Richard McBrien Was Voice of the Loyal Opposition: Remembering Fr. Richard Mcbrien

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Richard McBrien Was Voice of the Loyal Opposition: Remembering Fr. Richard Mcbrien


By NCR STAFF

Fr. Richard McBrien, who as a scholar brought distinction to a university theology department and who as an author and often-interviewed popular expert explained the Catholic church to the wider world, died Jan. 25. He was 78.

McBrien had been seriously ill for several years and had moved recently from South Bend, Ind., to his native Connecticut.

It would be difficult to find a figure comparable in making understandable to a broad public the basic beliefs and traditions of the Roman Catholic church.

For more than three decades, he was the star of the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame and the go-to voice on all matters Catholic in the popular press. His books, particularly Catholicism, Lives of the Popes and Lives of the Saints, were staples of libraries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

At his peak in the 1980s and '90s, it is arguable that McBrien had a higher media profile than anyone in the Catholic church other than Pope John Paul n. He was the ideal interview: knowledgeable, able to express complex ideas in digestible sound bites, and utterly unafraid of controversy.

"I don't hold things back," McBrien said in a 1990 profile by the Chicago Tribune, adding in a rare moment of understatement: "I'm outspoken."

Unabashedly on the progressive side of most Catholic debates, McBrien advocated the ordination of women priests, an end to mandatory celibacy for priests, moral approval of artificial birth control, and decentralization of power in the church. In so doing, he helped to define the battle lines within Catholicism over the legacy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

He was a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and former chair of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame. To fans both inside and outside the theological guild, McBrien was a double icon. He lifted the status of Catholic theology, and American Catholic theology in particular, by his media visibility and literary accomplishment. He also cheered the liberal wing of the church by lending intellectual heft to its reading of Vatican II.

"No Catholic theologian in the United States has made a larger contribution to the reception of Vatican II than Richard P. McBrien," said theologian Fr. Charles E. Curran, Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, echoed that view. Both Curran and Johnson spoke in conjunction with a 2012 Notre Dame ceremony honoring McBrien for 30 years of service (NCR, April 27-May 10,2012).

"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," Johnson said. "His insights have pierced the fog of pretense and at times outright deception to bring a modicum of transparency to the exercise of power."

For supporters of the conservative direction set by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, McBrien was instead a favorite bete noire. Foes routinely tried to get him fired at Notre Dame, occasionally tried to cajole bishops into excommunicating him, pressured diocesan papers to drop his syndicated column, and once even lodged charges of plagiarism. University officials investigated the plagiarism complaint in 2006, and McBrien was cleared.

McBrien's critics didn't just circulate in the blogosphere or on op-ed pages. At times, they were right down the hall at Notre Dame.

"McBrien has terrible ideas," Ralph McInerny bluntly said in 1990. The late McInerny was a renowned philosopher and author of the "Father Dowling" mystery series, as well as a stern critic of what he once called the "pell-mell pursuit of warm and fuzzy Catholicism" he associated with McBrien.

"I think the demonology he works with is that once we had a hierarchical view of the church, which was authoritarian," McInerny said. …

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