Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Theology According to Richard McBrien

by Ronald J. Rychlak


This article provides concrete examples of Fr. McBrien's dissident theology.

Larger Work

The Wanderer


4 & 10

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Printing Company, March 25, 1999

Fr. Richard McBrien, former chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, is well known to many Catholics. He writes a syndicated column that appears in several diocesan newspapers, and he has written a number of books related to the Catholic faith.

McBrien's writings have brought him some notoriety, primarily because he is not shy about expressing his opinion when it differs from that of the Pope. For example, when Pope John Paul II asked Catholic universities to become more Catholic, McBrien responded in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Bishops should be welcome on a Catholic university campus. Give them tickets to ball games. Let them say Mass, bring them to graduation. Let them sit on the stage. But there should be nothing beyond that." Regular readers of The Wanderer are aware of his comparisons of the Holy Father to Communist dictators and suggestions that the Pope may be an "unknowing prisoner of the Curia" (May 14th, 1998).

Even those readers who are accustomed to McBrien's dissenting viewpoint must have been surprised by a recent column that he wrote about the Church in the year 999. This piece was designed to raise questions about papal supremacy and infallibility by suggesting that these teachings — central to the Catholic faith, but not in line with McBrien's theology — are of recent origin and would have been inconceivable 1,000 years ago.

The article was presented as a conversation between a modern Catholic and one from 1,000 years ago. When the modern made reference to various Catholic teachings, the voice from the past expressed surprise because the doctrines supposedly were developed after the year 999. McBrien, of course, knows that the doctrines of papal supremacy and infallibility are much older than he suggests.

At a meeting of the disciples in Jerusalem in about A.D. 41, Peter was recognized as the final authority, and many early Church leaders noted that the Bishop of Rome was his Successor in primacy. The oldest known record of a Bishop of Rome claiming primacy was left by Stephen I (254-257), but as early as 220, other Church leaders were referring to the Bishop of Rome as the "bishop of bishops" (Tertullian, Modesty 1 and 13 [A.D. 220]).

Not only was the primacy of the Bishop of Rome well recognized long before McBrien would have us think, so was the doctrine of papal infallibility. In 433, Pope Sixtus III said that "all know that to assent to [the Bishop of Rome's] decision is to assent to St. Peter, who lives in his Successors and whose faith fails not." Cyprian of Carthage, writing in about 256, asked: "Would the heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?" Augustine reflected the ancient attitude when he remarked: "Rome has spoken; the cause is concluded." McBrien, however, has a history of letting his personal theology interfere with historical accuracy.

In 1997, Fr. Kevin Slattery and I coauthored a short article that was published in The New Oxford Review. That piece was written largely in response to a McBrien column that charged the Vatican and Pope John Paul II with having treated a priest from Sri Lanka unfairly. With just the slightest bit of research, we learned that McBrien's recitation of the facts was badly flawed (in a way that advanced his premise and made the Pope look bad). There are, however, even better examples of his willingness to disregard the truth when it is in conflict with his theology.

In 1981, the first edition of McBrien's book Catholicism was published. Almost immediately the doctrinal committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out serious problems with it and asked him to make revisions. When those revisions had not been made by the time of the third edition, the conference finally released a statement indicating that the work was not a reliable guide to Catholic teaching and should not be used in theological instruction. The bishops said that Catholicism reduced the Pope's and bishops' teaching to "just another voice alongside those of private theologians" and that it minimized Catholic teachings and practice. "On a number of important issues, most notably in the field of moral theology, the reader will see without difficulty that the book regards the official Church position as simply in error" (Today's Catholic, May 5th, 1996).

McBrien also served as the general editor of The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. According to the review of that book in First Things, "one has the impression that it was written for undergraduates who have little or no idea of what was once the common world and parlance of Catholic culture." According to the Jesuit weekly America, editorial decisions he made while putting it together were "highly questionable." Giving McBrien the benefit of the doubt as to his intent, the review reports that the "errors and inaccuracies" in the book are not only "unforgivable" due to their significance, they are "so numerous that they make the volume unreliable."

Not everyone gives McBrien the benefit of the doubt. A guest editorial in The South Bend Tribune called him "a priest who consistently takes an adversarial position to the Catholic Church in any public forum the press will give him." A separate writer in the same edition of that paper complained: "While our Church leaders and lay religious organizations are trying to deepen our faith, McBrien is planting doubt and dissent. While priests are supposed to represent Jesus in humility and obedience, he is showing arrogance and disobedience. While religious leaders are supposed to warn us against enemies of the Church, he leads the critics."

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, puts it slightly differently: "The Magisterium, (according to McBrien] is Fr. McBrien and others whom he recognizes as belonging to the sacred college of academic theologians." Regardless of how it is phrased, the problem is that McBrien likes his ideas better than those of the Church. (McBrien's willingness to question the Church's teaching on abortion has even caused two pro-life organizations to call for his excommunication.)

Fr. Phil Bloom, a priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, explains that McBrien has "watered down the faith in order to gain respectability in our modern culture."

"It would be bracing, even refreshingly honest," writes Fr. Bloom, "if McBrien would have the frankness to say, I disagree with Jesus' teaching'." Bloom goes on to explain that the "canonical purists," about whom McBrien frequently complains, "are at least grappling with the hard teachings of Jesus. They respect Him enough to take seriously what He said...."

Left unsaid is that McBrien preaches his own theology, so he does not grapple with hard teachings.

Those Catholic publications which still carry McBrien's column do so in the face of objections that are regularly made by informed readers. The typical justification for continuing to publish him (at least in my diocesan newspapers) is that his articles prompt Catholics to think, and thought cannot be bad.

Certainly, the Catholic Church is large and able to accommodate diverse viewpoints in many respects. Difficult situations, however, arise when the official publication of a diocese runs articles that are in direct conflict with such basic teachings as the primacy and infallibility of the Pope.

For instance, just recently a McBrien piece was the topic of conversation at a Knights of Columbus meeting at my parish. When one of the Knights (not me!) pointed out that McBrien might not be a good source for uncovering true Catholic teaching, another Knight (our parish deacon) said that despite repeated protests from readers, our diocesan newspaper, Mississippi Today, continues to carry his columns. As such, the deacon argued, our bishop must approve of McBrien's writing. The deacon was essentially arguing that we were bound by obedience to accept McBrien's theology as authoritative.

Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn feared the same thing in his diocese. Shortly after he became bishop in 1991, he told the editor of the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet, to drop McBrien's column. Bishop Daily said that McBrien too often questioned the teachings of Pope John Paul II and that, as publisher of The tablet, he didn't want such views in his newspaper.

Just last year, Bishop James Moynihan of Syracuse, N.Y., pulled McBrien from the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Sun, and substituted one written by George Weigel, a more traditional Catholic. "I will not allow that man [McBrien] in my newspaper," the bishop is reported to have said to several priests in his diocese.

McBrien has been writing his "self-syndicated" weekly column for some 32 years. Over that time, he appeared in as many as 40 diocesan newspapers. At last count, however, he is down to about 20 Catholic publications. Papers that have recently dropped his column include that of his home Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.

Bishops in those dioceses where McBrien is published face a difficult situation. If they do nothing, many faithful Catholics, like the deacon at the Knights of Columbus meeting, may wrongly believe that McBrien's theology is that of me Church. On the other hand, if the bishop orders the newspaper to drop McBrien, he may be accused of heavy-handedness. (This happened to Bishop Moynihan). Few things rile Americans more than a person in a position of authority who is perceived as restricting their access to information.

The most logical solution is for the newspapers to voluntarily drop McBrien, perhaps at the urging of their readership. This will let the bishop avoid the charge of censorship, and will improve the paper. Most other Catholic writers (and there are many good ones) reflect the teaching of the Church rather than their own personal theology.

McBrien has had more than 30 years of columns to make his point in our newspapers, and he is always free to write and sell his books. Those of us who know Church teaching, however, should not permit him to continue lecturing his own brand of theology to us.

(Ronald J. Rychlak is a professor of law at the University of Mississippi.)

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