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Rev. Richard McBrien, prolific theologian and essayist, dies at 78

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service


WASHINGTON (CNS) — Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a retired professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and who was chair of the university’s theology department for 11 years, died Jan. 25 at age 78 in his native Connecticut.

A Jan. 25 announcement by the university said Father McBrien had died after a long illness, but did not specify the cause of death.

A wake and visitation for the priest was scheduled for the afternoon and evening of Jan. 29 at the Church of St. Helena in West Hartford, Connecticut. His funeral mass was to be celebrated Jan. 30 at the same church. Notre Dame said a memorial mass would be celebrated on its campus in the coming weeks.

McBrien was born in 1936 and grew up in West Hartford, Conn., the fourth of five children. His father was an Irish policeman and his mother was an Italian nurse.

He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford in 1962 and went to Rome to study for a doctorate in theology at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University. He was there during the momentous years of debate and reform at the Second Vatican Council, and returned to the U.S. in 1965 where he rapidly emerged as a star of Catholic theology.

In addition to his teaching, McBrien wrote 25 books as well as a weekly syndicated column, Essays in Theology, for the Catholic press for nearly 50 years. The Prairie Messenger carried Essays in Theology for all of the years McBrien wrote the column.

“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 II,” the National Catholic Reporter, a leading liberal periodical where McBrien was a regular contributor, wrote in its obituary. “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.

McBrien was prolific in his output, as well: He wrote nearly 2,400 columns in 45 years.

His writings often raised hackles among Catholics from the pews all the way to Rome.

“While often controversial, his work came from a deep love of and hope for the church,” said a Jan. 25 statement from Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.

McBrien joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1980. He also was a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a recipient of its John Courtney Murray Award for “outstanding and distinguished achievement in theology.”

Among his books is Catholicism, first published in 1980 with a study edition issued shortly thereafter, plus a thoroughly revised edition in 1994.

In 1985, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine praised the “many positive features” of the book but criticized its treatment of some points of church teaching and called for clarification and revision of several elements it found “confusing and ambiguous” or “not supportive of the church’s authoritative teaching as would be expected” in such a book.

After the 1994 edition was published, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the U.S. bishops to look into it. A staff review said the new edition gave insufficient weight to church teaching in some areas, including homosexuality, contraception and women’s ordination. It questioned use of the book as a text for beginning theology students, adding the new edition “had not corrected the ambiguities identified” in the second edition. McBrien criticized the doctrinal committee for turning down his request for a formal doctrinal dialogue he sought.

Other books of McBrien’s include 2008’s The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism; 1997’s Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs From St. Peter to John Paul II; 1996’s Responses to 101 Questions of the Church and 1995’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism, both of which won Catholic Press Association book awards for best popular presentation of the Catholic faith; and 1992’s Report on the Church: Catholicism After Vatican II.

A St. Francis de Sales Award finalist in 1993, McBrien received a certificate in 1991 for the 25th anniversary of his syndicated column.

Not that the columns were without controversy. Some readers of diocesan Catholic newspapers sought to have the priest’s column pulled from their pages.

One bishop, then-Bishop James P. Keleher of Belleville, Illinois, cancelled it — the first time he said he had ever intervened as publisher in the business of his diocesan paper. “After many years of difficult reflection on the matter,” he said at the time, he pulled the column as “chief teacher of our local church,” because he felt it “frequently challenged what I want to be communicated to my people.” His decision prompted a published disagreement from the editor and a host of letters, most of them against the move.

McBrien weighed in on many topics affecting the church.

At a 1993 conference in Chicago, he said that without diminishing the pain suffered by victims of clergy abuse, those who claim that “we are the church” must address the injustices committed against those who actively minister and work for the church. Calling his approach a “consistent ethic of justice,” McBrien said the church must “practice in its own household what it preaches to others.”

In a 2002 address, McBrien said clergy sexual abuse was caused by deeper, compulsive and addictive behaviour and by the “mystery of evil.” He said some Catholics insist that the crisis was caused by lack of fidelity to church teachings on human sexuality and that offenders are homosexuals encouraged by liberal seminary faculties.

If dissent were the cause of sexual abuse, he argued, why were “orthodox priests” accused of engaging in it? And if sexual abuse was linked with homosexuality, “what evidence is there that liberals are more inclined to be gay?” he asked.

During a 1992 talk in Indianapolis that drew seven times its expected turnout, he criticized “current discipline on obligatory celibacy and the ordination of women,” and challenged Catholics to take far more seriously the teachings of the church on social justice, service, evangelization and other aspects of Christian life. “I know I will disappoint those looking for heresy,” McBrien said. “I shall try not to disappoint those looking for substance and for hope.”

At a 1991 conference in Washington in the wake of political machinations in the former Soviet Union, he said there had been a coup of sorts in the Catholic Church. It was “too close to be denied, and too important to be ignored,” he said.

“We Catholics have been living these past 13 years through a prolonged, slow-motion coup of our own against the reforms of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council,” McBrien added. “Although no phone lines have been cut and no one placed under house arrest, it is a coup nonetheless, fuelled by the ideology of the defeated minority at Vatican II and their heirs.”

In a 2008 interview with The Boston Globe, McBrien was asked why he never left the church over his differences with official teaching:

“Because it’s my church. It’s my home,” he replied. “And I was born in it. I’ve been a Catholic all my life. And I have affirmation from so many good people. I feel that I have a responsibility to them to continue working at it and doing the best I can.”

— with files from David Gibson, Religion News Service

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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