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Notre Dame theologian Fr Richard McBrien dies

Fr Richard McBrien (CNS)

Fr Richard McBrien, a retired professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and who was chair of the university’s theology department for 11 years, died on Sunday at the age of 78 in Connecticut, in the US.

An announcement by the university said Fr McBrien had died after a long illness, but did not specify the cause of death.

A wake and visitation for the priest was scheduled for Thursday afternoon and evening at the Church of St. Helena in West Hartford, Connecticut. His funeral Mass will be celebrated on Friday at the same church. Notre Dame said a memorial Mass would be celebrated on its campus in the coming weeks.

In addition to his teaching, Fr McBrien wrote 25 books as well as a weekly syndicated column, Essays in Theology, for the Catholic press for nearly 50 years.

His writings often raised hackles among Catholics from the pews all the way to Rome.

“While often controversial, his work came from a deep love of and hope for the church,” said a January 25 statement from Holy Cross Fr John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.

Ordained in 1962 as a priest for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, Fr McBrien joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1980. He also was a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a recipient of its John Courtney Murray Award for “outstanding and distinguished achievement in theology.”

Among his books is Catholicism, first published in 1980 with a study edition issued shortly thereafter, plus a revised edition in 1994.

In 1985, the US bishops’ Committee on Doctrine praised the “many positive features” of the book but criticised its treatment of some points of Church teaching and called for clarification and revision of several elements it found “confusing and ambiguous” or “not supportive of the church’s authoritative teaching as would be expected” in such a bookC

After the 1994 edition was published, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the US bishops to look into it. A staff review said the new edition gave insufficient weight to Church teaching in some areas, including homosexuality, contraception and women’s ordination. It questioned the use of the book as a text for beginning theology students, adding the new edition “had not corrected the ambiguities identified” in the second edition. Fr McBrien criticised the doctrinal committee for turning down his request for a formal doctrinal dialogue he sought.

Other books of Fr McBrien’s include 2008’s The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism; 1997’s Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs From St. Peter to John Paul II; 1996’s Responses to 101 Questions of the Church and 1995’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism, both of which won Catholic Press Association book awards for best popular presentation of the Catholic faith; and 1992’s Report on the Church: Catholicism After Vatican II.

A St Francis de Sales Award finalist in 1993, Father McBrien received a certificate in 1991 for the 25th anniversary of his syndicated column.

Not that the columns were without controversy. Some readers of diocesan Catholic newspapers sought to have the priest’s column pulled from their pages.

One bishop, then-Bishop James Keleher of Belleville, Illinois, cancelled it — the first time he said he had ever intervened as publisher in the business of his diocesan paper. “After many years of difficult reflection on the matter,” he said at the time, he pulled the column as “chief teacher of our local church,” because he felt it “frequently challenged what I want to be communicated to my people.” His decision prompted a published disagreement from the editor and a host of letters, most of them against the move.

Fr McBrien weighed in on many topics affecting the Church.

During a 1992 talk in Indianapolis that drew seven times its expected turnout, 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, evangelisation and other aspects of Christian life. “I know I will disappoint those looking for heresy,” Fr McBrien said. “I shall try not to disappoint those looking for substance and for hope.”

At a 1991 conference in Washington in the wake of political machinations in the former Soviet Union, he said there had been a coup of sorts in the Catholic Church. It was “too close to be denied, and too important to be ignored,” he said.

“We Catholics have been living these past 13 years through a prolonged, slow-motion coup of our own against the reforms of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council,” he added.

“Although no phone lines have been cut and no one placed under house arrest, it is a coup nonetheless, fueled by the ideology of the defeated minority at Vatican II and their heirs.”