Yesterday Fr. Richard P. McBrien, for decades one of the most influential American Catholic theologians, died in Connecticut at the age of seventy-eight. He served as chair of the University of Notre Dame Theology Department for over a decade, and was a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, as well as a recipient of the group's John Courtney Murray Award for distinguished work in theology. From the National Catholic Reporter's obituary:
It would be difficult to find a figure comparable in making understandable to a broad public the basic beliefs and traditions of the Roman Catholic church.
For more than three decades, he was the star of the theology faculty at the University of Notre Dame and the go-to voice on all matters Catholic in the popular press. His books, particularly Catholicism, Lives of the Popes and Lives of the Saints, were staples of libraries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
At his peak in the 1980s and ’90s, it is arguable that McBrien had a higher media profile than anyone in the Catholic church other than Pope John Paul II. He was the ideal interview: knowledgeable, able to express complex ideas in digestible sound bites, and utterly unafraid of controversy.
In a 2008 interview with the Boston Globe, McBrien was asked whether he had become more liberal or outspoken over the years.
No, I don't think so. I don't think of myself in those terms, although it's a relative term. I mean obviously I'm liberal if you define liberal stands as being open to the ordination of women, feeling that abortion shouldn't be a litmus test defining whether one is a good Catholic or not. I'm very much against the policy of a certain handful of bishops to threaten to deny Communion to Catholic Democrats -- and they're always Democrats.... 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.
So why didn't he leave the church?
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.
Richard P. McBrien, R.I.P.
McBrien wrote for Commonweal from the 1960s through the 2000s. His first article was about the radical theology movement, and his last was a review of Cardinal Avery Dulles's Church and Society. In between he wrote about homosexuality in the priesthood, the trouble with contemporary theology, the difference between faith, theology, and belief, the agenda for the pope who was elected in 1978, how the church should admit error, and an assessment of the pope who was elected in 1978. Do read Robert J. Egan's review of McBrien's last book, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism.