An Interview with a Lightning Rod

Here is Michael Paulson of The Boston Globe interviewing the always-interesting, always-provocative, always-hardworking, always generous-with-his-time, always-worth-listening-to Richard McBrien, the Catholic theologian teaching at Notre Dame.  I’ve always profited from Father McBrien’s writings, particularly his book "Catholicism" and "Lives of the Saints," and have found him always to be a gracious man, even on the rare occasions when we’ve disagreed. Others are not so generous.  Paulson reports one Catholic blogger calling him a "heresiarch," that is, leader of heretics.


Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

IDEAS: Why are you such a lightning rod? Whenever I quote you, I get e-mails, and I see bloggers taking after you.

McBRIEN: That’s a good question. It might be because I have such a public image. 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.

James Martin, SJ

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10 years ago
Fr. McBrien is the best 'religion' teacher I ever had. I'm 69 years old and went to Catholic schools through college. His book 'Catholicism' helped me make sense of all the conflicting stuff that was being thrown at me by liberals and conservatives and helped me develop a mature, adult understanding of what it means to be Catholic and catholic. I also found 'Catholicism' was the most useful text I could find for the formation of intelligent high school students as they worked toward the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation. A Church full of McBriens surely would be a taste of heaven on earth.
10 years ago
Fr. McBrien calls himself a ''centrist''. I wonder how he squares that with Revelation 3:16: ''But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold, not hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth''. Fr. McBrien has his [scientific?] theory that the fetus is ensouled about the third month of pregnancy. I wonder if he tells his students that abortion before the third month is not the killing of a child.
10 years ago
How can anybody take this man seriously?He sees himself as a broad centrist or a little to the left etc.I myself am a northern Catholic but hanging east on social issues. He is a posterboy for the secular press.He is very far from provocative or if he is it is always with intent and not with the wonder of his thought.If he actually left the Church he would have no audience,as there are practically a billion non-catholic Christians who would share his vision of Christianity in the sense that they know better than the man with the keys.He would be a run-of-the-mill Anglican.His whole value comes from being a Catholic.If there were more priests like this one etc.. there are too many priests like this one!.More interested in their own way than the way of the Eternal Priest Christ Jesus.He omits the Cross at every turn .Fr Jim Martin may like this man and they do canonize the same people you will note in their books but Fr Martin has a more thoughtful and humble approach.
10 years ago
I found McBrien's historical approach to learning about the Church in his book Catholicism quite refreshing at the time (1970's). I personally did not become a "disciple" of his because I also found him sometimes in error and often with bias in that book. However, I would recommend it to anyone mature enough to not swallow it hook, line, and sinker. I often saw him in the news for years after his book, but paid scant attention to what his problem or affair was. Funny thing is, most of the theologians I can name off-hand (that I don't personally know) seem to have been in the news negatively at one time or another. Guess getting a name almost requires causing a scandal; and some seem to seek out this trick.
10 years ago
I believe you would serve the America community well to have quoted this more controversial part of the interview: IDEAS: You're so critical of the bishops, but you don't seem angry. McBRIEN: I'm critical of the bishops not because I have any gripe against any one of them personally. John Paul II, in the 26 ?? years he was pope, did some good things. [But] the most serious deficiency the late pope had . . . was the poor quality of men he put in the hierarchy. And nowhere was this more obvious than at the height of the sexual abuse scandal in the priesthood. The truth be told, a significant number of bishops . . . including some high-ranking bishops at the time, were gay. I have no problem with people being gay, but the Catholic Church officially does, and it's constantly making statements that are hostile to gays, and they were compromised. They could not exercise leadership because they could not speak comfortably about issues relating to sexuality, because they were conflicted themselves.


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