Colleagues Celebrate Theologian's Career

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

Colleagues Celebrate Theologian's Career


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


To the dismay of the right and pleasure of the rest, theologian Fr. Richard McBrien has popularized Vatican II theology more than any other person.

After 45 years of his award-winning weekly column (2,364 in all) titled "Essays in Theology"; after 20 books, including Catholicism, originally a two-volume synthesis of Catholic theology; after serving as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and after being the recipient of its highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award; after countless papers and speeches; after all this and more, McBrien will be honored April 27 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he has taught for 30 years.

"No Catholic theologian in the United States has made a larger contribution to the reception of Vatican II than Richard P. McBrien," said Catholic theologian Fr. Charles E. Curran, Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and a longtime McBrien colleague and friend. "McBrien has made this contribution by carrying out to the nth degree his role as a Catholic theologian."

Curran will be a featured speaker at the Notre Dame McBrien symposium, whose honorary chair is former uni versity president Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. It was Hesburgh who in 1980 invited McBrien to come from Boston College to chair Notre Dame's theology department. McBrien was chair for 11 years, until 1991.

Curran is not alone in his effusive praise for McBrien and his contributions to theology.

According to John Thiel, president of Catholic Theological Society of America and professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, "McBrien is the theologian who has done the most in the American church to teach the continuing heritage of the Second Vatican Council. Through his many books and essays ... [he] has prompted a couple of generations of post-Vatican II Catholics to reflect on nothing less than what it means to be the church."

St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, said of McBrien: "His love of the church and his knowledge of its history, both sinful and graced, led a whole generation to a greater critical appreciation of what it means to be Catholic. ... [His] weekly columns have been the voice of church reform in the United States for decades. ... His insights have pierced the fog of pretense and at times outright deception to bring a modicum of transparency to the exercise of power."

McBrien is currently on a medical leave of absence with plans to retire in May 2013.

Last year he had back surgery and discovered in June that a non-Hodgkin lymphoma returned in spite of two years of treatments. In treatment he suspended his column for the second time, in January. He recently told NCR editor Dennis Coday: "Don't feel sorry for me."

He told me recently, "I'm getting lots of emails and cards from people who say, 'We need you.' I fully intend to return to the column, but don't want to return until I feel well enough to do it every week."

The name Richard McBrien is synonymous with the Second Vatican Council. It helps explain why, as Pope John Paul II's and Pope Benedict XVI's conservative episcopal appointments have taken firm hold, many diocesan newspapers have dropped his column. Once his weekly reflections appeared in 24 diocesan papers and in the bulletins of two dozen parishes. Today, only six diocesan newspapers and eight parishes publish McBrien, who is a Hartford, Conn., archdiocesan priest. (McBrien has written for NCR from'at least the early 1970s. His weekly column has appeared in the paper and online since 2008.)

It bothers McBrien to see bishops dropping his writings. He makes this clear in conversations with friends.But the reason he is disturbed is only partly personal. He sees implications for the wider church and for freedom of expression in theology. …

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