U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine

and Richard P. McBrien





  Certainly, Fr. Richard P. McBrien, Chairman of the Theology (?) Department at Notre Dame University, may be regarded as the U.S.' most well-known dissenter theologian (now that Fr. Charles E. Curran has been stripped of his status as a Catholic theologian by order of Pope John Paul II).

  Fr. McBrien was one of the original signers of Fr. Curran's Statement of Dissent against Humanae Vitae . In a number of his books he rejects clearly enough Papal teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraceptive birth control. He has expressed himself in the same manner in various newspaper articles, including the one in the February 17, 1978 issue of the National Catholic Reporter wherein he argued fervently that Humanae Vitae was fundamentally wrong in its teaching. He also agreed with the dissent from Humanae Vitae contained in the Catholic Theological Society of America's ill-fated Committee Report "Human Sexuality". This Report was soon denounced by a number of U.S. Bishops because of its complete capitulation to "Situation Ethics" in the area of sexual morality.

  When the same Report was issued as a book "Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought " and edited by Rev. Anthony Kosnik, it was condemned in 1979 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for its "erroneous principles" and denial of "absolute values". (See Flannery's "Vatican Council II : More Post-Conciliar Documents ", pages 505-509). For Fr. Richard McBrien, however, the CTSA volume (whose "new directions" sanctioned not only contraception but also homosexuality, pornography, and bestiality!) represented progress in Catholic moral theology.

  "Its inevitable deficiencies notwithstanding, the CTSA committee report, Human Sexuality , is as reliable an indication of responsibly progressive Catholic moral theology as we have today. The fact that it is so far removed from the moral universe of Humanae Vitae is more a commentary on how much the Catholic Church has changed in the last ten years than it is on the merits or demerits of either document."

(National Catholic Reporter, 2-17-78)

  Fr. McBrien has never been shy in setting forth his own agenda for radical revolution in the Church. For example:

  "Optional celibacy for priests, the ordination of women, policy-making authority for diocesan and parish councils, re-admission of many divorced and re-married Catholics to a sacramental fellowship, and a critical re-interpretation of Humanae Vitae — all of these are issues which, until resolved, will continue to impede the Church's progress toward effective reform and renewal."

(The Guardian, 6-24-77)

  In his writings Fr. McBrien invariably proposes that when the Pope officially teaches one thing and dissenter theologians another, the latter may well be teaching the truth. As Professor James Hitchcock has pointed out, such a contention simply makes:

  "a mockery out of any coherent Catholic ecclesiology."

(National Catholic Register 1/18/81).

  Nevertheless, such is the context in which Fr. McBrien continually justifies his and others' dissent from basic Catholic doctrines, including God's prohibition against contraception. As Fr. McBrien has himself expressed it:

  "The Pope and bishops alone..... cannot determine the limits of orthodoxy,"

(America, 3-1-80)

   Interestingly, when the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine expressed in July 1985 some trenchant reservations about McBrien's 1300 pages, two volume work "Catholicism" (originally published in 1980 with a one volume "Study Edition" published in 1981), its members specifically observed:

  "The Committee on Doctrine . . noted sections of the book in both of its editions (1980 and 1981) in which the presentation is not supportive of the Church's authoritative teaching as would be expected in a text titled'Catholicism'. Such sections are those which discuss contraception (cf. pp. 1016 ff) and the ordination of women (cf. pp. 847-853)."

  One has only to read the latest 1986 revised version of the 'Study Edition' of "Catholicism " to see how Fr. McBrien remains obstinate in justifying dissent in the matter of contraception and in misleading those readers ready to follow him in his own studied dissent from the doctrine contained in Humanae Vitae. In his typically dissembling manner, Fr. McBrien elevates the theological argument waged by dissenters above those of Magisterial pronouncements in the determination of truth. Thus, he argues in the preface to this 1986 'Study Edition':

  "(My book's) discussion of contraception is supportive of the Church's authoritative teaching in that it summarizes it fully and recognizes its authoritative character ... What is not said, of course, is that Catholics have to follow the letter of Church teachings, regardless of what their consciences may tell them and independently of any discussion that may be going on among theologians concerning the meaning and application of such teachings." (page xxx)

  It is evident that Fr. McBrien has merrily thumbed his nose at the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine and dashed any expectation they may have had that the future edition of his "Catholicism" would eliminate any rationale for dissent from Humanae Vitae.

  Pope John Paul II could well have been speaking of McBrien's "Catholicism" when he declared to all the U.S. Bishops gathered together in Los Angeles on September 16 1987:

 "Dissent from Church doctrine remains what it is, DISSENT: as such it may not be proposed or received on an equal footing with the Church's authentic teaching."

  The 1986 editions of Fr. Richard P. McBrien's "Catholicism " remain a defiant manifesto of dissent for a disobedient "American Church". It remains to be seen what the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine will do next.


Reprinted from SERVIAM newsletter, issue of November 1988


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