Last Sunday, 25 January 2015, Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Fr. Richard McBrien passed from this earthly abode at the age of 78 after a prolonged illness. Many people, both opponents and supporters of McBrien, have invoked the principle nihil de mortuis nisi bonum (speak nothing but good things of the dead) when his death was made public. I, however, prefer to call things as they are.
I had some exposure to Fr. McBrien’s work while in high school, and even then I knew to take his works with a grain of salt. My first opportunity to examine his works more deeply came in my first theology class as a college freshman. This introductory course on the Church used McBrien’s 1344-page Catholicism, a book which since its first publishing in 1980 has become a first-choice reference in parishes and schools all over the English-speaking world, despite the fact that it enjoys neither a nihil obstat nor an imprimatur. Despite its impressive scale, its many errors quickly became apparent, even as they were taught in this particular class. Of course, its use in so many classrooms and parish halls far and wide has ensured that the “hermeneutic of rupture”– the idea that the Second Vatican Council definitively cut off the Church of past ages– colors all of McBrien’s theology to the point where everything, for him, can now be questioned, leaving him the privilege of arbitrating what is Catholic, without reference to the venerable sacred tradition or to the magisterium.
Consequently he has become the intellectual hero of Anglophone liberal Catholicism, seeking to accommodate “archaic” Church doctrines to the relativistic sensibilities of metaphisically-impaired modern man. In Catholicism, McBrien
- raised doubts on the virginal conception of Christ
- claimed that Jesus did not explicitly “found” a Church but merely “laid its foundation”; the logical result of this assertion is that the Church becomes– as held almost dogmatically by liberal theology– a purely human institution liable to all sorts of changes in doctrine, structure, and identity
- promoted an egregiously erroneous presentation of Vatican II’s major documents and themes, especially Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium
What is even more egregious is McBrien’s treatment of the topic of infallibility. Strangely, Catholicism discusses infallibility only in reference to the Pope, and not firstly as a charism enjoyed by the entire Church. Under one of the “clarifications” in the book’s section on infallibilty, McBrien writes (emphasis added):
[The Pope] is empowered with the charism of infallibility only when he is in the act of defining a dogma of faith. It can be said, without exaggeration, that a pope who never defined a dogma of faith was not infallible. That would apply to recent popes such as John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. (Contrary to popular belief, the canonization of a saint does not meet Vatican I’s conditions for an infallible teaching.)
Leaving aside his assertion concerning canonizations (which we discussed in another article), what stands out about the “clarification” is its rejection of Vatican II’s teaching as articulated in Lumen Gentium! In fact, based on the “clarification”, McBrien might be considered more a man of Vatican I than of Vatican II. Because he considers as infallible only those certain dogmatic statements issued by Roman Pontiffs by virtue of their extraordinary magisterium (i.e., Ineffabilis Deus on the Immaculate Conception, Munificentissimus Deus on the Assumption), he leaves out an entire category of infallible statements, expressed through the universal and ordinary magisterium, as outside consideration. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council (in Lumen Gentium 25) on the universal and ordinary magisterium is as follows:
Licet singuli praesules infallibilitatis praerogativa non polleant, quando tamen, etiam per orbem dispersi, sed communionis nexum inter se et cum Successore Petri servantes, authentice res fidei et morum docentes in unam sententiam tamquam definitive tenendam conveniunt, doctrinam Christi infallibiliter enuntiant.
Although the individual prelates do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.
As defined in Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus and richly articulated in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the Roman Pontiff enjoys a special charism of infallibility. When he defines a doctrine of faith and morals to be definitively held, he is expressing that extraordinary magisterium proper to the Roman Pontiff. Individual prelates (primarily meaning bishops, but also referring to other ecclesiastics with jurisdiction such as abbots and superiors) do not have this extraordinary charism; and yet, they still teach infallibly when they express the Church’s perennial doctrine on a matter of faith and morals.
As McBrien would have it, infallibility is limited to those rare instances of extraordinary magisterium, and thus everything else, even those doctrines expressed through the ordinary magisterium are not infallible. When McBrien writes that “it can be said, without exaggeration, that a pope who never defined a dogma of faith was infallible,” he effectively rejects the doctrine of Lumen Gentium, because he claims that any bishop (let alone the Pope, who is firstly a bishop and prelate), when expressing what the Church has always taught, does not enjoy the charism of infallibility.
In perversely construing the issue of infallibility (by rejecting the explicit teaching of Vatican II), McBrien allows himself (and heterodox theologians like him) to support issues such as ordination of women. In Catholicism‘s section on women’s ordination, McBrien merely gives arguments for and against the issue, drawing an equivalence between the two sides and portraying this as a matter open for debate. John Paul II’s 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on priestly ordination settled the issue in the clearest terms: that the Lord intended to institute an all-male priesthood for all ages is considered a doctrine infallibly taught through the ordinary and universal magisterium. In the same year, McBrien released a revised edition of Catholicism; left unrevised, among many other sections, were his error-riddled explanations of infallibility and women’s ordination.
It is sad to see that a priest who calls himself “a man of Vatican II” decry Eucharistic Adoration as “a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backwards”, when the Council he claims to love famously wrote of the Eucharist as fons et culmen vitae Ecclesiae. It is utterly tragic that this same priest has made a career of publicly impugning John Paul II and Benedict XVI (thanks to the coffers of the heterodox and inappropriately-named National Catholic Reporter)– Popes whose supreme ecclesistical authority the Council vigorously and eloquently affirmed. It is as if he, who never attended the Council, could know better than men who were there. Worse still is the countless number of Catholics who bought his books and imbibed his ideas.
In the end, the Holy Spirit prevails. Portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus Ecclesiam. The revival of the Church, spurred by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have ensured that, especially in more recent years, McBrien has become more and more irrelevant. I sincerely hope, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf wrote, “that in his final years he had a chance to rethink and repent of his work”. If Thomas Aquinas could, at the end, realize that all his brilliant expositions were ut palea before the glory of God, I pray that Fr. McBrien might have, at his last moments, offered up his own works as chaff upon the altar of humility and obedience.
For all his defects in the exposition of the faith, and for all his offenses against the See of Peter, may God have mercy on his soul.
Animae omnium fidelium per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace.