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Fr. Richard McBrien: Liberal? Try “broad centrist”…

posted by David Gibson

Richard McBrien--Globe foto.jpgNotre Dame’s well-known, highly-regarded–though not in some circles–theologian and commentator Richard McBrien spoke recently with the Globe’s Michael Paulson and, not surprisingly, fireworks ensued.
Yet as often happens, it wasn’t so much anything McBrien said, as much as the apoplexy of the reactions to his even saying anything. For my money, McBrien is one of the surest guides to church history and theology anywhere. Yes, his commentary can be provocative to some, especially these day, as commentary tends to be. Yet his weekly columns (which are finding fewer outlets these days) and certainly his academic work is top-notch.
“Academic” is actually an unwise adjective here. McBrien’s “Encyclopedia of Catholicism” is an indispensible one-volume work (and includes entries from the best experts across the spectrum), and his “Lives of the Popes” and “Lives of the Saints” are also superb. I am also just getting through his latest, “The Church,” a study in ecclesiology and “the development of Catholicism,” and McBrien is again at his best, displaying wide and deep knowledge and a broad perspective.
So why the agita when McBrien talks? He himself does not get angry. Check out the interview here, and the nature of the comments. Over at dotCommonweal. Cathleen Kaveny had to shut down her thread on the interview because it turned divisive.
McBrien also doesn’t regard himself as a “liberal” necessarily, which may be what gets conservatives riled:

McBRIEN: I regard myself as a broad centrist. But to an extreme right-wing person, especially in religion, and within the Catholic Church, a centrist or a center/left person is automatically perceived as an extreme left-wing person, bordering on, if not actually in, heresy. But for every e-mail or blog that you would see that would condemn me…I can tell you I got a lot of e-mails and letters from Catholics who said that I had given them hope and that their teenage kids who had been alienated from the church said that, “If there were more priests like the guy we were watching on television, I’d still be a Catholic.”
IDEAS: And why don’t you leave?
McBRIEN: Because it’s my church. It’s my home. And I was born in it. I’ve been a Catholic all my life. And I have affirmation from so many good people. I feel that I have a responsibility to them to continue working at it and doing the best I can.

Not much to argue with there. And I do think McBrien is certainly in the broad center, if one looks at the sense of the faithful on various matters of church practice and law, not to mention theology.
Yet my view is that, essentially, we are all liberals now, in the sense that everyone in the church takes the classic “liberal” view toward history and culture and, most especially the Church–criticizing what we like, and who we like, be it the laity, the clergy or the hierarchy, and coming at the institution with an attitude of skepticism rather than reflexive acceptance. This is certainly true of “conservatives” as much if not moreso than “liberals.” The Catholic cafeteria isn’t just open, but the line is long, and covers the spectrum.



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Meredith Gould

posted December 29, 2008 at 4:06 pm


“Divisive” comments? How about acrimonious? I never fail to be amazed by this ongoing evidence of Christian Love Abiding, especially since I come to Catholicism from a tradition (Judaism) that cherishes healthy debate and disputation.



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Katie Angel

posted January 2, 2009 at 3:26 pm


This reminds me of when Fr. Andrew Greeley was asked on the Donahue show why, with all of his criticism of the Church, he didn’t just leave. His response?
I like being Catholic.
That gave me so much hope – and I have stayed Catholic because of people like Fr. Greeley and Fr. McBrien. May God grant us more priests like them.



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