Low Hanging Fruit. Part Three. Michael Voris and his obsession with Bishop Robert Barron
At long last I turn my attention to the more-Catholic-than-thou pit bull of Detroit, Michael Voris. Voris is the brains (sic) behind the media sensation known as “ChurchMilitant” and has posted a series of YouTube videos called “The Vortex” wherein, in his own words, “lies and falsehoods are trapped and exposed.” He intones these words while twirling his pencil around in the air, like a makeshift wand, which acts as a fair warning that what is about to come will generate as much destructive wind as a broken fan. His style is angry and pugnacious, with an in-your-face, rapid fire delivery that gives off an air of smug, know-it-all, condescension toward his absent targets. Frankly, as I hope to show, he is an imbecile. If you find that harsh I really don’t care, because he is a bully who deserves to be treated like one. Nor do I care that he occasionally does a good job of reporting on the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church because there are lots of good people doing the same thing whose credibility far surpasses Voris’s and, to be blunt, he gives those of us who care about such things a bad name. Jeffrey Epstein may have been good at throwing parties, but I wouldn’t want him as my daughter’s wedding planner.
What follows is going to be relatively long, so those who do not like reading long blogs are free to turn away. Or, you can print it off and hide it in your pantry with your cupcakes and return to it at your leisure. I am going to focus on a series of videos he has produced on a single topic – – a topic he has pursued with monomaniacal vigor. And that topic is his ongoing vendetta against Bishop Robert Barron. I focus on this because it is a paradigmatic snap-shot of both his vicious and puerile style as well as his substantive ignorance of the very “lies and falsehoods” he claims to be unmasking. Furthermore, he has produced so many videos on so many topics it is best to focus on a few rather than dissipate the endeavor with scattershot attacks on a host of moving targets. Finally, I choose to focus on the Robert Barron Vortex videos because it is the most glaring example of Voris attempting to destroy something that is good happening in the Church, simply because it isn’t, in Voris’s eyes “good enough,” and therefore is “suspect” and most likely, evil. And this to me is the most dangerous element of how Voris operates. He engages in the falsification of the good, seeking to invert it into its opposite – – something evil – – all in the service of furthering his own version of “small tent” Catholicism which only has room enough for Voris and his Legion of Doom homies.
Voris claims that Robert Barron is completely “infected with modernism” as evidenced by what Voris calls his “Catholicism lite” videos (such as his ten part video series “Catholicism”) and Barron’s often stated support for the view that we can have a “reasonable expectation that all will be saved” – – a view Barron links to that of the late Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Voris also hates Balthasar, but more on him in a bit. Voris also asserts, in so many words, that Barron is a pretentious academic who likes to hide his deceptions behind a fog of smart sounding “big words” and that Barron suffers from the “smartest kid in the class” syndrome and likes to show off how educated he is. He also chides Barron for being a “name dropper” who likes to quote silly people like Dostoevsky and Claudel – – authors Voris dismisses as literary fluffies that no real person cares about. (!!) Finally, he accuses Barron of being a failed evangelist because he doesn’t immediately start preaching “at” people about Christ, but chooses instead the path of dialogical conversation. As evidence for this he cites a recent interview that Barron had with the conservative Jew, Ben Shapiro. I will deal with each of these accusations in turn. But before I continue you might want to check out one of Voris’s videos on the topic so that you can see for yourself the list of outrages that sends him into a spittle-flecked tailspin. You can access it here. Oh … and the Shapiro interview episode here. You should wear a faceguard when viewing.
I would like to begin with a thought experiment. Imagine a room filled with about 100 people who are interested in learning more about the Catholic faith with an eye toward possible conversion. Now further imagine that the sponsors of the event have invited two speakers – – Michael Voris and Robert Barron. Barron gives an hour long presentation, with slides, highlighting the wisdom and beauty of Catholicism, as well as exploring the lives of a few representative saints. He then invites discussion in the Q & A follow up where he patiently, and gently, answers questions, utilizing a conversational style with an irenic and non-combative demeanor. Voris then follows and spends an hour in his usual attack mode, informing his listeners that most of them are probably going to go to Hell for masturbating, watching porn, contracepting, and voting for Democrats. In the Q & A he then tells his questioners that now that they have heard the Gospel properly preached that they must dutifully convert or face perdition. He concludes by tossing scores of paperback catechisms into the crowd, like a fake Santa tossing candy, willy-nilly, off of a Christmas float.
Now I ask you dear reader, which speaker would you invite if you were running such an event? And please don’t tell me that I have given a false caricature of Voris in the above scenario. Because Voris states bluntly that the kind of evangelizing that Barron engages in “convinces nobody” and “does not work.” And if you watch his videos and get a sense of his “style”, and you combine that with his condemnation of Barron’s approach, then you can see that one is within the boundaries of reasonable speculation if you suspect Voris, in front of such a group, would be – – not a bull in a china shop – – but a rampaging elephant at an origami festival.
Because the facts are these: Robert Barron’s Catholicism series of videos, as well as much of the catechetical material produced by his Word on Fire ministry, HAS brought thousands of people to the faith. I do not know of a single RCIA director who would swap Barron’s videos for a steady diet of Vortex episodes. And if they do they should be fired with extreme prejudice. I don’t know where Voris is getting his “evidence” that Barron’s approach “does not work” but I suspect this is just his usual bombastic bluster. Because there is solid evidence, for anyone who knows what is going on in the Church today, that Barron’s videos have been a highly effective tool for bringing people to the faith. I myself used his Catholicism series in many of my theology classes and can personally attest to their pedagogical AND evangelizing effectiveness. Thus, there is no other way to say this: Voris is making here an empirically false statement. The first of many. But I doubt Voris cares since his motive here is not really truth, but the rhetorical discrediting of Barron at any cost.
As a teacher of undergraduates for twenty years, in a fairly typical small Catholic University (DeSales), my own teaching style mirrored that of Barron (but with more expletives and bathroom humor than I care to admit) as I sought to negotiate the difficult path of reaching both my already believing students (the minority) as well as the vast swathe of students who are lukewarm to Catholicism at best, and openly hostile at worst. And I am sure that my experience mirrors that of just about every other teacher that is reading these words. Therefore, and based on experience, I can say without fear of contradiction that Voris is full of crap. Had I taught like Voris does I would not have lasted through my first semester and would have most likely been fired within the first month and escorted off campus by a phalanx of campus security guards. Happily, I did not teach like Voris does and enjoyed a long and successful career wherein I brought hundreds, if not thousands, of students closer to the truth of Christ. But if Voris had seen me teach he would have accused me of preaching a “Catholicism lite” that “convinces nobody”, and accused me, as he accuses Barron, of teaching idiocy and lunacy.
Further evidence of Voris’s nightmarish and cartoonish vision of what constitutes proper evangelizing can be seen in his criticisms of Barron’s interview with Ben Shapiro. Shapiro asks Barron if he, Shapiro, being Jewish, can be saved? Barron could have responded, as Voris would have preferred him to, by saying “Yes Ben it is possible, but highly unlikely, unless you become a Catholic.” Thankfully, since Barron isn’t a flat-footed, intellectual troglodyte, he artfully answered the question by first stating that Christ is the only means by which men are saved, but that one does not necessarily need to be a baptized member of the Church in order to be related to Christ, salvifically, in some way. He went to say that being an explicit Christian is the “privileged way” of reaching heaven but not the only way.
I say he “artfully” answered Shapiro’s question because Barron rightly adjudicated that the very reason Shapiro asked the question in the first place was that he already understood that Catholics consider Christ as the pivot point for the salvation of the world and, in a further discernment, that Shapiro was unlikely to convert to Christ just because Barron asked him to. In fact, even if Shapiro was harboring “Christ haunted” moments, a full-throated, Voris-style Christological drop kick to the face would have had exorcised any remnants of a Christ haunting within Shapiro’s soul. Fortunately, Barron was being interviewed and not Voris, and Barron rightly understood that Shapiro’s deeper question was whether or not there can be “theological common ground” between a devout Jew and a devout Catholic, with Shapiro, to his credit, seeking to do his part to overcome the historic hostility between Judaism and Christianity. Finally, and this is an overlooked point by the rad trad torch brigade, Barron understands quite well the deadly consequences for Jews that Christian hostility has fomented over the centuries as well as the resulting deep suspicion that many Jews have toward Christianity, and was therefore well aware of the historical sensitivity of the question that Shapiro was asking.
But all of that is lost on Voris who thundered against Barron’s apparent religious relativism and his lack of faith in the centrality of Christ for salvation. But such an assertion, based on the evidence, is yet another Voris distortion of the truth and an empirically false claim. Barron clearly upheld the centrality of Christ for salvation and gave no hint of a religious relativism. One shudders to think how Voris would have responded to this deeply serious Jewish man – – a man, by the way, who bothered to interview a Catholic bishop owing precisely to that deep religiosity. And who did so with deep respect and a generosity of spirit that Voris manifestly lacks.
Voris’s entire tirade against the interview borders on the perverse insofar as it both radically distorts what Barron was saying (and I think deliberately so) as well as mangling the teaching of the Church. For what Barron said to Shapiro is exactly what most Church Fathers have said, what Aquinas has said, and what the entire modern Magisterium of the Church has said. Namely, that there can be salvation outside of explicit membership in the Church. To be fair, Voris says he believes this too, but given his rhetoric on the matter one wonders if Voris takes it seriously or if he is just nodding in its general vicinity all the while plowing ahead in a different direction.
More than likely, what his denunciations of Barron point to is nothing more than a bizarre animus he has against the bishop who seems to act for Voris as a kind of shibboleth for all that he thinks is wrong with the modern Church. Because as one surveys the current ecclesiastical landscape it is hard to see why Voris would choose Barron as his whipping boy unless there was something visceral and emotional at play in Voris’s deeply fermented mind. Barron is a modernist? Really?? Does Voris even know what that term means? What this accusation of modernism shows, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that Voris has never read a word of Barron’s serious scholarly works. In his book “The Priority of Christ” Barron scopes out in the very first chapters a trenchant critique of modern liberal theology and points to a robust and repristinated orthodoxy as an antidote to the secularizing assumptions of more modernist theologians. Barron is rightly viewed in the theological guild as a deeply traditional thinker, much to the delight of his admirers and the dismay of his more liberal critics. Therefore, for Voris to claim that Barron is completely “infected with modernism” is so ignorant that it makes one wonder if Voris even cares if half the nonsense he spews is true. There is no other conclusion therefore that can be reached other than the fact that Voris has chosen Barron as an enemy for reasons that go far beyond Barron’s theology. What those reasons might be I have no idea and I will leave it to the mental health professionals to figure out.
But as inane as all of that is Voris gets most agitated by Barron’s statement that we can have “a reasonable hope that all will be saved.” He constantly refers to the idea as “idiotic” and “beyond stupid” even though he admits that the notion is not necessarily “heretical” but comes close to it. Well which is it Mr. Voris? Is it heretical or is it not? Because if it isn’t heretical (and guess what? It isn’t) then Bishop Barron is well within his rights as an accomplished theologian to put the idea forward for consideration. When Voris denounces the idea as “idiotic,” quoting scripture without any theological nuance and without any awareness that there are indeed multiple passages in the New Testament that hint at a hope that all will be saved (especially in the Pauline corpus), he seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that there have been saints in the Church who have put forward the same idea. St. Gregory of Nyssa was a full-on universalist, as were many other Church Fathers. Most damning of all for Voris’s case is that no less a light than St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church and, one would assume, a better Scripture scholar than Voris, taught that in the end God will restore everything and everyone to its pristine condition, including the devil and the other fallen angels! Were Gregory, Clement, and Jerome all idiots too? Are they too uttering “lies and falsehoods” that need to be “trapped and exposed” in the mighty wind of Voris’s twirling pencil?? I wish The Vortex had been around in Jerome’s time because that cranky old grumbler would have made short work of Voris.
It is indeed true that the Church did eventually condemn this “hard” universalism. But not because the Church wants to assert that some, or many, are in Hell, but merely to point out that such a claim – – that Revelation teaches us dogmatically that all are saved – – is not tenable. Barron and his theological guide in these matters, von Balthasar, make it very clear that they too share that ecclesial assessment. And they are not merely paying lip service to it either but acknowledge that the New Testament holds in tension two sets of texts on the issue – – some implying some will be damned (which Voris quotes repeatedly), with other texts implying the opposite (which Voris ignores). Therefore, Barron’s and Balthasar’s conclusion that we can, given the depths of Christ’s salvific reach, hope for the salvation of all in a meaningful way is most definitely not heresy or even “near heresy.” But that doesn’t stop Voris from frothing at the mouth, like a rabid dog with a bone that he won’t give up, giving every indication of being a monomaniacal neurotic. Voris seems to need people to be in Hell in order for his world narrative to hold together. Which is a sad commentary on that narrative. Not that there is a Hell and people might go there. But that he seems to need them there. He seems to want them there. Except for himself of course. He seems strangely confident in that.
In one of the videos I linked to above one gets a definite clue as to what is really grinding in Voris’s gizzard on this issue. He goes on a lengthy Jeremiad against the evils of the abortion industry and Planned Parenthood in particular. In graphic detail he correctly describes the horrors of abortion and the trafficking in aborted baby body parts. I share his revulsion in these matters. As, I am sure, does Bishop Barron. So what conclusion does Voris draw from this litany of evils? He concludes that the people involved are so morally hideous that they most certainly are going to Hell, thus disproving Barron’s thesis on salvation. Well! QED! What need have we of further witnesses?!
Maybe the abortionists will end up one day in Hell and maybe they won’t. But unlike Voris, I will leave the final disposition of their souls to Our Lord. The mere presence of sin, even great sin, is not sufficient for us to take upon ourselves such adjudications. So I would like to ask: Who died and made Michael Voris the eschatological Judge Judy?
There is also the not so faint, and thoroughly disgusting, implication that Barron’s views on Hell somehow minimizes these evils and thus enables them. Why else would Voris spend a good ten minutes screaming at the camera denouncing Barron just after cataloging the evils of the abortion industry? Voris seems to assume, quite ignorantly, that a hope for the salvation of all means that we think that sin is “no big deal” and will go unpunished and unremediated. Here Voris once again shows how theologically illiterate he is, since even the wrongly demonized Origen, the great speculative universalist himself, taught that the punishments and torments for our sins will be tremendous and nearly unbearable. Thus robbing Voris, and his cheerleaders in the stone-throwers social club, of their chief pastoral argument. Namely, that absent the fear of an eternal damnation, people will not take sin seriously since Bishop Barron and his ilk have given everyone a carte blanche ticket to ride on the sin train. One wonders why Voris even bothers to pray for the souls in purgatory if he thinks the post-mortem punishments for our sins and the fires of remediation they require are no big deal. Or why we should do penance in this life in order to avoid the purgatorial fire to come since, in Voris’s view, unless that fire is eternal, it ain’t worth a fig as a deterrent to sin.
This entire way of thinking also betrays a fundamentally unchristian way of viewing why we should avoid sin. Voris’s approach here is more in tune with potty training a puppy than with the pedagogy of the spiritual life. As Aquinas teaches, the human will is constitutively oriented to the “Good.” Thus, in choosing evil we thwart our own happiness and dissipate the soul in the idolatrous pursuit of counterfeit goods that may please us to a point, but ultimately render us miserable. Therefore, that which is most compelling about the Gospel is that it is true, good, and beautiful. Christ attracts and opens the soul as the sun does for a flower. This is one of Barron’s central points and one with which Voris is in white hot disagreement. There must be eternal punishments galore or nobody will want to be good! What a miserably pinched-up and sadistic view this is. It bespeaks a fundamental disbelief in the inherent attractiveness of the Revelation of the love of the triune God in the life of Jesus the Christ.
Voris seems to think the moral life is, in its essence, simply a forensic system of rewards and punishments, and views the Gospel as merely the pathway to those rewards. He is like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch who thinks if the presents are removed then nobody down in Whoville will celebrate Christmas. Because if nobody will want to avoid evil if there isn’t the threat of eternal torment, then the flip side is also true. Namely that nobody will want to be good for its own sake either, requiring the carrot of a reward as its only possible motivation. This is the moral vision of a child, and certainly not that of St. Paul, who was already living the way of the moral commandments but who turned his life completely over to Christ after the blinding vision of the resurrected Lord.
As for the charge that Barron uses “big words” in order to pretend to be smart I can only say he is smart. Very, very smart. And certainly smarter than Voris. Which isn’t hard. But beyond that, one wonders what in the hell Voris is talking about here. Because one of the chief reasons that Barron’s videos are so popular is that they really do succeed in being understandable to an average person with a modicum of education. In reality, what seems to rile Voris on this issue is precisely that Barron is successful and Voris thinks it is all rooted in a deception. In other words, he is accusing Barron of engaging in rhetorical sophistry. However, from where I sit it seems that it is Voris who is the sophist. Sophists can come in many sizes and shapes, including blustering, blathering, blowhard shapes, which is a kind of sophistry designed to appeal to the choir but nobody else. It is the sophistry of the dog whistle wherein certain red meat code words are tossed out like “homoheresy” and “modernism” in order to gin-up the apocalyptic fervor of one’s YouTube subscribing customers.
Finally, if you want further evidence for just what an ignorant poseur he is look no further than his ridiculous and absurd comments regarding the eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Not content merely to snipe at, and caterwaul over, Bishop Barron’s views on Hell, for good measure he wants to further smear the good Bishop by making it seem that he has hitched his theological wagon to some fringe wing-nut. For starters, Voris describes Balthasar as a “lunatic.” Yeah, you read that right – – he calls Balthasar, one of THE premier theologians of the 20th century, the favorite theologian of Saint Pope John Paul II who made Balthasar a Cardinal, and a close friend and collaborator with Joseph Ratzinger, who preached the homily at Balthasar’s funeral, a “lunatic.” Regardless of what one thinks of Balthasar’s theological project, and regardless of what one thinks of his views on Hell, to call him a lunatic is so profoundly stupid and absurd that it borders on the insane. And I mean “insane” literally as in, he is completely detached from reality. One suspects, of course, that Voris hasn’t read a word of Balthasar, as he apparently hasn’t read a word from the works of fluffies like Dostoevsky and Claudel, and is merely basing his assessment of Balthasar on the mere fact that he disagrees with him on a single theological point. In Voris’s world apparently, to go against his “Tiny house” vision of Catholicism is to render one a lunatic. Well then, count me among the deranged.
But he isn’t done. He then asserts that Balthasar was a close associate of, and a collaborator with, a “debunked mystic.” I can only assume he means Adrienne von Speyr, a female Protestant convert to Catholicism who had numerous mystical and supernatural experiences that Balthasar viewed as a genuine “charism” that was a gift from God to the modern Church. You might disagree with the legitimacy of her experiences, but there is no sense in which one can claim that her mystical ecstasies and so forth have been “debunked.” Debunked by whom? Voris? Vigano? Taylor Marshall? The Ladies on The View? We don’t know who the debunker is that Voris has in mind here because he does not say. More than likely he is referring to some off Broadway article written by someone who thinks like he does and which probably purports to show that Adrienne’s writings are filled with heresy, idiocy, lunacy, and horrible cake recipes. But I will tell you who DID think that Adrienne was worth listening to and that was Pope John Paul II who, in 1986, convened a symposium in Rome (a symposium, not an “investigation”) devoted to her charisms, a symposium at which he gave a positive opening address. So if she was “debunked” as Voris claims it is a pity that John Paul was not informed of this. Once again, Voris proves himself to be as ignorant as he is nasty, and with barely a shred of common human decency.
But wait, as the commercial says, there’s more! No, sadly, not a free set of official ChurchMilitant, anti-Pachamama, ginsu knives, but a mind numbingly risible description of Karl Barth as merely a “self-inflated Protestant minister.” At least, I think Voris is talking about Barth since he accuses Balthasar of “taking his cues from the writings of a self-inflated Protestant minister.” And Balthasar makes no bones about the fact that he was deeply influenced by Barth’s theology. But what does that even mean? Seriously… what does it mean? Barth was self-inflated? Once again, as with Balthasar, and with Barron’s scholarly works, one suspects Voris has never read a word of Barth and probably can’t even name Barth’s most famous work (The Church Dogmatics). And once again we are left with the impression that Voris is just a blowhard stringing together a daisy chain of denunciations devoid of any content. It can be argued, and many have indeed claimed, that Barth is the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century. But hey, according to Voris, Barron is an idiot, Balthasar is a lunatic, and Barth is a self-inflated Protestant. And so, it would seem, that only Michael Voris stands between us and a descent into the abyss of lies and falsehoods. Only Voris remains standing astride the ruins of the modern Church like a giant, oily, creepy, Colossus: “Barron? Balthasar? Barth? Fools all! I alone remain.”
And while we are at it, what is wrong if Balthasar sees merit in the theology of a great Protestant thinker? Is Voris implying that Protestantism is just completely false in all of its manifestations and in all of its particulars? That one cannot find a single shred of decent theology there?? That it is just heretical turtles all the way down? If he does think that way then he is not in tune with the Magisterium of the Church. However, once again one suspects that all Voris is really doing here is dog whistling his subscribers – – “Balthasar likes a PROTESTANT theologian, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.”
And so I am done with Michael Voris and I will not be returning to him again. Because watching his videos is tiresome and soul draining. And I only do so because the dude has a large platform and is greatly influential over a certain faction of the Church and that influence needs to be fought against. Indeed, as a ressourcement theologian, an orthodox Catholic, and a loyal son of the Church, I happily count many people who hold traditionalist leanings as my friends. Some of them dear friends. However, many of them have succumbed to Voris’s message of division and denunciation. In their defense they are hurting right now and deeply confused by this most vexing of papacies. Thus, the soil is fertile for someone like Voris to sow his seeds of contempt and ignorance – – as is the case with all demagogues who can only seize the throne during a period of agonistic chaos and social rupture. I can only pray that my friends who have succumbed to his Svengali trance will not be too harmed by it and will someday be in a more peaceful state of soul.
The late, great Father Lorenzo Albacete once stated that the biggest internal threats to the Church do not come from the far Left but from the far Right. I disagree to the extent that I think both are equally dangerous, but I think, nevertheless, that his point does alert us to the dangers of the lunatic Right. But as Albacete pointed out, the reason why he thought the far Right was more dangerous was because they appeared to speak the language of orthodoxy and they appear to many as grand defenders of the Tradition, whereas in reality, they are every bit as much a dissenting form of theology as the far left. But because they appear as angels of light the deception is even deeper. I can’t tell you how many messages I have gotten since I started this series of blogs on “Low Hanging Fruit” from people who tell me to “leave these guys alone! All they are doing is defending the faith! All they are doing is fighting to preserve the truth!”
No, actually, they aren’t.