Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics
Pro-lifers are very much aware of the battle for the “soul” of their respective religious communities: will they, or will they not adopt the immorality of the permissive society and thereby earn the world’s approval as “progressive”?
Within the Catholic Church in English Canada, the Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics (CCCC) is the current vehicle through which the assault on firm moral standards is being waged. The CCCC claims 1,500 members. Their influence in schools and academia is considerable. Because they propose to forego strictness in favour of permissiveness, their message is popular.
In January of this year, the CCCC organized a speaking tour of dissenting Catholic priest Philip Kaufman (See The Interim, March 1992, p. 10).
In early May, the same group is bringing two other dissenters to Toronto: Father John Callahan from Washington, D.C., and Father Richard McBrien, the celebrated theologian at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.
Fr. Richard McBrien
As in the case of Fr. Kaufman, one can learn much about the ideas of the CCCC by examining the views of Fr. McBrien.
Fr. McBrien is no stranger to Canada. For example, he spoke in Toronto at the Curriculum Conference of OECTA (Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association) in October 1986, and in 1987 he delivered the spring lecture series at Newman Theological College in Edmonton.
What are his views?
Humanae vitae (On human life)
As for so many other modern theologians, so also Fr. Richard McBrien, the great dividing line between assent to ordinary Church teaching and dissent came with Pope Paul VI’s landmark 1968 encyclical on birth control. From then on he has fought a guerrilla war against Church teaching.
From the early 1970s on, Fr. McBrien gained recognition as a syndicated columnist for Catholic weeklies.
He also published several books. In 1980 he released his two-volume work Catholicism (second edition in 1982), for which he is now best known.
A one-volume study edition appeared in 1981 (revised in 1986).
Catholicism is not an account of the faith of the Catholic Church. Rather it is a systematic exposition of Fr. McBrien’s theological views.
The New Zealand theologian George Duggan, in an extended review of the book entitled “Freewheeling through the Dogmas” (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, January 1981; Christian Order, Aug/Sept 1981), puts it this way:
“Even where his views are in harmony with the dogmatic definitions of the Church, the agreement is coincidental, for his principles are such that no dogma has any security of tenure in his theology.
“He maintains (p. 72) that there has been a new development in Catholic thinking and practice in that theologians have recently acquired the right to dissent from the teaching of the Magisterium. Where they got this right from, he does not say …
“Rejecting Scholastic philosophy…he acknowledges his indebtedness to the 18th-century Enlightenment (p. 640) and his own philosophy seems to be a form of Idealism (cf. p. 1178), and more specifically, a version of Hegelian historicism.
Experience all important
“History, he tells us, is absolute, since it determines what is. Indeed it is ‘the creative act of God, through which God is manifested and continues to be manifested to us’ (p. 228). Accordingly, in his theologizing he does not start from Scripture and the documents of Catholic Tradition, as the old ‘authority-oriented theology’ used to do, but proceeds inductively from the given of human existence and present Christian experience (p. 17).
“One element in the present experience of Christians is the fact of dissent by theologians. So, just as in the Hegelian philosophy the Prussian State had a right to its share of Poland because it had in fact absorbed that part of the country, the dissenting theologians will have acquired the right to dissent from the fact that they are dissenting.
“Wherever he got the right from, Fr. McBrien does not hesitate to exercise it when he comes to deal with doctrines taught by the Magisterium with which he disagrees. Nor does it matter whether they have been defined by an ecumenical council or the Pope or authoritatively taught by the ordinary Magisterium. He declares that for any doctrine to be acceptable, it must meet a number of criteria, including the present consensus of theologians (p. 47).”
According to the above philosophical principle, Fr. McBrien wreaks havoc among dogmas.
He defines the “Church” in such a way that it becomes an institution which includes everyone who calls himself a Christian (p. 685).
Authority resides in the community as a whole, but to be real it also must reflect holiness (p. 828). This was an error held by John Wycliffe in the 15th century.
Doctrinal pluralism allows one to reject this or that dogma (for example, those pertaining to the Virgin Mary), while still remaining a true Catholic (p. 885).
These three points alone suffice to recognize Fr. McBrien’s theology as a sure recipe for disaster. It means that there is no real definable church; that there is no effective authority (after all, who is holy?); and that there are no restrictions on how little one must believe in order to qualify as a Catholic and a Christian.
The person of Christ
With respect to the person of the Lord Jesus, Fr. McBrien describes his views as a “Christology from below.”
Thus, he holds that Jesus had normal sex drives and fantasies and therefore could have sinned. This concept formed the central theological error of the 1988 movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, which Fr. McBrien defended.
Correct Christian teaching stresses the impeccability of the God-Man, meaning that Jesus was never subject to disorderly desires and therefore could not have sinned.
The essence of holiness is sinlessness, which includes the incapability of sin. As the French theologian Bertran de Margerie points out, Jesus was not subject to original sin: “In His sacred humanity, Jesus could not experience any interior temptation to any sin of the flesh or to any other type of sin” (Christ for the World, 1973, p. 320).
McBrien argues that both views – his and that of the teaching of the Church – are within the range of orthodox Christian belief.
Already in 1980 the Australian bishops issued a critical Statement:
“We do not recommend Catholicism to primary of secondary school teachers, even as a reference or a resource book. For the same reason, we do not recommend it to the ordinary layman or lay woman as a book in which to look up some point of Catholic teaching.”
But the Australian bishops are far away. Canadian Catholics have done the exact opposite: Fr. McBrien’s Catholicism has become a favorite source book for many a teacher.
In 1985, the U.S. Bishops’ National Committee on Doctrine found that McBrien’s two-volume Catholicism presented some views “difficult to reconcile with authoritative Catholic doctrine.”
The Committee’s Statement of July 5, 1985 – very mild in tone towards Fr. McBrien – nevertheless noted distortions in the teaching of grace, the virginal conception of Jesus, Mary’s perpetual virginity, Christ’s founding of the Church, and the binding force of defined dogmas about Mary. (NCR., July 19, 1985)
The Bishops asked Fr. McBrien to revise his views.
Since that time, however, he has intensified his weekly warfare. A detailed study of his columns from 9185 to 1991 has been summarized as “sometimes small, sometimes large weekly doses of theological cyanide.” (Patrick Beno, The Wanderer, September 26, 1991) The columns present a litany of dissent on Catholic teaching on doctrinal and moral issues.
So, for example, McBrien ridicules those who seek “certitude,” or who believe in Satan (he asserts – erroneously – that belief in the devil as a personal being is not a matter of dogma – May 1991). He belittles Confession (its decline is a ‘welcome liberation from guilt trips’ – 1985). He challenges celibacy and the priesthood for males only whenever he has the opportunity.
With respect to the book Catholicism, the U.S. Bishops noted that McBrien’s views on contraception and the ordination of women “are presented in a way that is not supportive of the Church’s authoritative teachings.”
His views on abortion are worse, concerning a more basic issue – the sanctity of human life itself.
He defends Catholic pro-abortion politicians such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Senator Edward Kennedy against challengers New York Cardinal John O’Connor and Bishop Austin Vaughan. He justifies the politicians’ behavior by distinguishing between moral and civil law, reinforcing the false but widely held view that while the killing of the unborn may be unacceptable under moral law, it is all right under civil law.
This view is held in Canada by many Catholic MPs in Ottawa and politicians in provincial legislatures.
In discussing abortion, Fr. McBrien often falls back on stock falsehoods such as that there is a difference between being “pro-choice” and “pro-abortion”’ that abortion figures are high in Poland because the Church opposes contraception; or that “it’s easy to say, ‘I’m against abortion,’ especially if you are a male.”
Pope John Paul II
Fr. McBrien’s chief target for his angry dissent is Rome. He opposes the forthcoming Universal Catechism (which he says will be used as a “tool of mischief”).
He rejects Cardinal Ratzinger’s pastoral, but truthful approach for homosexuals. In August 1991, he argued that those who oppose homosexuality do so because they themselves are filled with fear and self-righteousness. He said nothing about homosexual activity being a perversion of sexuality.
He denounces Vatican actions – mild as they are – against dissenting theologians such as Hans Kung and Charles Curran.
He thinks John Paul II is too limited by his East European anti-communist experience which, supposedly, has given the Pope an obsession for demanding unity at all times. Pope John Paul, he wrote in 1989, “is also the man who slammed shut the window of renewal that Pope John XXIII opened in 1962.”
It is a refrain to which he returns regularly, a refrain that is so contrary to the truth that it would be laughable were it not for the damage it is doing.
American Catholics, McBrien says, are “used to thinking for themselves” and therefore legitimately look askance at Church authority.
When the Pope told the Assembly of U.S. bishops on his U.S. tour in September 1987 that dissent from the authentic teaching of the Magisterium was not compatible with being a good Catholic, Fr. McBrien commented:
“If the Pope is saying in his talk that dissent from any kind of official Church teaching is unacceptable, then the pope himself is wrong.” (Rochester Courier-Journal, September 24, 1987).
In a recent article in the London Tablet on the state of Catholic theology in the U.S.A. today, Fr. McBrien states that for the modern Catholic theologian there “is no single Catholic theology, only Catholic theologies”; that “all theology is historically conditioned”; and that, therefore, “an enforced orthodoxy” should be seen as “the greatest single obstacle to a living and pastorally relevant theology.” (January 25, 1992)
In 1980 an Australian critic pointed out that McBrien’s “definition of ‘Catholicism’ which the reader is invited to accept is that of a Church whose members are free to choose what they believe within some few dogmatic parameters,” the latter to be reinterpreted as needed by progressive theologians such as Fr. McBrien himself.
This is precisely what CCCC members themselves hope for and, presumably, that is the reason they invited him. The “pick and choose” Catholicism of Father McBrien suits them perfectly.
In fact, they got some of their ideas from him in the first place.