P Mcbrien Essays In Theology

Fr. McBrien's Essays

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"Jesus' Wife"

Week of October 8, 2012


By Rev. Richard P. McBrien


A fragment of a fourth-century papyrus, written in Coptic, makes some reference to Jesus' wife. It got front-page attention in The New York Times. The story seemed to have the imprimatur of a professor at Harvard Divinity School in an academic paper which she delivered recently in Rome.

Predictably, other newspapers and television and radio outlets were on their phones looking for comments from theologians and various religious spokesmen and spokeswomen.

Catholics and a large number of non-Catholics assume that there is a Catholic answer, and that it begins with some variation on the leading expression, "of course not". They would be surprised if a Catholic began to answer in any other way. Sort of like a "man bites dog" response.

But only a conservative Catholic would expect there to be a Catholic answer to the question, and would quickly excoriate anyone, especially a Catholic theologian, who might say otherwise.

In a subsequent op-ed piece in The Times, Father James Martin, a Jesuit editor at America magazine, while noting that there wasn't much evidence in the New Testament or church history for the hypothesis that Jesus had been married, said that he wouldn't be troubled one way or the other. Whether Jesus was married would make no difference to his faith in Jesus or his vow of chastity.

The controversy had reached a boiling point in various forms over the centuries; and most recently with the discussion surrounding Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) and the subsequent film version (2006).

I would agree almost totally with Father Martin who wrote in The New York Times whether Jesus had a wife or not would make no difference to his faith in Jesus or to his vow of chastity. But, unfortunately, many Catholics might assume that the vow of chastity and the promise of celibacy are one and the same. They are not.

Every human being is bound to practice the virtue of chastity, even if they might differ on its content and scope, whether vowed or not. On the other hand, the promise of celibacy is not in response to a divine command.

There are Catholic priests who are married (for example, ex-Anglicans and ex-Episcopalians who have become Roman Catholics and priests of the various Eastern rites), while thousands of Catholic priests of the Roman or Latin rite are indeed still bound by the man-made promise of celibacy.

If Jesus had a wife, however, the primary basis for obligatory clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church would be out the window.

So the question is an important one after all. It affects thousands of priests in the Roman Catholic Church, including most of its pastors and associates, as well as priests who teach in our colleges, universities, and high schools, the many who are chaplains in the military, in hospitals, and in prisons, the dwindling few who serve as editors of their diocesan newspapers and other publications, and priests in various special ministries.

The Vatican, however, has subsequently said in a sharply worded editorial published in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, that ample evidence existed to dismiss the papyrus as an "inept forgery" and "a fake."

Dr. Karen King, the Harvard scholar, did not imply in her paper that Jesus had been married, but she did suggest that the question of his celibacy and marital status was a matter of debate among early Christians.

According to The Times, Dr. King has arranged to have the chemical composition of the ink tested at Harvard in mid-October. She said in an interview that the center at Harvard could not schedule the testing before she had presented her paper.

Where does that leave us? Pretty much where we were at the beginning of the most recent controversy. However, the issue remains important, even to the Vatican. The future of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church remains in the balance.

This essay is provided by the Faithful of Southern Illinois (FOSIL). Please share it with a friend. We welcome your comments and contributions. Let us know if you wish to be added to our mailing list. Our new website that includes these essays and Roger Karban's commentaries on the Sunday Scripture readings is www.fosilonline.com.
Faithful of Southern Illinois, P. O. Box 31, Belleville, IL 62222


"The LCWR"

Week of October 29, 2012


By Rev. Richard P. McBrien


It's old news by now, but I want to add my name to the already long list of people who have supported the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) over against the Vatican and their allies in North America.

The nuns have been in the forefront of the struggle to keep the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council alive, not only in religious communities of women but also in the Catholic Church at large.

Unfortunately, the LCWR is a scapegoat for everything that the right-wing in the Catholic Church loathes. One should recognize that ultra-conservatives exist in the highest ranks of the Vatican, excluding no ecclesiastical office in the Church.

As I said (to a standing ovation) at the symposium held in my honor at the University of Notre Dame toward the end of April, few North American Catholics would be Catholics today if it were not for the nuns. The nuns, I insisted (to another standing ovation), are the greatest asset to the Church in North America, and one hopes and prays that the Vatican will soon come to realize that as well.

The nuns are not only among the leaders in the Church who wish the keep alive the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council, but are also among the thousands who are celebrating with the rest of the Church the fiftieth anniversary of the Council's opening in the fall of 1962.

The Council brought fresh air into the Church, just as Pope John XXIII had hoped, but neither he nor his closest friends could have foreseen the terrible backlash he would also unleash.

He couldn't have foreseen, for example, the concerted efforts of his successors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to undermine the Council, consciously or not, by the appointment of bishops and archbishops unfriendly to the Council.

Examples of such bishops are (with the diocese and year they were first ordained a bishop): Thomas Welsh, Arlington, 1970 (now deceased); Thomas Daily, Brooklyn, 1974 (now retired); Nicholas DiMarzio, Brooklyn, 1996; David Ricken, Green Bay, 2000; Richard Lennon, Cleveland, 2001.

Examples of such archbishops are: John Myers, Newark, 1987; Joseph Kurtz, Louisville, 1999; Jose Gomez, Los Angeles, 2001; Francis George, Chicago, 1990; Charles Chaput, Philadelphia, 1988; Edward Egan, New York, 1985 (now retired).

Nor could John XXIII have foreseen the wholesale assault on the nuns of the United States, not only in the "visitation" of the sisters' communities, but also in the investigation of the LCWR, which has been the source of so much good for the U.S. Church.

Neither could he have foreseen the demoralization that has set into the Catholic Church nowadays, with many Catholics looking forlornly at the Second Vatican Council as if it never happened and the pontificate of John XXIII as if he never existed.

The bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI insist that they support the council, but that it was misinterpreted by progressive Catholics. Progressive Catholics, on the other hand, feel that the recent crop of bishops overemphasize the abortion issue to the practical exclusion of the Church's traditional emphasis on social justice and the needs of the poor, which the Nuns on the Bus have highlighted.

We cannot overemphasize the fact that a pall of sadness now covers the Church. Many have dropped out (the recent Pew poll disclosed that ex-Catholics constitute one-tenth of the U.S. religious landscape), others stay because they have found a worshiping community that meets their spiritual needs (usually on a college or university campus, where the long arms of a bishop cannot reach).

But I have not given up hope, nor should you, my readers. The nuns (including the LCWR) will eventually be vindicated, a new pope will be elected whom the electors think is only a seat-warmer (just as they once regarded John XXIII), and the pendulum will swing the other way. It always has.

Some of us will never see the change, like the saintly Moses, but it will come. As John XXIII insisted, history is the great teacher of life. And history has much to teach us.

This essay is provided by the Faithful of Southern Illinois (FOSIL). Please share it with a friend. We welcome your comments and contributions. Let us know if you wish to be added to our mailing list. Our new website that includes these essays and Roger Karban's commentaries on the Sunday Scripture readings is www.fosilonline.com.
Faithful of Southern Illinois, P. O. Box 31, Belleville, IL 62222

Archives in PDF format

2012 Essays
October 8 and October 29, 2012

2011 Essays
January 2 and January 9, 2012
December 19 and December 26, 2011
December 5 and December 12, 2011
November 21 and November 28, 2011
November 7 and November 14, 2011
October 24 and October 31, 2011
October 10 and October 17, 2011
September 26 and October 3, 2011
September 12 and September 19, 2011
August 29 and September 5, 2011
August 15 and 22, 2011
August 01 and 08, 2011
July 25, 2011
July 11, 2011
June 27, 2011
June 13, 2011
May 30, 2011
May 16, 2011
April 18, 2011
April 4, 2011
March 21, 2011
March 7th, 2011
February 21, 2011
February 7, 2011

2010 Essays
October 11, 2010
The Reverend
Richard McBrien
BornRichard Peter McBrien
(1936-08-19)August 19, 1936
DiedJanuary 25, 2015(2015-01-25) (aged 78)
Farmington, Connecticut
EducationGregorian University, Rome
OccupationTheologian, writer, professor
Notable workCatholicism
Theological work
EraPost-Vatican II
Main interestsImplementing Vatican II
Catholic Church renewal
Notable ideasAdvocated "seamless garment" of social teaching

Richard Peter McBrien (August 19, 1936 – January 25, 2015) was a Catholicpriest and the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, United States. He authored twenty-five books, including the very popular Catholicism, a reference text on the topic after Vatican II.


Richard P. McBrien was born on August 19, 1936, the fourth of five children of Thomas H. and Catherine (Botticelli) McBrien.[1] His father was a police officer; his mother a nurse. McBrien earned his bachelor's degree at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Connecticut, in 1956, and a master's at St. John Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1962.[2] He was ordained as a Catholic priest for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford in 1962. His first assignment as a priest was at Our Lady of Victory Church in New Haven, Connecticut.[3] McBrien obtained his doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1967.[4] He taught at the Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts.[3]

McBrien authored several books and articles discussing Catholicism. He is most well known for his authorship of Catholicism. He also served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1974–1975. In 1976 he was the awarded the John Courtney Murray Award for outstanding and distinguished accomplishments in theology. McBrien served as Chair of the Department of Theology of the University of Notre Dame from 1980 to 1991. Prior to going to Notre Dame, McBrien taught at Boston College, where he was director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.[5]

McBrien's scholarly interests included ecclesiology, the relationship between religion and politics, and the theological, doctrinal, and spiritual aspects of the Catholic Church. McBrien published 25 books and was the general editor of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism.[1] He also served as an on-air commentator on Catholic events for CBS in addition to his regular contribution as a commentator on several major television networks. He was also a consultant for ABC News. He wrote several essays for the National Catholic Reporter as well as for The Tidings in Los Angeles. He produced a syndicated theological column for the Catholic press, Essays in Theology.[6]

Notre Dame Professor of Theology Brian Daley described his colleague as representing "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."[7]

McBrien died after a lengthy illness, at his home in Farmington, Connecticut, on January 25, 2015, at the age of seventy-eight.[1]


McBrien was a controversial figure in the American Catholic Church, due mainly to conflict surrounding his published works and public remarks.[8][6][9]

USCCB critique of Catholicism[edit]

McBrien's Catholicism sold over 150,000 copies in its original two volume, 1980 edition.[10] Together with its revised, one volume edition (1994), Catholicism was a widely used reference text and found in parish libraries throughout the United States.[2] Nevertheless, sections within the text have been a matter of contention. Critics have noted that Catholicism does not bear a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur declarations from the Church that state the book is free of moral or doctrinal error.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine found that the book "poses pastoral problems particularly as a textbook in undergraduate college courses and in parish education programs," and "as a book for people who are not specialists in theological reasoning and argumentation, Catholicism poses serious difficulties."[8] The Committee on Doctrine noted that McBrien had presented some core Catholic teachings as one view among many instead of as the authoritative views of the Church.[11] Criticism included that the book contained statements which are "inaccurate or misleading," that it exaggerates "plurality" within the Catholic theological tradition, and that it overemphasizes "change and development" in the history of Catholic doctrine, even though official dogmas of the Catholic Church are, according to the Magisterium, unchangeable truths.[8] After the Bishops Conference criticism of Catholicism a number of diocesan newspapers dropped his column.[6]

"Seamless garment"[edit]

In 2004 McBrien wrote a column supporting "Seamless garment" theory propounded by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in 1983, which holds that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. His position prompted criticism from what McBrien characterized as “single-issue, anti-abortion Catholics."[6]

Reviews of Encyclopedia of Catholicism[edit]

McBrien also served as the general editor of The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. According to Thomas Guarino, "one has the impression that it was written for undergraduates who have little or no idea of what was once the common world and parlance of Catholic culture."[12] The review itself elaborates, "It is intended as a handy reference for students or journalists who need a quick and succinct explanation of some Catholic term or practice." It concludes by stating that some "articles are models of precision and succinctness. The better ones include Revelation, Apostolic Succession, Conciliarism, Faith, Hell, Heresy, Homosexuality, Immortality, Inerrancy, Justification, Magisterium, Mary, Purgatory, and the Vicar of Christ. These have the merit of explaining clearly and concisely what the Catholic Church believes and why."[13]

Accusation of plagiarism[edit]

In March 2006 the Virginia Cardinal Newman Society sent an allegation of plagiarism against McBrien to the University of Notre Dame where he taught. McBrien vigorously denied having plagiarized and John Cavadini, Chair of Notre Dame’s theology department, dismissed the charges which he pointed out were raised by a "militant, right-wing Catholic interest group."[14]

The Da Vinci Code[edit]

McBrien served as a paid consultant for the controversial film The Da Vinci Code, a movie that offended many Catholics because it portrayed a sexual relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.[15]

Eucharistic adoration[edit]

In September 2009, McBrien published an article in the National Catholic Reporter in which he criticized the centuries-old devotional practice of Eucharistic Adoration, calling it "a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward."[16]

Criticism of popes[edit]

In a 1991 op-ed piece, McBrien discussed "the prolonged, slow-motion coup that has been under way in the church since the election of Pope John Paul II in October 1978,"[17] in which he saw "Ecclesiastical hard-liners, fearful of the loss of power and privilege, ... attempting to reverse the new, progressive course set by Pope John XXIII."[17][9]

During a 1992 talk in Indianapolis he criticised “current discipline on obligatory celibacy and the ordination of women,” and challenged Catholics to take far more seriously the teachings of the Church on social justice, service, and evangelisation.[9]

In 2012 McBrien told The National Catholic Reporter: “If there are any reasons for the bad patch the church is now going through, it is the appointments to the hierarchy and the promotions within made by John Paul and Benedict. By and large, they have all been conservative."[3]


McBrien’s Lives of Saints and Lives of the Popes provide detailed biographical information in addition to discussing the larger religious and historical significance of saints and popes. He later published pocket guides to each of these volumes to supply more accessible information.

  • Religion and Politics in America, (1987)
  • Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from Saint Peter to John Paul II (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000 (revised in 2006), ISBN 0-06-065304-3)
  • The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (2008, ISBN 0-06-124521-6)
  • The Pocket Guide to the Popes (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-113773-1)
  • The Pocket Guide to the Saints (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-113774-X)
  • Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-123283-1)
  • 101 Questions & Answers on the Church (Paulist Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8091-4250-3)
  • Responses to 101 Questions on the Church (Paulist Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8091-3638-4)
  • The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, ISBN 0-06-065338-8)
  • Inside Catholicism (Signs of the Sacred) (HarperCollins, 1995, ISBN 0-00-649052-2) A Roman Catholic theology, history, and morality.
  • How To Give Up Sex (co-authored with Roger Planer and John Riley: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989, ISBN 0-450-49473-X)
  • Ministry: A Theological, Pastoral Handbook (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, ISBN 0-06-065324-8)
  • Caesar's Coin: Religion and Politics in America (MacMillan, 1987, ISBN 0-02-919720-1)
  • In Search of God (Dimension Books, 1977, ISBN 0-87193-082-X)
  • The Remaking of the Church: An Agenda for Reform (Harper & Row, 1973, ISBN 0-06-065327-2)
  • For the Inquiring Catholic: Questions and Answers for the 1970s (Dimension Books, 1973)
  • Who is a Catholic? (Dimension Books, 1971)
  • Church: The Continuing Quest (Paulist Press, 1970, ISBN 0-8091-1525-5)
  • The Church in the Thought of Bishop John Robinson (Westminster Press 1966, SCM Press 1966)


External links[edit]

  1. ^ abc"richardmcbrien.com". richardmcbrien.com. Retrieved 2017-07-16. 
  2. ^ ab"Fr. Richard McBrien, theologian and church expert, dies at 78". National Catholic Reporter. 2015-01-25. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  3. ^ abcRoberts, Sam (2015-01-28). "Rev. Richard McBrien, Dissenting Catholic Theologian, Dies at 78". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-07-16. 
  4. ^Dame, ENR // OPAC // University of Notre. "Rev. Richard P. McBrien // Department of Theology // University of Notre Dame". theology.nd.edu. Retrieved 2017-07-16. 
  5. ^Dame, ENR/PAZ // University Communications: Web // University of Notre. "In memoriam: Theologian Rev. Richard P. McBrien". Notre Dame News. Retrieved 2017-07-16. 
  6. ^ abcd"Fr. McBrien attacks pro-life bishops in syndicated column". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  7. ^"Life after Richard McBrien: Q&A with Father Brian Daley, S.J."America Magazine. 2015-01-28. Retrieved 2017-07-16. 
  8. ^ abcNational Council of Catholic Bishops (April 9, 1996). Review of Fr. McBrien's Catholism. CatholicCulture.org. Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.
  9. ^ abc"Notre Dame theologian Fr Richard McBrien dies | CatholicHerald.co.uk". CatholicHerald.co.uk. 2015-01-27. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  10. ^"Colleagues celebrate career of Fr. Richard McBrien". National Catholic Reporter. 2012-04-23. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  11. ^"The Rev. Richard McBrien dies at 78; liberal Catholic theologian". Los Angeles Times. 2015-01-27. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  12. ^"Library : Dealing with Dissent: Fr. Richard McBrien". www.catholicculture.org. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  13. ^Guarino, Thomas. "The View from South Bend." First Things 56 (October 1995): 53.
  14. ^"Controversial Notre Dame priest accused of plagiarism…again", Catholic News Agency, March 14, 2006 Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.
  15. ^"Fr. Richard McBrien named in ‘apparent plagiarism’", Catholic News Agency, January 16, 2006 Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.
  16. ^"Perpetual eucharistic adoration". National Catholic Reporter. 2009-09-08. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
  17. ^ ab"The Catholic coup". tribunedigital-baltimoresun. Retrieved 2017-07-15. 
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