

Social media is at its darkest when it becomes a passageway for people to spew false opinions and accusations on innocent bystanders. It was never meant to be an avenue for those who have wounds and strife with a group to make a scapegoat out of whomever they wish. If they’re looking for a scapegoat for issues in the culture and the Church, don’t make it Bishop Robert Barron. 

Let us move towards civil discussion and maybe a short break from social media if necessary. Renewal begins with the individual, so let’s point our fingers towards our own chest before we attempt to tear down a disciple who is a dynamo of a witness to faith, and one who is discovering the unprecedented capacity of preaching the truth. Stripping down statues and cancelling history is enough; we don’t need to disgrace an apostle along with it.

Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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