When one tries to examine exactly who the theological influences of Bishop Robert Barron are, one can clearly see that, first and foremost, pride of place belongs to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Barron acknowledges, time and again, the supreme influence that the Order of Preachers have had on his thought. He writes in his interview book, with John L. Allen, Jr., To Light a Fire on the Earth:
It was at Fenwick High School, I’m a freshman and it’s springtime, so the end of my first year. We were out at the playground, horsing around, so we all come in kind of sweating, and it’s time for religion class. We had this young Dominican, Father Thomas Paulsen. That day, he laid out for us the Aquinas argument for the existence of God, beginning, I think, with the motion argument. There I was, a fourteen-year-old Catholic kid just going to Mass, and I still don’t know why, but I was captivated. I think it was a movement of grace, and I’m sure that no one else in that class was all that interested. For some reason, however, it struck me as, Wow, that’s right, that’s correct. No one up to that point in my experience really had thought seriously about God, you just went to Mass… That exposure to Aquinas showed me you could actually think deeply and clearly about God. Not that I didn’t believe in God, I did, but there was rational depth and clarity to Aquinas that hit me like a revelation.
Reading these words of Bishop Barron makes me realize the key impact that a teacher has on a student who is open, attentive and reasonable before the Gracious Mystery Who is God. I pray that, as a teacher, I have had or will have that impact that Fr. Paulsen had on a student, and that one of my students would not only be inspired to live his faith more fully, but to embrace his vocation to the priesthood and, in that vocation, grow to be such a force for the proclamation of the Gospel as is Bishop Barron.
I must admit that I wish I knew Saint Thomas Aquinas better. This is one of the biggest regrets in my life and, if I had another allotted time for study in the course of my priestly ministry, I would devote it exclusively to the study of the Doctor Communis. My own theological training, for which I am very grateful, focuses more on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as theologians of the nouvelle theologie, like Balthasar, Congar, de Lubac and Ratzinger, and not as much on actually reading Saint Thomas. When I was in the college-level seminary studying philosophy, we read more about what Jesuit Fathers Frederick Copleston and Bernard Lonergan (about whom I wrote my own doctoral dissertation) and other commentators said about Thomas than what Thomas actually wrote!
I appreciate the Angelic Doctor more and more for his clarity and see the absolute necessity of his theological framework, while, at the same time, recognize the role that positive theology must play. For, when one reads Saint Thomas, one sees, above all else, a master of sacra doctrina (sacred doctrine). Aquinas is primarily one who is a scriptural commentator, one who builds his thought off the Bible. Saint Thomas is one who is who one of the clearest synthesizers of the Fathers of the Church, using Saint Augustine almost more than any other source. And, for those looking for contextual theology, looking for a theology that embraces culture and other disciplines, one needs only to look to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ use of the Muslim Averroes and pagan Aristotle, a true use of inculturation.
In the course of his studies, Bishop Barron went on to write his doctoral dissertation on a comparison between the Protestant thinker, Paul Tillich, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. One can see in his articles on “Priest as Bearer of the Gracious Mystery,” (Church, Summer 1994) as well as in his classic And Now I See…A Theology of Transformation (1998), the influence that Tillich has played on Bishop Barron’s theology, most especially in Chapter 5 of that text.
But Saint Thomas — more than Balthasar, more than Tillich — is Barron’s true theological muse. In his first book, the magnificent Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (1996), this is so explicit. Even in the Bishop’s episcopal motto, this is apparent. Bishop Barron chose the following phrase: “Non Nisi Te Domini,” in reference to the moment when the corpus on the crucifix came to life and spoke to Saint Thomas and asked him what it was that he most desired in the world. No one had ever written so well of the Lord’s Eucharistic Body and Blood as did Saint Thomas, and the Lord wished to grant him a special grace. Saint Thomas looked at the Lord and uttered three words: “Nihil nisi te” (“Nothing but you”), for he knew that if he had the Lord, he had everything.
Bishop Barron really “gets” Saint Thomas. I think that this is because both of them, as is apparent from their writings, as intellectually gifted as they are, love the Lord. Bishop Barron understands that Saint Thomas’ theology is not an abstract, “how many angels dancing on the head of a pin” sort of thing, as it is about falling in love with Jesus, our Lord, our God, our Savior, our Brother. Bishop Barron writes:
…one of the most powerful “spiritual” critiques of Thomas Aquinas is that he “thinks” his way to God, basing his entire theology on rational proofs and philosophical arguments. There seems to be, some say, a sort of hybris or dangerous pride in this approach, a certain lack of docility and humility before the mystery of God. And from some Protestant circles one hears the charge that Thomas’s though is insufficiently Christological, that Jesus Christ is not the cornerstone and culmination of his system. If either or both of these charges were true, Thomas would be not only an inadequate theologian, but more importantly a misleading Christian spiritual director. (Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, 1996, 31).
Bishop Barron and Thomas Aquinas both love the Lord Jesus passionately, and both wish to communicate that love — a love that cannot be hidden, a love that cannot be denied — to the world. There is absolutely no doubt that the primary influence on Bishop Barron’s theology is Saint Thomas Aquinas. To be honest, I could do another doctorate in sacred theology simply on the Thomism of Bishop Barron, and I encourage younger theologians to do so.
Above all else, I appreciate, as one who tries to understands Thomas Aquinas as theologian, how much Bishop Barron has integrated Saint Thomas. He writes:
Why are there so many questions, so many articles, so many objections and responses in the Summa? One might respond: because there are so many ways that the sinful soul can evade the call to Christlike obedience and openness of heart. Like Ignatius and John of the Cross, Thomas is extremely sensitive to the darkness of the spirit, to the labyrinthine ways of sin, and, again, like those two great masters of the soul, he has the patience and the love required to seek out the sinner despite all obstacles. Thomas will not rest until his reader is lured into wonder and ecstasy. (Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, 1996, 60).
Much like Aquinas, I would think that Bishop Barron feels the same way. Barron has quoted the Protestant preacher John Wesley who stated: “I set myself on fire and people come out to watch me burn.” Thomas Aquinas burns for veritas, the truth. So too does Bishop Robert Barron — and not only that, he burns with the desire to communicate the truth that is Jesus in the world.
In my next piece on Bishop Barron, I would like to examine the other “Thomas” in the Bishop’s life, Thomas Merton. I have to admit, as a priest of a certain age, slightly younger than Bishop Barron, I did not have an entirely favorable view of Merton, and, to be honest, I prefer the earlier works of Merton to the later, but I can still appreciate the tremendous value of Thomas Merton’s work.