What is up with millennials? Tropes of these avocado-toasted enthusiasts upending cherished American institutions abound; their disinterest can often signal a terminal crisis. One U.S. institution feeling the pain of a millennial exodus is the Catholic Church, and those in charge, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are seeking new ideas on how to stop the hemorrhaging.
At the U.S.C.C.B. spring general assembly in Baltimore, the attrition of churchgoing youth was the focus of a June 11 address by Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. But the bishop stepped into a social media hornets’ nest after he cited another media-savvy public intellectual, Jordan Peterson, among “signs of hope” for engaging America’s “nones”—that millennial cohort of the religiously unaffiliated, whom Bishop Barron called the “second greatest crisis” facing the church.
Mr. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and bestselling author, has enjoyed success with young, mostly male, millennials. With a no-frills approach to self-help, he lectures on themes from the incursion of “political correctness” and “postmodernism” on college campuses to the “Psychological Significance of Biblical Stories.” The latter topic has garnered Mr. Peterson a follower in Bishop Barron, who has examined the professor in articles and podcasts prior to the spring assembly.
“One of the reasons why Barron likes Peterson,” Bill McCormick, a Jesuit in formation, who has written on Peterson’s appeal for America, said, “is that Peterson is this great example of someone who is attracting people, intellectually, the way Bishop Barron thinks that we need to be attracting people to the church.”
But many on social media were dismayed that the bishop’s reference to Mr. Peterson seemed to disregard what some contend is the misogyny and bigotry spouted by the professor. One week after his remarks, Bishop Barron responded with an article reflecting on this reaction by the “commentariat.” In it, he describes an “overheated response from some on the far-left end of the spectrum,” whereby “the mere mention of the name Jordan Peterson is enough to send some into irrational conniptions.”
In an interview with America conducted over email, Bishop Barron said that “the preoccupation with my brief reference to Jordan Peterson is disproportionate,” adding that he “was not really interested in the content of Peterson’s thought,” but rather that Peterson’s “intellectual approach was proving so efficacious on social media.”
In fact, Bishop Barron has previously called Peterson’s Jungian dissection of Scripture a product of the “Gnosticizing tendency to read biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically.”
“The recovery of all sense of the Scripture would be useful in the Catholic conversation today,” Bishop Barron said. Mr. Peterson “gestures occasionally to what I would term the metaphysical or supernatural sense, but he leaves this mostly undeveloped. It’s also not entirely clear that he believes in God in the traditional sense of the term.”
Bishop Barron said that he “was not really interested in the content of Peterson’s thought,” but rather that Peterson’s “intellectual approach was proving so efficacious on social media.”
“Obviously,” Bishop Barron continued, “I find his method inadequate—which is why it is flatly wrong to say, as some have, that I am ‘basing my apologetics’ on Peterson.”
Bishop Barron is the founder of Word on Fire, a media ministry aimed at renewing the church. His presence on- and offline extends far beyond Word on Fire and has included a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) and presentations to tech giants like Google and Facebook. An engagement with the digital sphere of Catholicism, a realm that tends to attract younger cohorts, has uniquely positioned Bishop Barron to discuss how to encourage this population back into the fold.
His address to his fellow bishops in Baltimore began with sobering statistics: Half of those aged 30 and under who were raised as Catholics have left the church, and “one out of six millennials in the U.S. is now a former Catholic.” He called the emptying of pews a “bitter fruit of the dumbing-down of our faith.”
“Please don’t take this as a one-sided endorsement of Jordan Peterson,” Bishop Barron told bishops before discussing what he termed the “Jordan Peterson phenomenon.” Mr. Peterson, according to Bishop Barron, has attracted the attention of millions of young people who are listening to “a very mild mannered, high level speaker discussing our book [the Bible].”
It is not obvious how the “Peterson phenomenon” would fare as a model for the bishops to adopt. How might the church tap into the fervor that surrounds Peterson, and is this a worthwhile approach to engaging with the “nones”?
Many did not think so. At a press conference following the address, Bishop Barron was asked about those who regard Mr. Peterson “as an icon of the anti-political-correctness movement” and “as anything up to and including a white supremacist,” characterizations Mr. Peterson resists. Bishop Barron said his “message to the bishops was not go out and read Jordan Peterson,” rather, it was “that we too should be able to speak at a high level about our own great text, the Bible, in a way that young people will find compelling.”
Those who have experienced the “Catholic internet” have glimpsed the various camps that are regularly at odds with one another over the finer points of liturgy, doctrine and, yes, Jordan Peterson.
During the press conference at the bishops’ meeting, Bishop Barron said that Mr. Peterson’s insight is “close to what the church fathers would have called the ‘moral sense of Scripture.’” In other words, Mr. Peterson stresses the moral and practical takeaways of biblical narratives while largely ignoring the Bible’s spiritual and historical realities as taught by the church. But is the professor’s moral-narrative approach to the Bible something that actually contributes to his success with younger populations? If that were the case, what good would the bishops’ potential attempt to adopt Peterson’s style be?
“It’s not clear to me what a Peterson strategy would look like,” Mr. McCormick said. “A Peterson strategy for the church is also somewhat mysterious because what Peterson is doing is profoundly individualistic and even lonely. The church seeks communion and unity with God and among people. I am not sure Peterson is interested in that.
“What Bishop Barron might say is that any strategy for attracting the ‘nones’ needs to be a conversation oriented toward beauty and listening to other people,” Mr. McCormick said. “Peterson himself is not exactly interested in those things. A lot of the reaction against Peterson is that he tends to be combative, polemical and unsympathetic to those he opposes.”
The polemics are not limited to Mr. Peterson and his critics. Those who have experienced the “Catholic internet” have glimpsed the various camps that are regularly at odds with one another over the finer points of liturgy, doctrine and, yes, Jordan Peterson.
In his blog post, Bishop Barron deplored this “polarized and ideologically driven” online environment where “the most elementary distinctions aren’t made and the most broad-brush analyses are commonplace.”
“I dearly wish that people would actually listen to what their interlocutors are saying,” Bishop Barron told America. He suggested that “in the manner of Thomas Aquinas” those seeking engagement on social media should refrain from a “straw man” approach that purports an easily defeated position but should “‘steel-man’ their opponents’ arguments” in the interest of true dialogue.
“To seize on a name or a phrase or a slogan and then use that to categorize someone or put them in a camp gets us precisely nowhere,” he said.