Action Alert!

Dealing with Dissent: Fr. Richard McBrien

by Ronald J. Rychlak


One of the most difficult problems for an apologist is a dissenting Catholic who makes public statements at odds with the true teaching of the Church, especially when those statements are presented as if they were authentic Catholic doctrine. This can lead to confusion among the faithful, the inquisitive, and even teachers of the faith. Ronald J. Rychlak addresses this problem specifically regarding Fr. Richard McBrien, the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, who is not shy about expressing his opinions on Catholic issues even when they differ from the Vatican's.

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One of the most difficult problems for an apologist is a dissenting Catholic who makes public statements at odds with the true teaching of the Church, especially when those statements are presented as if they were authentic Catholic doctrine. This can lead to confusion among the faithful, the inquisitive, and even teachers of the faith.

When a major newspaper or television network features some controversial issue related to Catholicism, one person likely to be quoted is Fr. Richard McBrien. A favorite of the popular press, McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He writes a syndicated column that appears in several diocesan newspapers, and he has written over twenty books on the Catholic faith. When McBrien gave a lecture recently at Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, the college's glowing press release called his book Catholicism "classic" and described him as "highly sought after by the national media for his opinions on Catholic issues." He is not shy about expressing those opinions, even when they differ from the Vatican's.

For instance, when Pope John Paul II asked Catholic universities to become more Catholic, McBrien responded that "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."1 He also has compared John Paul II to Communist dictators and suggested that John Paul may have been an "unknowing prisoner of the Curia."2

The first edition of Catholicism was published in 1981. Almost immediately the doctrinal committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out serious problems with it and asked McBrien to make revisions.3 The third edition was released in 1994 — still without an imprimatur. After studying it for two years, the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices released a statement indicating that the book was inaccurate or misleading in describing Church teachings on the Virgin Birth, the ordination of women, and other issues. Not only had McBrien failed to remove the previously noted ambiguities from the previous editions, but he had introduced new ones.

The bishops' report stated that McBrien 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.

The bishops also questioned the manner in which McBrien made use of dissenting theologians, and they noted sections of the book where the presentation is not supportive of the Church's authoritative teaching. They warned that "for some readers it will give encouragement to dissent."

The bishops cautioned that McBrien reduced the teaching of the pope and bishops to "just another voice alongside those of private theologians." In so doing, he created the impression that the official teachings of the Church have validity only when they are approved by a "consensus" of theologians, including Protestant ones. In short, McBrien elevated the theological arguments of dissenting theologians to (or above) the level of the magisterium. The bishops concluded that Catholicism should not be used in theological instruction.4 But given its title, McBrien's position of authority at Notre Dame, and his high profile as a Catholic commentator, readers of Catholicism are likely to believe they are reading authentic Catholic teaching. That is not the case. As one reviewer said of the third edition, "Whatever else it may do, it is likely to leave Catholic students doctrinally illiterate."5

Not to Trust

McBrien also served as the general editor of the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. As in Catholicism, he relied heavily on dissenting writers such as Hans Kung and Richard McCormick.6 Charles E. Curran, the leading American dissenter against Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968), was assigned to write the section on contraception, so it is no surprise that this entry justified dissent against the definitive teaching of the Church.

One reviewer said of the encyclopedia: "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."7 Another reviewer said McBrien's editorial decisions were "highly questionable." Giving McBrien the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions, the reviewer reported that the "errors and inaccuracies" in the book were not only "unforgivable" due to their significance, but they were "so numerous that they made the volume unreliable."8 Still another prominent Catholic writer concluded: "Rather than an objective source of information, this volume is a vade mecum of 'progressive' Catholicism tricked out to resemble a reference work . . . This is not a book to trust."9

Shortly after Thomas Daily became the bishop of Brooklyn in 1991, he told the editor of the diocesan newspaper, the Tablet, to drop McBrien's syndicated newspaper column. Bishop Daily said that McBrien too often questioned the teachings of Pope John Paul and that, as publisher of the Tablet, he didn't want such views in his newspaper.10 In 1998, Bishop James Moynihan of Syracuse, New York, also pulled McBrien from the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Sun. The bishop reportedly told several priests in his diocese that he would not have McBrien "in my newspaper."11

Shift the Focus

So why is McBrien such a common Catholic voice in the popular media? Well, for one thing, his status as a priest gives him credibility. He's also a professor and former chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame, so he would seem to be an authoritative voice. More importantly, though, McBrien gives the press what it wants to hear. He can be counted on to reduce magisterial doctrine and Vatican directives to matters of opinion that can be explained away or rejected when they do not conform to modern norms or the popular culture. He does this by emptying Catholic teaching of its meaning without acknowledging his opposition to it while shifting the focus to his defense of some societal value.

For instance, when the Vatican directed Catholic theologians to obtain a mandate (known as the mandatum) from their local bishops to teach theology in the name of the Church, McBrien responded by calling for a new period of dialogue between bishops and (dissenting) theologians. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus quipped, "The magisterium [according to McBrien] . . . is Fr. McBrien and others whom he recognizes as belonging to the sacred college of academic theologians."12

Writing in America magazine about the mandatum, McBrien shifted the focus from his dissent to something everyone wants to support: academic integrity. He said, "For me [not obtaining the mandate] is a matter of principle — not of defiance toward the Vatican or the bishops, but of an abiding commitment to the academic integrity of what are among the church's most precious and valuable assets."13

McBrien knows how to handle the press. He comes across as the reasonable, intellectual Christian who is seeking the truth in a sea of ignorance. Some of his articles and interviews (or at least portions of them) support basic Church teachings and appear to be solid. This gives him cover when he wants to deny that he departs in any way from Catholic teaching.

If He Was Married?

A good example of this could be seen on the August 4, 2004, broadcast of ABC Television's Primetime Live. The focus of the show was The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's novel that posits that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, they had children, and the term Holy Grail actually refers to their offspring and lineage. Despite some claims to the contrary, the novel is very anti-Catholic in nature.

Early in the broadcast McBrien agreed with the traditional Catholic teaching that Jesus remained unmarried throughout his life; he even cited scriptural support for this conclusion. Later, though, he said that he was not "discounting the possibility" that Jesus had been married. McBrien said that if someone found uncontroversial evidence that Jesus had been married, "I'd say it's only a short putt to Mary Magdalene. If he was married, it was obviously . . . oh yeah, it was obviously Mary Magdalene."14

To the casual viewer, McBrien affirmed the potential validity of the thesis of The Da Vinci Code, even though it is in clear conflict with Catholic teaching. But if one were to engage him on this issue, he could point to the segment early in the program in which he concluded (based on his personal reading of Scripture, not Church teaching) that Jesus was not married. In other words, he seriously undercut Catholic teaching without directly contradicting it.

McBrien regularly falls back on the argument that moral questions are to be left to the supremacy of individual conscience.15 The predictable result, of course, is that individual consciences end up being guided by the views of McBrien and other dissenting theologians rather than by the magisterium. The Church, while it upholds the role of conscience, has never taught that conscience is supreme. Conscience must be at the service of truth. This was made clear in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which was badly distorted by McBrien in Catholicism (pp. 974-75).

McBrien argues that the Church is "authoritarian" and John Paul either was dominated by a cabal of ultra-conservatives or was completely out of touch with reality.16 He asserts that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is divisive and that his critics are using pre-Vatican II thinking.17 When the U.S. bishops condemned his book Catholicism, he claimed that "Rome was putting pressure on them."18

Perhaps McBrien's most interesting approach is to compare dissenters like himself to "dissidents" in oppressive societies who are persecuted for their beliefs.19 Of course, he cries "suppression" and "oppression" from his tenured position of respect and authority at a major Catholic institution.

Sede Vacante

McBrien could not restrain his criticism even during the period immediately following John Paul's death. On a television network special report, he claimed that John Paul had been elected pope because he was "relatively indifferent to administration." The frontrunner, McBrien ominously explained, "knew the inner workings of the Roman Curia too well. Italian cardinals did not want him. And that's why they went outside Italy to find their new pope."20

McBrien did not include John Paul on his list of good or outstanding popes in his book Lives of the Popes.21 In fact, employing a common tactic of shifting the blame for his criticism, McBrien said, "Some of my liberal friends just say he's a disaster and can see nothing good that he's done."22 Expressing his own opinion, McBrien added, "He's left the Catholic Church with probably the worst crop of bishops it's had in centuries."23

Regarding the conclave, McBrien complained about "watching 115 men in liturgical dress. There isn't a woman among them."24 He seemed to view the whole process as a political event, suggesting that those who referred to the late Pope as "John Paul the Great" were "part of an effort to legitimize all the most conservative aspects of his pontificate and to help ensure the election of a kindred spirit as his successor."25

Evaluating an important homily given by Cardinal Ratzinger (who would be elected Pope Benedict XVI) shortly before the conclave, McBrien noted that the cardinal was not "campaigning for the papacy." But the reason given by McBrien was not that the future pope (like all the cardinals) knew that this was not a political process. Instead, McBrien speculated that the cardinal was simply giving up: "I think this homily shows he realizes he's not going to be elected. He's too much of a polarizing figure."26

McBrien said several times during the sede vacante that he did not expect Ratzinger to be elected. In fact, he predicted that if the German were elected, "thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the church."27

Not surprisingly, McBrien did not let up following the election of Pope Benedict. He worried about the new pontiff's grasp of the issues. "I doubt if he understands [liberal American Catholicism] as well as he should, but then whom does he speak with who might enlighten him, without giving a conservative spin to the explanation?"28 Presumably, McBrien would like to explain Catholicism to the Pope. Fortunately, though, the new Holy Father well understands McBrien's theology, and he can see through its shallow dishonesty.

What We Can Do

The real victims are those who are misled into thinking that McBrien is representing authentic Catholic teaching. New or potential converts to Catholicism, often coming from a well-informed Protestant background, are likely to be put off by arguments that reject traditional Christian teachings.

How can faithful Catholics deal with questions about McBrien and other dissenters such as Garry Wills, John Cornwell, Mary Gordon, Frances Kissling, and James Carroll? The first thing is to be well informed. Not every priest, nun, or other Catholic speaks for the Church. Catholicism is a big tent. There are lots of people inside of it, and not all of them are well informed. Some of them are flat-out wrong.

When explaining this to others (and explain it you must), stick to Scripture, the Catechism, authoritative statements from the Church, and materials put together by those who are faithful to the truth of the Catholic Church. It might even help to keep a copy of this article handy. As the saying goes, the truth is a lion: It needs only to be let out of its cage. If we teach truth, truth will win out in the long run. After all, that is also part of what Catholics believe.

The Faith According to McBrien

In his books, other writings, and in the popular press, Fr.: Richard McBrien has advanced numerous positions that are clearly at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Among the most controversial are the following:

— He denied that Christ founded the Catholic Church as we know it.29

— He wrote that the sacraments were not directly instituted by Christ.30

— He said that "the idea that the Catholic Church is the one true religion no longer exists."31

— He depicted Christ as if he did not always know that he was the Son of God.32

— He questioned the virginal conception of Jesus33 and the perpetual virginity of Mary.34

— He wrote that the dogmatic definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary are not part of the essential core of the faith.35

— He endorsed philosopher Paul Ricoeur's assessment of original sin as "a rationalized myth about the mystery of evil."36

— He encouraged people to ignore Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, when the bishop warned his flock that they could not join certain anti-Catholic organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Catholics for a Free Choice, the Hemlock Society, and the Masons.37

— He was one of the original signers of Fr. Charles Curran's Statement of Dissent against Humanae Vitae, and he has argued that this reassertion of the historical Christian position on contraception was fundamentally wrong teaching.38

— He said the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses but were the products of the later Christian communities who invented miracles in order to convey certain theological meanings and establish the divinity of Christ.39

— He questioned the doctrine that the sacrament of ordination brings about an intrinsic change in the priest's relationship to Christ and the Church.40


1 Kit Lively, "U.S. Bishops Endorse Papal Statement on Catholic Colleges," Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 1996.

2 Charles R. Pulver, "In Diocese Which Sacked Him: Fr. McBrien Likens Vatican to Former Soviet Union," The Wanderer, May 14, 1998.

3 National Council of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, "Fr. McBrien's Catholicism," April 9, 1996 (

4 Ibid.; see also James Likoudis, "New edition of Fr. Richard McBrien's Catholicism: but dissent still remains," AD2000 7, n. 8 (September 1994), 14.

5 Likoudis, "New edition."

6 NCCB, "Fr. McBrien's Catholicism."

7 Thomas Guarino, "The View from South Bend," First Things, October 1995, 53-56.

8 George W. Hunt, "The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism," America, July 1, 1995, 2.

9 Russell Shaw, "Handle with Care," Crisis, January 1996, 44.

10 Ari L. Goldman, "Brooklyn's Shepherd Shakes Up the Flock," New York Times, July 12, 1992.

11 Paul Moses, "Nothing Bashful About the Bishop," Newsday, April 14, 1991.

12 Richard John Neuhaus, "The Public Square," First Things, June / July 1996, 64.

13 Richard P. McBrien, "Why I Shall Not Seek a Mandate," America, February 12, 2000, 16.

14 From the broadcast transcript, available on Lexis-Nexis.

15 E.g., McBrien, Catholicism, 973-74, 968-69, 992, 1000; see also Likoudis, "New edition."

16 NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, January 27, 1999, transcript 6351; Tom Hundley, "John Paul II's Papacy Beloved Yet Bemoaned," Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1998; "Who Will Succeed Him? Speculation on the Successor to Pope John Paul II," 60 Minutes, September 20, 1998; Virginia Culver, "Catholic Speakers Voice Hope for Change: Experts Discuss Church's Future," Denver Post, January 21, 1996; Paul Moses, "Nothing Bashful About the Bishop"; Paul Galloway, "McBrien of Notre Dame: Outspoken Theologian Champions the Cause of Church Reform," Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1990.

17 Michelle Bearden, "Vatican II Changed Catholics' Thinking," Tampa Tribune, October 1, 1995.

18 "Bishops Criticize Theologian's Book," Austin American-Statesman, April 11, 1996.

19 Richard N. Ostling, "Discord in the Church: A Decisive Pope John Paul Confronts Challenges to His Authority," Time, February 4, 1984.

20 "Special Report," April 7, 2005, ABC News Transcripts (available on Lexis-Nexis).

21 Leslie Scrivener, "A shepherd of the people, for the ages," Toronto Star, April 2, 2005.

22 Bob Keeler, "Pope John Paul II: His Legacy," Newsday, April 3, 2005.

23 Ibid.

24 "Special Report," April 18, 2005, ABC News Transcripts (available on Lexis-Nexis).

25 Letta Tayler, "Pope John Paul II: His Legacy," Newsday, April 4, 2005.

26 Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman, "Conclave Begins with Day of Ritual," Washington Post, April 19, 2005.

27 Ibid.

28 Robin Toner, "Pope May Color Debate in U.S. Over 'Life' Issues Like Abortion," New York Times, April 21, 2005.

29 McBrien, Catholicism, 798, 577.

30 Ibid., 789-99.

31 Canadian Register, September 25, 1971; see also Likoudis, "Richard McBrien's Heretical Teaching Concerning the Church," Serviam Newsletter, November 1994.

32 McBrien, Catholicism, 551-53; see also McBrien, Who Is a Catholic? (Tempe, Ariz.: Dimension Books, 1971).

33 McBrien, Catholicism, 542.

34 Ibid., 542, 1081-83, 1252; see also NCCB, "Fr. McBrien's Catholicism."

35 McBrien, Catholicism, 1102-04.

36 Ibid., 185, 198.

37 Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., "Excommunications in the Heartland," Catholic World Report, May 1996, 28.

38 Barbara Kralis, "Attempts to Sabotage Catholic Voters," Illinois Leader, November 2, 2004.

39 McBrien, Catholicism, 341-43, 417-18.

40 Ibid., 866-67; see Likoudis, "New edition."

Ronald J. Rychlak is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor, 2000).

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