McBrien's 'Catholicism': what the US Bishops criticised

McBrien's 'Catholicism': what the US Bishops criticised


The various editions of Fr Richard McBrien's 'Catholicism' have been popular with Catholic teachers and lecturers in the US and Australia over the past 15 years. In some cases, the latest edition seems even preferred as a guide to the Faith to the new Catechism.

In the light of the US Bishops' latest critical evaluation of 'Catholicism', it will be interesting to see if Australia's Bishops are prepared to update their earlier 1980 critique of 'Catholicism,' and especially whether they are prepared to monitor the use (or misuse) of McBrien's book in their dioceses. What follows are some of the major criticisms made of 'Catholicism' by the US Bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

Fr Richard P. McBrien's third edition of Catholicism has been severely criticised by the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Doctrinal Committee for "certain shortcomings" as "an introductory textbook of Catholic theology." Catholicism had been the object of review by the Doctrine Committee in the early 1980s and a statement outlining the Committee's criticism of the book was issued in July 1985.

An accompanying memorandum dated 4 April 1996 to all US Bishops from the acting chairman of the Doctrine Committee, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, stated that the current Doctrine Committee found the new edition "had not corrected the ambiguities identified in the 1985 statement and that additional problems had been introduced into the text."

Catholicism had been singled out for such critical review, said the Archbishop, "precisely from the point of view of its wide use as a text for adult education, diaconal formation and introductory theology."

The Committee's detailed review stated that it would outline "major difficulties that the book poses from the standpoint of those who are concerned to monitor the possible effects of the book, not on theological specialists, but on theological beginners, the vast majority of the People of God in every age."

The review found "three categories" of "problems" with Catholicism:

  • Some of its statements are "inaccurate or at least misleading";
  • The book overemphasises "the plurality of opinion within the Catholic theological tradition that makes it difficult at times for the reader to discern the normative core of that tradition";
  • It overstates "the significance of recent developments within the Catholic tradition, implying that the past appears to be markedly inferior to the present and obscuring the continuity of the tradition."

In examining the first of the "problem" areas, the Committee noted that Catholicism maintains that "Jesus Christ could have sinned" and that this is an orthodox position. It presents the virgin birth of Jesus as "being of uncertain and perhaps even doubtful historicity" and "non-doctrinal", despite the fact that this belief "has been a constant part of Church teaching from the first century, and has been reaffirmed by the Holy See since Vatican II."

Catholicism's approach to the perpetual virginity of Mary is also found wanting: "... the description of the history of the development of this belief gives the impression that rather than a truth that the Church only gradually uncovered, the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was a creation of the third-century Church as part of its program to promote virginity and asceticism. The book apparently favours the view that Mary 'had normal sexual relations after the birth of Jesus' and that Jesus had blood-brothers and -sisters."

Secondly, the review notes that Catholicism confronts the reader "with a broad range of opinions and requires the reader to make judgments among them." But McBrien's book "does not do enough to enable the reader to grasp what is the main current of the Catholic teaching and theological tradition." The book's "weakness" is that "by devoting so much attention to the presentation of a multiplicity of opinion, it provides insufficient direction for those seeking to know what is truly at the core of the faith."

A number of the theological positions included, says the review, "are decidedly on the fringes," e.g., those of Hans K√ľng, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Matthew Fox. McBrien embraces feminist theology "as a category in toto" but provides "no hint as to the extent to which some forms of feminist theology are in tension with the Catholic theological tradition. The Church's practice of speaking of God as Father or Son and of Christ as Bridegroom is said by McBrien to be a case of "patriarchy." But such titles, says the review, "are indelibly inscribed in the Christian consciousness, and have authentically theological reasons behind them."

At the same time, amid McBrien's numerous theological 'options,' the voice of the pope and bishops "is often reduced to just another voice alongside those of private theologians" with more weight lent to positions in opposition to the Magisterium. Official teaching is presented but then followed with a rebuttal from Catholics who disagree. Contraception, homosexuality and women's ordination are taken for granted as "open questions," with the "official Church position" on these seen as erroneous.

Change and development

Thirdly, argues the review, Catholicism exaggerates the significance of change and development in Church teachings, embracing modernity enthusiastically at the expense of patristic and medieval thought, with names such as Darwin, Freud and Kant being cited approvingly. McBrien writes: "In the final accounting, the Enlightenment marks the division between an often pre-critical, authority-oriented theology and a critical, historically sophisticated, and philosophically mature theology" (p. 641). Modern thought "becomes the prism through which tradition must be viewed and judged" with the implication that traditional doctrines "are soon to be superseded."

Vatican II is interpreted by McBrien as "a one-sided embrace of modernity" and used to justify theological positions calling for "much greater accommodation of Church teaching to contemporary culture." McBrien implies that "the 'progressive' theologians are pointing to the future of the Church and that the pope and the bishops have not yet caught up."

The US Bishops' Committee on Doctrine concludes that Catholicism could easily lead the "theological beginner" to suppose that authors "closer to the margins" are part of the acceptable mainstream, could prove "bewildering and unsettling" and even "give encouragement to dissent." For those who are not specialists in theological reasoning and argumentation, Catholicism "poses serious difficulties and in several important respects does not live up to its ambitious title."

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