Bishop Robert Barron and Father James Martin are the two most dominant figures in American Catholicism today. Bishop Barron is the affable producer of popular videos on Catholicism through his Word on Fire ministry; Father Martin is a media darling and a Vatican favorite for his outreach to gay Catholics. As just one indicator of their influence, Father Martin has almost 300,000 Twitter followers, while Bishop Barron has 175,000—both far more than any other American bishop or priest or lay Catholic commentator. For some, the fact that these two men are both extremely popular demonstrates the divide in the Church today. Father Martin represents the liberal (i.e., heretical) wing of the Church, while Bishop Barron is presented as the standard-bearer for the conservative (i.e., orthodox) wing. Yet recently these two worlds met, revealing that perhaps they are not as far apart as some want to believe.
On October 30, Father Martin announced the upcoming publication of his latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. It had endorsements from just whom you’d expect: Cardinal Cupich, Richard Rohr, and Helen Prejean—heroes of the Catholic Left. However, it was also endorsed by none other than Bishop Barron, who wrote that “Father Martin is a winsome guide to all those who want to deepen their friendship with the Lord.” Bishop Barron’s endorsement sent shockwaves through conservative American Catholicism. After all, aren’t Bishop Barron and Father Martin supposed to be on opposing sides of the battle for the soul of the Church? What’s going on here?
Bishop Barron’s endorsement revealed a dirty little secret in the Church: most conservative Catholic leaders like Bishop Barron are functionally similar to liberal Catholic leaders like Father Martin. Perhaps they differ when it comes to some theological points, but when it comes to attitude and how the Faith is presented, the results are often the same.