When Fr. Richard McBrien—author of twenty-five books, syndicated columnist, and previous chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame—died last month after a long illness, the Catholic world lost one of its best-known scholars and commentators.

Many have, quite naturally, taken this time to laud his merits. But his larger history also calls for a more critical assessment.

At the height of his popularity, McBrien “had a higher media profile than anyone in the Catholic Church other than Pope John Paul II,” said the National Catholic Reporter. He was the “ideal interview,” it continued, “knowledgeable” and “able to express complex ideas in digestible sound bites.” The Rev. Charles Curran also paid tribute: “No Catholic theologian in the United States has made a larger contribution to the reception of Vatican II than Richard McBrien did.”

For all his popularity, however, McBrien’s interpretations of Catholic teaching were controversial. The headline of the New York Times obituary speaks volumes: “Rev. Richard McBrien, Dissenting Catholic Theologian, Dies at 78.”

For someone so closely associated with the Church, Fr. McBrien had an array of unorthodox views.

When he was asked why he so rarely wore his collar, he snapped: “My Roman collar is my television uniform. . . . It’s a custom. And the custom in the academic world is that most priests who teach in Catholic colleges and universities wear a tie or just have an open sport short.” But as St. John Paul II taught, while a priest’s attire is not doctrinal, it is far more than a mere “custom”; it is a sign and witness to the world of his spiritual fatherhood, and belonging to the Church.

Speaking on the role of the theologian, he once said, “[the role] is one of critically reflecting on that [Catholic] tradition or raising questions about it, even challenging it, and that’s how doctrines evolve and move forward.” As the Holy See has made abundantly clear, however, the role of the Catholic theologian is not to serve as an independent, self-appointed judge, but to work “in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith.”

What’s more, Fr. McBrien led campaigns on behalf of women priests, constantly assailed Humanae Vitae, and questioned the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. His principal work, Catholicism, contains many errors, and was sharply criticized by the U.S. Bishops (twice). His hero, St. John XXIII was actually a moral traditionalist—the kind McBrien would often (and ironically) criticize—and his erroneous view that Vatican II was a revolutionary Council has been corrected by the last three popes.

He too often tried to be a rival, rather than a sympathetic interpreter, of the Holy See. A comment by Fr. Thomas Reese, one of McBrien’s admirers, is telling:

In pre-Vatican seminaries, students often studied theological “manuals,” which summarized Catholic theology. Today the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides that function for conservative seminarians, while McBrien’s Catholicism is the source for others.

But no theologian can take the place of the Magisterium, established by Christ, and the Catechism is meant for all Catholics.

Although Fr. McBrien was often called fearless and broad-minded, he was frequently hypersensitive to criticisms of his own views. After he defended Mario Cuomo against possible ex-communication, for instance, McBrien complained about the letters he received, calling them “mean and vindictive.” Notably, though, he never used such language against politicians who took the lives of unborn children, much less theologians who provided cover for them.

The one thing most frequently said about Fr. McBrien—which he himself affirmed—was the least convincing: that he “never held back.”

In fact, he did hold back—on everything from the value of clerical celibacy, to the dangers of moral relativism, to the necessity of the Catechism, to courageous pro-life witness. He had the intelligence and gifts to take action, guided by the wisdom of the Church, but consistently let those opportunities escape him.

This is the legacy—and disappointment—of Fr. McBrien’s productive but uneven career.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XIIHis previous articles can be found here.

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