ROME – For Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, increased polarization of society and the rise of “nones” who reject religion, usually because it’s seen as irrational, are challenges for which the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, one of Catholicism’s most famed intellectuals, offers a powerful remedy.
Speaking to Crux, Barron said Aquinas’s renowned intellectual prowess is not archaic and limited to the past, but is “especially relevant now because of the rise in skepticism, the rise of the ‘nones,’ meaning those with no religion who tend to see the faith as pre-scientific nonsense.”
Aquinas, an Italian Dominican friar widely held to be the Catholic Church’s most influential theologian, was someone “who insisted on the interplay between faith and reason,” Barron said, explaining that Aquinas’s argument was principally that faith is not “sub-rational” but “beyond rational.”
There’s a constant dialogue between faith and reason with Aquinas, Barron said, which is an especially relevant dynamic in modern times, when “the faith is being derided by many as irrational, as superstitious.”
“We need Thomas Aquinas to make the same argument he made in this city (Rome), in Paris, and in other places – that faith and reason are in vital dialogue, and that the faith is in continuity with the best of our human reason,” he said.
Barron, arguably America’s best-known Catholic communicator through his “Word on Fire” ministry and his “Catholicism” series on PBS, was in Rome to receive an honorary doctorate in theology from Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also called the “Angelicum.”
He celebrated Mass before Thursday’s conferral of the doctorate, during which he offered a lengthy lecture titled, “The one who is, the one who gives: Aquinas, Derrida and the dilemma of the divine generosity,” contrasting the writings of Aquinas with modern writers such as French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who argued there could be no such thing as a gratuitous gift since something is always expected in return.
Barron, who now holds seven honorary doctorates, said that to receive one from a university dedicated to a saint to whom he has such a strong devotion “means a great deal.”
Aquinas, he said, is the one “who really awakened my sense of faith and my dedication to the Church, and my career as an academic kind of followed from that.” The doctorate, then, is an opportunity to “say ‘thank you’” to Aquinas, he said, adding that “it was a very deep honor.”
Noting how society, both inside the Church and out, has become increasingly polarized, especially in the United States, Barron said Aquinas’s method of engaging those he disagreed with provides a different and effective approach to disputes of any kind.
Noting how oftentimes in arguments people attempt to “straw-man” an opponent by watering down their position and making it seem weaker, Barron said that what Aquinas did was “steel-man” an opposite position, which he said means to give “the strongest version you can find of your opponent’s argument.”
Rather than knocking his opponent’s argument down, Aquinas, he said, would acknowledge when good and strong arguments were made, voice agreement on points he saw as valid, and then offer corrections to the argument.
“That’s a way to move the conversation forward,” Barron said, explaining that two people on either side of an argument will only make real progress when they “steel-man the other guy’s argument…That’s a much better way to push the conversation forward, and that’s much-needed today.”
Barron also spoke of the historical rivalries between Jesuits and Dominicans, given that Aquinas, who was a Dominican theologian, is still highly respected and even quoted by Francis, the Catholic Church’s first Jesuit pope.
Despite their differences over time, Barron said the two orders are actually somewhat complementary.
Looking at the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, “there’s a stress on inner experience and discernment and will,” he said, while in the Dominican tradition “the stress is on truth.”
“Those aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are different points of view,” he said, adding that in his view, “there’s a healthy balance here…Francis is very Jesuit in his thinking, very strong on will and experience. Thomas was very strong on truth, and those are in a nice, healthy tension.”
Barron, who is the founder of the famous Word on Fire Catholic ministries and who has authored numerous books aimed at explaining the Catholic faith, said he is currently working on several different projects, including a “Pivotal Players” series looking into the lives of 12 major figures in Catholicism.
Given the scandals that have rocked global Catholicism over the past year, including fresh abuse scandals in the American Church, Barron said he’s also considering authoring a new book on the crisis that would be a “punchy sort of manifesto book” for Catholics.
“Why should Catholics stay? What is it, precisely at this difficult time, that would make us say we’re not going to run, we’re going to stay and fight?” he asked, saying he has other projects in mind, but a short piece on the current crisis is on the top of his list.