National Catholic Register


Father McBrien: Martyr or Dissenter?

BY Mark Brumley

June 30, 1996 Issue | Posted 6/30/96 at 2:00 PM


“STOKE THE FIRES and oil the rack, let everyone know the Inquisition's back,” chant the defenders of Father Richard McBrien. Merely raising the question of whether Father McBrien's brand of Catholicism may violate truth-in-labeling laws has the apparatus of theological dissent up in arms.

We've heard it before: The Church did nasty things to Galileo and later Galileo was proved right in a big way. The Church did nasty things to people like Henri de Lubac and John Courtney Murray, who were also proved right in a big way. Ergo, the Church is now doing nasty things to Father Richard McBrien and of course he too shall be proved right.

Father McBrien's case isn't about freedom of inquiry or the right to speak out; it's about the obligation of bishops to safeguard the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

Omitted from this litany of ecclesiastical martyrs, of course, are those to whom the Church has said “no” but who were not later proved right: Judaizers of Paul's time, Marcion, Arius, Pelagius, the Cathari, the Jansenists, the Feeneyites, the Lefverites, and so on…

In the present case, however, we are told that what is at stake isn't so much who's theologically correct (the Magisterium or Father McBrien) but rather a theologian's right to pose questions. But no one is suppressing Father McBrien or his book. No one is keeping him from asking questions. Anyone who wants a copy of Catholicism can buy it at a nearby bookstore.

No, Father McBrien's case isn't about freedom of inquiry or the right to speak out; it's about the obligation of bishops to safeguard the integrity of Catholic doctrine and about the rights of the faithful to receive that doctrine unadulterated.

If he wants to, Father McBrien is free to challenge any or all aspects of Catholic doctrine—just not in the name of the Catholic community, not as one ordained and commissioned by the Church to faithfully transmit its message. After all, non-dissenting Catholics have rights, too. And Father McBrien certainly isn't justified in demanding that we accept as Catholic his formulation of doctrine, especially when that formulation deviates from—if not outright contradicts—official Church teaching.

The debate will undoubtedly center, not on whether Father McBrien's teaching is misleading and harmful, but on his right to a fair hearing, and whether he got such a hearing. Did the bishops' doctrinal committee follow due process so as not to unfairly impugn Father McBrien's reputation as a theologian? This is precisely what Father Richard McCormick, S.J., one of Father McBrien's leading supporters, has argued in America magazine. Fairness to Father McBrien, not the substance of what he says, is the issue at hand.

Now, of course Father McBrien should be treated fairly. But so should the rest of us.

We have a right to know whether what is presented by, say, directors of religious education, comes from the Magisterium's Catholicism or Father McBrien's Catholicism. We have the right to know whether seminarians, once ordained, will give us Pope John Paul II's teaching or Father McBrien's opinions. We have a right to know that when someone calls himself a Catholic theologian, he is presenting himself as one of inquisitive faith, yes, but above all of mature, supernatural faith.

Mark Brumley is managing editor of The Catholic Faith and Catholic Dossier.