Bishop Barron: How to evangelize the ‘nones’

The way we evangelize should grab the world by the shoulders and shake it out of its apathy, Bishop Robert Barron told a crowd of Catholic leaders Tuesday.

Evangelization is especially urgent as the ‘nones’ – the number of the population who do not identify with a religion, continues to grow, he said.

Bishop Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and well-known evangelizer for Word on Fire, addressed the crowd of Catholic bishops and leaders gathered at the Catholic Convocation in Orlando, Florida through a live video feed on July 4, the last day of the gathering.

“We do have a fight on our hands, but the great saints of our church have always loved a good fight, and we should too.”

In a talk entitled “Equipping Evangelizers”, the bishop with more than 15 years of evangelizing experience said that there are three main challenges and three main opportunities that Catholic evangelists face today.

1. The first challenge: Scientism

The culture’s embrace of “scientism”, or the philosophical belief that the only valuable knowledge is scientific knowledge, is one of the great challenges that evangelists face today, Bishop Barron said.

“Let me be clear: the Catholic Church has nothing against the sciences, the church stands with the sciences at their best,” he said. “What the Church opposes is scientism, or the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge.”

Actually, scientism as a philosophy is self-refuting, he noted.

“Scientism is not discoverable through the scientific method. Where did you empirically verify and test through experimentation that only scientific knowledge is valuable? Scientism is a philosophical position and therefore self-refuting,” he said.

But it can be challenge for evangelizers, who are speaking to the world about God.

“When we (as a culture) isolate ourselves from all references to the transcendent, we do damage to the human heart, we do damage to the human spirit,” he said.

2. The second challenge: The culture of “meh”

There’s a rampant apathy in today’s society, especially among young people, who have been formed not to embrace anything as objectively true, Bishop Barron said.

“If there is no objective truth, no objective value, what that produces is a culture of ‘meh’, or as the kids say, ‘whatever’” Bishop Barron said.

But objective truths and values form a firm foundation that sends us on mission, he said, pointing to an example used by St. John Henry Newman, who said a river gets its energy and verve from its firm foundation.

“Knock down the banks, and what’s going to happen? That river is going to open up into a big, lazy lake. Placid, with no energy, no purpose,” Bishop Barron said.

“Our society today is like a big lazy lake, all of us floating individually, tolerating each other, not getting in each other’s way, but without energy, without purpose.”

But evangelization, the declaration of the good news of Jesus, is the antithesis of this apathy, he said.

“Once you’ve been grasped by the power of God…you know where to go and you do it with energy.”

3. The third challenge: The culture of self-determination

What was once a fringe philosophical idea known as voluntarism, which stemmed from philosophers like Nietzsche and other recent existentialists, is now mainstream thought among the millennial generation in the United States, Bishop Barron said.

The core belief of this philosophy, embraced widely by young people, is that freedom defines identity, he noted.

“My freedom comes first, and then I determine essence, who I am, the meaning of my life. It’s all based on my freedom – my sexualtiy, my gender, purpose of my life is all up to me,” he explained.

But to evangelize is to say that “your life is not about you, your life is not up to you,” Bishop Barron said. “Remember the ecstatic expression of St. Paul: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in mean. When you’ve been seized by the power of Jesus Christ, your little ego-drama becomes pretty unimportant,” he said.

The Bishop then presented three opportunities for evangelization based on the three transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty.

1. The first opportunity: An intelligent truth

“I hate dumbed-down Catholicism,” Bishop Barron emphatically told the audience.

“What do I mean by that? It puts a huge stress on the superficial, the ‘banners and balloons Catholicism’ as I call it. We are a smart religion. When we don’t express Catholicism in a smart way, people fall away,” he said.

In particular, the Bishop urged catechists, apologists and evangelists to equip themselves with a good grasp on one of the great arguments for the existence of God. Young people often don’t have a robust understanding of God beyond a vague and irrelevant deity, he noted.

His favorite argument is based on contingency – that existence flows from God, and everything on the world gets its existence from him, because nothing created itself.

“The God that I’m talking about sustains the whole universe moment to moment the way a singer sustains a song. Continual creation – that’s the God the great Church talks about, that we must convey to our young people,” he said.

2. The second opportunity: The goodness of radical Christians

When the Christian life is embraced fully and radically, it’s goodness stands out to the world, Bishop Barron said.

The best example of this in the 20th century was Mother Teresa, who evangelized the world by her radical witness of goodness – caring for others indiscriminately, he said.

Throughout the history of the Church, he said, it was the “goodness and radicality of the Christian life that got the attention of the world,” through great saints like Benedict, Dominic and Francis.

“We need to recover what all these great figures found – this splendidly radical form of the Christian life. When it’s lived publicly, it evangelizes,” he said.

3. The third opportunity: Authentic beauty

Perhaps the best opportunity from which to start evangelization is with the authentic, objective beauty of the faith, Bishop Barron said.

And he’s not just talking about something subjectively satisfying like, say, deep-dish Chicago pizza, he said.

“The objectively valuable and beautiful is not like that, it’s something so intrinsically good and beautiful that it seizes us, it stops us in our tracks – something called aesthetic arrest,” he said.

It’s an easy place to start evangelizing because it’s as simple as “show, don’t tell.”

“Just show people the beauty of Catholicism – show them Cathedrals, show them the Sistine Chapel, show them Mother Teresa’s sisters at work. Don’t tell them what to think and how to behave, show the beauty of Catholicism, and that has an evangelical power,” he said.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than the dying and rising of Jesus Christ,” he said, and the apostles in the New Testament communicate this with a “grab-you-by-the-shoulders” urgency.

“These are people who have been seized by something so powerful and so overwhelming that they want to grab the world by the shoulders and tell them about it,” he said. “We need to be filled with the same ‘grab-you-by-the-shoulders’ enthusiasm” about the beauty of our faith, he added.

“Yes we face obstacles, but the saints always loved a good fight, and we should love a good fight too, because we go forth with this great truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ.”

Mary Rezac



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Easy enough to see the response to this from the Nones…. “Meh.” Christianity is the religion of hostility to the other. That has to change along with the maniacal obsession with sex, and the admission that there was no original sin for which we need to believe the right things for salvation.

  2. Tom Rafferty Reply

    The Bishop shows a serious lack of understanding of science. The word literally means “knowledge.” Outside of science, there is no accurate way to understand objective reality. Since our brains can easily lie to us and we have an instinct to attribute causation to unseen entities because of our evolutionary history of success, subjective input cannot be trusted as being valid. In other words, “scientism” is a bogus word invented by religious apologists in an effort to discredit the only way to maximumly understand our reality. There is no way to know if there IS a “transcendent” reality, as there is no way to verify/justify it as being part of reality.
    Morality comes from evolution and natural selection, as well as the success of our socialization and cooperation history. There is no evidence that it comes from any religion. There is some controversy regarding applying the term “objective” to morality, but in every successful society on the planet we know it when we see it in most cases. It is well documented, in fact, that the least religious states and countries are the happiest.
    “In particular, the Bishop urged catechists, apologists and evangelists to equip themselves with a good grasp on one of the great arguments for the existence of God.” – – – “contingency – that existence flows from God, and everything on the world gets its existence from him, because nothing created itself.” This is a classical Argument from Ignorance/God of the Gaps Argument. We simply do not know what is the “first cause.”
    Mother Teresa was a deluded person who died with great doubt about a God. Instead of offering people real medical care, she only supported them with the bare essentials to keep them alive so that their suffering could be “redemptive.” Of course, when SHE needed medical care, she went to legitimate medical care.
    “’Just show people the beauty of Catholicism – show them Cathedrals, show them the Sistine Chapel, show them Mother Teresa’s sisters at work. Don’t tell them what to think and how to behave, show the beauty of Catholicism, and that has an evangelical power,’ he said.” How about teaching people HOW to think critically and to base acceptance of claims on sufficient evidence only? I challenge all religions to end child indoctrination and only present the dogmas when they achieve the age of reason.

    Bottom line: every claim of every interventionist deity religion has been falsified by science. Deal with it or remain in your deluded bubble.

  3. Peter Aiello Reply

    When I tried to use reason and rationalizations to come to a belief in God, it did not work because doubt would always set in. When I started to learn from Scripture that God was a peace and strength giver, it got my attention because this is what we all seek in life. We are all subject to the law of sin which is our human weakness; and we are all looking for a remedy. Releasing of self toward God finally did it for me. Rationalizations did not.

    1. Tom Rafferty Reply

      “When I started to learn from Scripture – – – ” THAT is the problem: there is no reason whatsoever to put credence into what was written down in a soup of disjointed, superstitious ideas by unknown people in a culture of superstition, ignorance and fear. Every claim of Christianity, as well as all other interventionist deity religions, has been falsified. Therefore, why do you and others blindly accept religion? Do you understand that your brain alone is not reliable in understanding reality and that science is the best method toward such?

      1. Peter Aiello Reply

        I didn’t blindly accept religion. It worked.

          1. Peter Aiello

            During the peace and love period of the late 1960’s, I got interested in Eastern philosophy. It changed by whole approach to finding peace in life. It taught me that accumulating things for being happy does not work because we never get enough of it to arrive. The question then becomes: how do we back off from our desires that push us in this direction. The Eastern philosophy advised awareness without interference from our thoughts and desires; but it admitted that it was difficult to do. After a few years I got curious if Christianity had anything to say about this kind of thing. In my Catholic upbringing, which I had put aside in my twenties, I wasn’t aware of this type of thinking. The Catholic scholastic approach did not work for me. Instead of wading through 2000 years of Christian history, I went directly to the Bible to see if it had anything to say about inner peach. It did. The idea that pursuing desires does not bring peace was there. One of the passages that got my attention was 1Peter5:5-7 which tells us to cast all of our cares on God. There were other passages that advised the same thing but worded differently. Unconditional trust in God is the term that I use the most to describe this. When I tried this it brought me to the place that the Eastern philosophy said was difficult to arrive at. If you google Peter Aiello Hidden Treasure, you will see a link to my free online book on this subject.

          2. Tom Rafferty

            So, you experienced an inner peace through a form of meditation that is available to people of any or no faith. Do you think that this confirmed the “Truth” of Christianity/Catholicism?

          3. Peter Aiello

            The peace that passes all understanding that the Bible speaks of in Philippians 4:6-7 is not arrived at through Buddhist or Hindu type meditations. They do not use the Biblical God to arrive at their peace. The idea of the availability of peace is there, but the method of arrival is totally different. For me, this confirmed the truth of Christianity; but I learned of it directly from the Bible through my personal curiosity rather than hearing it from the Catholic Church itself. It seems different from Middle Ages Catholic mysticism. Being that Bible was compiled by the Catholic Church in the fourth century, I was indirectly taught by the Church, but not by any priests or ministers.

          4. Tom Rafferty

            “For me, this confirmed the truth of Christianity” What do you think practitioners of other forms of meditation say about the effectiveness of their brand of meditation? There has been no studies to confirm that any one method is superior in any parameter of quality of life addressed.

            The problem I see in what you are saying is that you are using a subjective experience to confirm the truth of Christianity. Because of the fallibility of the brain alone in determining reality, subjective experience alone can never be used to justify a claim regarding reality.

          5. Peter Aiello

            When the Eastern philosophy helped me early on, I vouched for that at the time. A few years later, the Bible helped me much more in my quality of life; so now I vouch for the Bible. What I experience seems to be in line with what I read there. I don’t know what else to go by. I guess I go by my own study. This is my personal reality. I can’t argue against that.
            Even the Catholic Church seems to validate this approach. Vatican II states in Dei Verbum 8: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth”. It sounds like we can all contribute to what the Catholic Church calls tradition.

          6. Tom Rafferty

            I guess you are not getting my point. Peace.

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