Hope Bishop Barron can adapt to new job of leading the Diocese of Minnesota

Last week, my NCR colleague Brian Fraga and freelancer Jenn Morson published an in-depth report on the recent series of resignations at Word on Fire, the Catholic multimedia platform founded by Bishop Robert Barron. In a curious coincidence, the next day, Pope Francis appointed Barron, a former auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, as bishop of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.

It’s always hard to know exactly what’s going on inside any organization, but when you’re witnessing a series of resignations, it’s usually not a good sign. I don’t need to repeat the various allegations and counter-allegations surrounding former employee Joseph Gloor, a bodybuilder who went on to become the organization’s highest paid employee. They are all in my colleague’s report. To be clear: Gloror denies the allegations against him involving relationships outside of Word on Fire’s workplace.

You can’t say I didn’t warn you! Back in 2018, I drew attention to Barron’s complicity in culture rather than engagement with it, most notably the vulgar commercialization of Text on Fire. Every weekday, I get an email, usually a request of some sort: If I buy this book or that video, I’ll take a big step toward redemption. The whole approach, while not always content, smells of Black Friday rather than Good Friday.

And, in the same article, I mentioned that Bishop apparently likes to hire bodybuilders. (One of the videos I linked appears to have been removed from the Word on Fire site and many references to Gloor.) No matter how you look at the bodybuilding lifestyle, it’s not centered on cultivating innerity, so it seems oddly fitting for a bishop s brand. Like Barron’s bizarre affinity for psychologist Jordan Peterson, one wonders if it justifies the focus on understanding modern masculinity, but it’s almost a parody. Barron is a sophisticated guy, so I can never understand his appeal to Peterson. I’ll admit I’ve never been able to get past one of Peterson’s conversations, but some of his comments about masculinity – and other issues – are scary or weird or both.

What worries me most about Fraga and Mawson’s reporting is how organizations will respond to the allegations, including Barron’s. Barron appeared to be more concerned with the well-being of the defendants than those who told Barron they were hurt by Gloror. Fraga and Mawson write:

Barron also struck a sympathetic tone for Glore, telling people on the company-wide call that the investigation was also “a difficult time” for Glore, who said he “loves Word on Fire with all my heart.” . Barron added that protecting Word on Fire “is paramount in his opinion.”

What I found here is the kind of response we found during the early clergy sex abuse crisis. Whenever you read the testimonies of bishops who were told of allegations of sexual abuse against one of their priests in the 1960s, 1970s, and sometimes later, they almost always used some “poor father” variant to respond.

Not that we should avoid sympathy for all those in high conflict situations, nor that we should be stingy in extending God’s mercy. In Barron’s words, the obvious first instinct was to protect his executives and his organization. It’s not an instinct well suited to actually protecting a complex modern organization. Integrity, not protection, is what we expect from bishops.

One of the most important truths I have come to realize in studying the past nearly 40 years of Catholic Church history, and over a decade in the NCR’s analysis of the contemporary church, is that the most important attribute of leadership is for the church to be a good judge of character . A bishop is a monarch. Within the broad confines of canon law and their commitment to obedience to the Pope, they can do what they want, but they will always need advisors to help them decide what they should do and help them make those decisions. This episode of Word on Fire makes me wonder if Barron is a good character judge.

The Pope has now appointed Barron to lead a diocese. His authority at Winona-Rochester will be ordinary, not derivative, so it is crucial that he learns from Word on Fire’s apparent management issues. Rome should also consider whether he can become an effective diocese bishop while continuing to lead this media ministry. In a statement on the day of the announcement, Barron said he was “overjoyed” with his new appointment. I would like to know. I doubt he’d be very happy to be sent to Arlington or Brooklyn, but the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Winona is 113 miles from Minneapolis-St. Petersburg. St. Paul Airport and Minneapolis-St. Lovely as Paul is, it’s not a media capital like Los Angeles, New York, or Washington.

We can all hope that Barron, who is undoubtedly brilliant and brilliant, will fit into his new position in Minnesota and become an excellent parish bishop. That’s his day job. Perhaps the alleged problems with Word on Fire indicate that he is less concerned with his media empire and more with his duties as bishop. Even the best things will come to an end.

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