Jordan Peterson & Us

One thing the Church can learn from him: How to attract the interest of men

Many Catholics have pondered whether the Church benefits from the work of public intellectual and author Jordan B. Peterson (who has recently been quieted by a prolonged health crisis). Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, which counsels the young on living a meaningful life, had sold three million copies by January 2019 and undoubtedly many more since then. The clinical psychologist and professor estimates that over 200,000 people have attended his live events, and millions have heard his podcasts. His online videos boast 65 million views. Peterson was thrust into the news cycle when he flat-out refused to be forced by his employer, the University of Toronto, to use the new “pronouns” mandated by Canadian law. He remains controversial for, among other things, holding that the Bible is the foundational document of the West.

Peterson is not Catholic and doesn’t claim to be a theologian, but he has expressed admiration for the Catholic Church. He has called Catholicism “as sane as people can get.” Catholic opinion-makers seem divided over whether his presentations are overall helpful or harmful to Christian faith.

One thing the Church and churchmen stand to learn from Peterson is how to attract the interest of men. He draws them in droves. Accounts of his live events suggest 80% or more of his audiences are young men, and online activity suggests similar numbers. From my limited exposure to him (one book and one podcast), I’d guess that his appeal is part ideas and part personal virtues: he’s humble but courageous, he’s charitable but doesn’t pander, and he seems to seek truth.

Bishop Robert Barron has appeared on Peterson’s podcast. Barron’s Word on Fire ministry is built on venturing out to meet seekers where they are, so Peterson’s fan base is a ripe field for him. Barron has written that he recommends Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life with one caveat: he says he can’t endorse its

“tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically. No Christian should be surprised that the Scriptures can be profitably read through psychological and philosophical lenses, but at the same time, every Christian has to accept the fact that the God of the Bible is not simply a principle or an abstraction, but rather a living God who acts in history. As I say, to lay this out thoroughly would require at least another article or two or twelve.” (ChurchPOP, Feb 27, 2018)

A separate review of 12 Rules for Life, by Adam A.J. DeVille in Catholic World Report (April 3, 2018), criticizes the book’s points as “pseudo-Christian libertarianism” and under the influence of Carl Jung. But, again, Peterson is not and doesn’t claim to be a Catholic or a theologian.

Listening to Bishop Barron on Peterson’s podcast is beneficial for learning how Peterson’s ideas can be bridges to Catholic teaching. Barron is a genius at communication, and his conversation with Peterson is fruitful. Some highlights (with a link to the full podcast below):

– Both men acknowledge that people for years have been leaving churches, but religious questions are still in people’s minds.

– Barron acknowledges that Peterson’s presentation is more compelling than most church outreach attempts.

– Peterson says all good actions depend on orderliness and growth in the soul.

– Peterson: the good of the person requires a noble aim; Barron: the highest aim is praise of God.

– Peterson: When men embrace vice, it ends in disaster. Men can create hell on earth.

– Barron appreciates Peterson’s teachings about the “hero’s journey,” and points out that Christ is God taking the hero’s journey. God enters our world and suppresses evil!

– Both agree that atheists generally have criticized Protestantism’s lack of mercy and have misattributed this error to timeless Catholic teaching.

– Both agree that the modern church’s try at affirming all behavior as good (“I’m ok, you’re ok”) has been a total pastoral failure, and that minimizing evil is not helpful to people!

– Both agree that truly embracing faith means risking a great adventure.

Listen for yourself (running time: 90+ minutes) and decide. Link:


Barbara E. Rose is Web Editor of the NOR.

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