Life after Richard McBrien: Q&A with Father Brian Daley, S.J.
Father Brian E. Daley, S.J., is professor of theology at Notre Dame University in Indiana, where he teaches historical theology specializing in the early church and development of Christian doctrine from the fourth to the eighth centuries. He holds B.A. degrees from Fordham and Oxford, an M.A. from Oxford, a Ph.L. from Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, a Lic. Theol. from the Hochschule Skt. Georgen in Frankfurt, and a D. Phil from the University of Oxford. Awarded the Ratzinger Prize in Theology by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2012, Father Daley is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books on patristic theology. He entered the Jesuits in 1964.
Father Richard McBrien, a longtime colleague of Father Daley’s in the Notre Dame theology department, died on Jan. 25 at age 78 after a long illness. On Jan. 27, I interviewed Father Daley by email about the legacy of his departed colleague.
A recent Associated Press obituary for Father Richard McBrien, your longtime colleague at Notre Dame, emphasized “his popular books on Catholicism and unabashed liberal stands on various church teachings.” Would you add, correct, or subtract anything from this capsule summary of his career?
No, I think that’s pretty accurate. Fr. McBrien saw himself, I think, as a popular writer and commentator. His many books, as well as his weekly columns in Catholic newspapers, were aimed mostly at the educated, non-specialist Catholic reader; they were never intended to break new frontiers of theological thinking. He understood himself, I think, to be making available a Catholic viewpoint that was both substantially anchored in the theological tradition and decidedly on the “progressive” side. He usually represented what had been a pretty widespread point of view among Catholic theologians in the late 60s and 70s: liberal on the “hot-button” issues, but—as he saw it—still theologically defensible. By the late 80s, though, this approach had definitely become a minority voice, especially among younger Catholics – and remains so, except in the secular media.
In your view, what did Father McBrien contribute to Catholic theology?
He was a generalist, a man with a wide view of the church’s history and doctrine, who read Catholic teaching from the starting-point of his passionately progressive convictions on practical issues. As such, he was always willing to speak up, in his writing or on TV talk shows, for what he thought was the direction the church should be moving in. He was happy to be a gadfly to the people in the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Roman Curia whom he thought were too rigidly opposed to change. This kept the conversation alive within the field, even when it annoyed people!
In books like Catholicism, Father McBrien was a polarizing figure for many American Catholics, who tended either to love or hate him. What would you say to the critics who accused Father McBrien of popularizing dissent from settled Catholic teaching on hot-button issues?
Fr. McBrien often spoke of dissent within the church as something that promoted the health of the whole Body of Christ, as long as it concerned practical matters of how the church lives and not central affirmations of faith. On central doctrines—God as Trinity, the person of Christ, the universal efficacy of the saving death of Jesus—he saw himself as fully in accord with the church’s teaching. Where he intentionally disagreed was on some of the church’s moral teachings, especially with regard to sexuality, and on the shape of the life of the church—for example, on the ordination of women, on mandatory celibacy for priests, and on structures of church authority. On these things, he did popularize dissent, and felt he was serving the whole church by doing that.
What does the loss of Father McBrien mean for Notre Dame?
Fr. McBrien was chair of the Theology Department at Notre Dame for eleven years, in the 1980s and early 90s; in that time, he did a lot to build up and strengthen the department and its programs. He was also the president of Notre Dame’s faculty senate for three years. Both of these aspects of his career were over by the time I arrived here in 1996. But from all I have heard, he enjoyed both positions, and showed real leadership abilities in them. He was a team player, and like a good captain, sacrificed himself for what he thought were the best interests of the team.
As a colleague, if you could tell readers one surprising thing about Father McBrien, what would it be?
Dick was from Hartford, CT, where a number of his family members had been active in Democratic politics. He used to say that if he were beginning his life over, he might well have become a politician instead of a priest. I think that reveals a good deal about his understanding both of himself and of the priesthood. He would have made a good politician!
On a personal level, how will you remember Father McBrien?
He was an upbeat, enthusiastic person, always deeply committed to the people he worked with, and always gracious and kind. I think he knew that I disagreed with him on a number of theological and pastoral issues, but he was always extremely friendly and encouraging to me. I know he liked Jesuits, and I think that eased our relationship a good deal. I will miss his generosity and his willingness to help all of us here work together, despite our differences, as a department of theology.
In your view, what is the greatest need in Catholic theology today?
I think our greatest need is for well-informed, generous moderation. We live in a culture that is increasingly polarized: in politics, in public discourse, in social institutions, even in the church. The “culture wars” continue to grow more intense, and to paralyze us. To my mind, we especially need Catholic thinkers who are deeply conscious of the roots of Catholic teaching and practice in the Scriptures and in the great classical writers of our tradition, and who are confident enough of what the church has thought and thinks to be able to know what forms of further development are possible. A thoughtful and sympathetic understanding of tradition—as the theologians of the “ressourcement” showed us in the 1930s and 1940s—frees us to imagine what the church can best be today and tomorrow.
What’s your favorite scripture passage and why?
I suppose I would have to pick 2 Cor 4:7-12, where St. Paul speaks of the “earthen vessels” in which we carry the treasure of the Gospel we preach. As we go on with our ministry, most of us come to discover both our own fragility and inadequacy, and also the transforming effect on even our words and our work of “the life of Jesus” within us. We witness to the Gospel as much by our weaknesses as by our teaching.
Father McBrien was the same age as Pope Francis, who seems to be getting high marks from many American Catholic theologians. As a theologian and fellow Jesuit, what is your own impression of Pope Francis?
I am a great admirer of Pope Francis, I have to say. He seems constantly to be reminding us of the central themes of what must be the church’s preaching: God’s mercy, his overwhelming concern for the poor, his call to us to make them—and not our own status or privileges—our prime focus of interest. He can be challenging, especially when he speaks “off the cuff,” and he is often critical of professional theologians for being elitists. But his instinctive responses to the church’s needs seem to me to represent the core of the Gospel—and of our Jesuit spirituality.
Pope Benedict XVI gave you the Ratzinger Prize in Theology at the Vatican in 2012. Looking ahead, what do you hope people will take away from your own life and work?
I hope I’ll be remembered as someone who knew the long Christian tradition well—especially as it speaks of the person of Christ—and who helped make it a little more intelligible and attractive for disciples today. I like to think sometimes that my kind of work is a little like making watches. It’s fine, close work, and it takes a while to finish something; but when you do, you hope that it will be beautiful, and will keep running for at least fifty years!
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished the manuscript of a book on the history of Christology in the early Church, from just after the New Testament to the Iconoclastic Controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. And I’ve also finished reworking a critical edition and translation of the works of Leontius of Byzantium, a sixth-century Christological writer who is an important and little-known contributor to our tradition. My next project will probably be to do some translations of works from the Greek Fathers.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
I hope to teach here for a few more years, and then to retire to a place where there is a good Jesuit community, a good library, and the chance to do some good spiritual direction and pastoral ministry. For Jesuits, thinking and writing and teaching are all forms of what St. Ignatius called “helping souls,” which is what we do. I guess that’s what I really want to do in the future.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I’d just like to thank you for giving me this chance to think out loud about my late colleague, Fr. Richard McBrien, and about the trade of theology. Keep carrying the treasure in whatever vessel you can find!
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.