New edition of Fr Richard McBrien's 'Catholicism': but dissent still remains

New edition of Fr Richard McBrien's 'Catholicism': but dissent still remains

James Likoudis

The third edition of Fr Richard P. McBrien's Catholicism, surprisingly minus an imprimatur for a book boasting such an official looking title, features an Introduction by Rev Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, President Emeritus of Notre Dame University: "I am always amazed at the number of young Catholic students who arrive at Notre Dame today, theologically illiterate even though many have attended Catholic high schools and have grown up in Catholic homes. Perhaps their Catholic parents never really understood the theological transformation of Vatican Council II. Even I, as a theologian who followed the Council clearly, needed the systematic and comparative insights of Catholicism. I wish that everyone of our students could take the course "Catholicism" taught by Father McBrien each year. Those who do are no longer theologically illiterate Catholics (page xxxviii)."

One might well remark, after reading this Third Edition of Fr McBrien's Catholicism, that, whatever else it may do, it is likely to leave Catholic students doctrinally illiterate.

Catholicism Mark III declares itself to be "completely revised and updated," and to have rectified certain doctrinal points criticised by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine in 1985, which had expressed the "hope that subsequent editions will incorporate the clarifications necessary to remove any remaining ambiguities in the expression of Catholic teaching." This claim is not borne out by the contents of the current edition of Catholicism.

Instances of unsatisfactory or questionable expositions of Catholic teachings in Catholicism are so numerous as to prevent more than a few typical examples to be cited in this review.

The Bishops' Committee had taken issue with the author's treatment of grace and other points of doctrine which, it said, "remain confusing and ambiguous: for example, the description of the virginal conception of Jesus as a 'theologoumenon' (in McBrien's words: 'A non-doctrinal theological interpretation that cannot be verified or refuted on the basis of historical evidence, but that can be affirmed because of the close connection with some defined doctrine about God' (p.1252)); the treatment of the perpetual virginity of Mary (cf. page 542), of the foundation of the Church, and of the binding force of the Marian dogmas."

The Bishops also noted "sections of the book ... in which the presentation is not supportive of the Church's authoritative teaching as would be expected in a text entitled Catholicism. Such sections are those which discuss contraception and the ordination of women."

The Committee further questioned the manner in which McBrien made use of dissenting theologians, creating thereby the impression that the official teachings of the Magisterium have validity only when received or confirmed by the 'consensus' of theologians (also including Protestant/Anglican theologians).

In assessing McBrien's "understanding of contemporary theological insights," the Committee noted that many such are "admittedly of a hypothetical nature and some of which it seems difficult to reconcile with authoritative Catholic doctrine."

Inadequate presentation

Yet, on examining the third edition of Catholicism, we find McBrien's unsatisfactory presentations of Catholic doctrine persisting in precisely the areas noted by the Bishops' Committee, such as the sinfulness of contraception and homosexual acts (e.g., pp. 982-992; 996-1000). For McBrien, such moral questions are to be left up to the supremacy of individual conscience - meaning, in practice, that an individual will be guided by the views of a paramagisterium of theologians and scholars rather than the Magisterium.

For McBrien, papal judgments in matters of faith and morals (if not infallibly proclaimed) do not bind the consciences of the faithful: "The Church has never explicitly claimed to speak infallibly on a moral question, so there is probably no instance as yet of a conflict between an individual's fallible decision in conscience and a teaching of the Church which is immune from error ... While Catholics give antecedent attention and respect to official teachings, they must also take account of other sources of moral reflection and counsel, e.g., their associates, the findings of scientific disciplines, the Bible, the writings of theologians ..." (pp. 973-974).

McBrien's book denies the fact that the historical Christ founded the Catholic Church as a visible society with the mission to "teach all nations" (p. 577): "Did Jesus intend to found a Church? The answer is 'No' If by 'found' we mean some direct, explicit, deliberate act by which Jesus established a new religious organisation ... One should not be surprised, therefore, to find no evidence of a specific act of founding a Church or of gathering together a community of the elect ... 'The majority of scholars today support the assumption that Jesus expected the end to come soon' (see Frederick J. Cwiekowski, The Beginnings of the Church, p. 44)."

For McBrien the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, but are the products of the later Christian communities who concocted miraculous events as a method of conveying certain "theological meanings" and for communicating their faith in Christ as divine (pp. 341-343).

McBrien depicts Christ as if he did not always know who he was. Taking his cue from certain biblical scholars, he attributes both ignorance and error to Christ: "Did Jesus, finally, know himself to be the unique Son of God? It is true that Jesus spoke of God as his Father in such a way as to suggest a special, intimate relationship. But there is no incontrovertible proof that he claimed a unique sonship not open to other persons" (p. 551). McBrien even supports the case that Christ could have sinned (p. 547).

The Church's dogmatic definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are viewed as not belonging to the essential core of the faith, so that one can still be a good member of the Church in sincerely rejecting them (pp. 1102-1103).

The author plays down the Catholic doctrine affirming that the sacrament of ordination brings about an intrinsic change in the priest's relationship to Christ and the Church: "It is not clear," writes McBrien, "... that anyone in particular was commissioned to preside over the Eucharist in the beginning ... There is no compelling evidence that they presided when they were present, or that a chain of ordination from Apostle to bishop to priest was required for the presiding" (pp. 866-867).

The moral theory of proportionalism (as developed by Fr Richard McCormick) is defended despite its rejection by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (pp. 966-967), while the Pope's teaching on the relationship between individual conscience and the magisterium as set forth in the same encyclical is distorted; the theory of "fundamental option" censured by the Pope in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984) is still proposed (p. 797; 957-967).

McBrien's "understanding" of the doctrine of Original Sin reads as follows: "Although the later doctrine of Original Sin has been read back into Paul's Letter to the Romans, neither biblical scholars nor theologians would agree that it is, in fact, there" (p. 186); "Contemporary theologians, especially Rahner, reject the notion that Original Sin is simply the sin of the first human being or is a matter of collective guilt. These views, they hold, cannot be sustained biblically or theologically" (p. 198).

McBrien denies that the concept of infallibility (indispensable for the certainty of Catholics regarding faith and morals) is contained in the New Testament: "The concept of infallibility does not appear in the New Testament, although the concern for sound doctrine does. There was, however, a growing conviction in the early centuries of the Church that Rome, and the bishop of Rome in particular, was a reliable touchstone of orthodoxy. And yet popes were conceded to have erred in matters of faith" (p. 781). The hierarchical infallibility of the Church is, in fact, nullified by McBrien's version of a two-fold magisterium, i.e., the official hierarchical one and that of the "magisterium of the theologians" (pp. 65-70).

McBrien's uncritical reliance on Karl Rahner's 'evolutionary' theology lies at the root of an approach which reduces magisterial doctrine to an opinion able to be explained away or rejected when not found conforming to the 'latest contemporary scholarship': "... until the beginning of the nineteenth century the virginal conception of Jesus, even in this biological sense, was universally believed by Christians. What happened to change that virtual unanimity of belief? Two of the same factors which generated a change in our understanding of Jesus Christ and of Christian faith itself, namely, a newly critical way of reading the New Testament, and a newly evolutionary way of perceiving human existence and human history" (p. 543).

As Msgr George A. Kelly of St John's University, New York, observed in reviewing McBrien's original edition, (in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, December 1980) even when McBrien admits the existence of some infallible dogmas, he places such constraints on them as cultural conditioning and the ever-changing "historical consciousness" as to limit their significance.

Another critic of the first edition, Msgr Nelson W. Logal, concluded: "McBrien's book illustrates how some of our dissenting theologians can put the Faith of the Catholic Church through the shredder of their updating speculations and still claim that the bits and pieces represent Catholicism" (Confraternity of Catholic Clergy Newsletter, October-November 1980).

Despite all the fanfare, and the claim that this 3rd edition is a 'sanitised' version of what drew serious criticism from both the Australian and U.S. Bishops in the 1980s, the reality is that much of the original officially criticised presentation of Church teachings remains intact.

This is a serious matter, since many Catholics (notably R.E. teachers) may be persuaded that McBrien's 'new look' Catholicism is a fit vehicle for 'understanding' the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

James Likoudis is President of the international Catholic lay organisation, Catholics United for the Faith.

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