Fr. Robert Barron's “Catholicism” (both the book and DVD set) marks the return of the magnum opus. Such grand and all encompassing works have been out of fashion since World War I. Before the Great War blasted pictures of countless piles of young men gassed on the front lines or drilled with gun-fire as they emerged from trenches, Western Civilization viewed History as a progression of moral certitude and technological advances. Put simply: Man was getting better. When I was in college I cherished works such as James George Frazer's “The Golden Bough,” Thomas Bulfinch's “The Age of Fable,” and H.G. Well's “The Outline of History.” These books were old and usually beautifully bound. They felt weighty in the hand. They made big promises. And they delivered. All of Man's History spread out before the reader. These books were revelations. For all of my History and Art History courses centered on the minutia. Course syllabi focused on narrowly defined historical issues. The over-specialization in the Humanities resulted in fragmentation.
This fragmentation is a direct result of the post-modern theories of deconstruction. Age old truths were disregarded. Everything that we took for granted before could no longer be trusted. One of the most bizarre examples I encountered during my studies at UC Berkeley were several professors who tried to cast the French Impressionists as leftest revolutionaries. They constantly dissected paintings of fields and flowers for any sign of political manifestation. Their methods stripped these paintings of any beauty. It became all about polemics. The broad strokes of Western Civilization become relegated to small scratches. Historical figures, works of art, great books became isolated. One bright light in my college career was Camille Paglia's “Sexual Personae.” Although I disagree with many of her conclusions, I applaud her methodology.
Fr. Barron is a devotee of Thomas Aquinas; and herein lies the roots of his greatness. For Thomas Aquinas wrote the pinnacle of all magnum opus: “The Summa Theologica.” Delving into it's volumes for the first time is like taking a wild cosmic trip into the mind of a genius. One needs a guide just as Dante had for his journey through Hell. On Aquinas, Barron wrote:
At a time when religious conversation far too often devolves into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks, Thomas calls us back to reasoned discourse. At a time when religious passions have run amok and have resulted in terrible acts of violence, Thomas calls us back to hard thinking about God. At a time when adepts of different religions often gaze at one another suspiciously, the Thomas who happily dialogued with pagan philosophers, Jewish rabbis, Muslim sages, and Christian heretics, calls us back to an attitude of broad-minded respect. I think actually that the Church's turning away from Aquinas in the years following Vatican II was a dreadful mistake. We lost something of massive importance when we set aside his balance, his deep intelligence, and his sanity.
As Barron so beautifully points out, Aquinas is incredibly relevant today. Instead Aquinas is often replaced with such intellectual pip-squeaks such as Kung and Schillebeeckx. Aquinas' “Summa” is big like Catholicism. Our religion never became fractionalized into petty nationalist groups such as many Orthodox sects. Like Aquinas, Barron embraces our universalism. He is not afraid to praise the Church's greatness. Fr. Barron is in direct line from Aquinas – through the great writers of the 19th Century. He has brought back the great sweeping History that only the late Kenneth Clark had kept alive. The same goes for Fr. Barron's “Catholicism” DVD series; nothing this glorious had been filmed since Michael Wood's magnificent “The Art of the Western World.” As Wood's before him, Fr. Barron's documentary looks at the totality of History. The effect: we see ourselves not as detached entities drifting through a meaningless world, but as interconnected souls who are still a part of God's master plan.