Fr. McBrien’s column misleads readers


By Deacon Frank Agnoli

Debate over and even criticism of the Church may be legitimate — as long as it is done respectfully and honestly, and that it serves the life of faith. Father Richard McBrien’s recent column (“Linking abuse and the ordination of women”) fails on all accounts.

Fr. McBrien omits crucial details, leaving his readers with the impression that the Vatican document mentions only the sexual abuse of minors and the attempted “ordination” of women. Rather, last May, the Vatican issued a set of norms (updating a 2001 document) for handling the most serious infractions of Church law. The document begins by listing what crimes fall in this category — such as the desecration of the Eucharist or breaking the seal of confession; the sexual abuse of minors, including the possession of child pornography; and the attempted “ordination” of women. The document then goes on to describe the canonical procedures for dealing with such crimes. Fr. McBrien’s claim of a “linkage” between crimes is erroneous and unnecessarily inflammatory — as is his unsupported claim that celibacy and an all-male priesthood are, in and of themselves, the causes of the abuse crisis.

Citing the New York Times (which is hardly known for objective reporting on Catholic matters), he claims that those responsible for this document “linked” both crimes in order to “oppose any suggestion that sexual abuse within the priesthood” has anything to do with celibacy or an all-male priesthood. He goes further, claiming that the Vatican’s inclusion of both issues in the same document is proof of “the Catholic Church’s scandalously negative attitude toward women.” Fr. McBrien would have us believe that rather than being motivated by love of God and the Church, and care for the most vulnerable, those in the Holy See are only interested in personal power and privilege.

By stating that a number of theologians do not view that the Church’s teaching on the “ordination” of women rises to the same level as our creeds, Fr. McBrien oversimplifies matters. He gives the impression that in the Church there are either core dogmas or time-bound opinions, and nothing in-between — and that the teaching on women’s ordination falls into the latter category. Rather, the question of the weight of Church teaching — and the responses that it calls forth from us — is much richer than Fr. McBrien allows.


No one, not even Pope John Paul II, placed this teaching on par with, say, our belief in the divinity of Christ; but that does not mean it is simply one option among many that we are free to ignore.

In the end, it seems to me that Fr. McBrien simply repeats his same complaints, reiterating what he thinks is wrong with the Church and what ought to be done to “fix” it. 

By omission, he misleads his readers. By suggesting that those called to shepherd the Church are inherently untrustworthy and driven by the most negative of possible motives, he panders to the worst in us and perpetuates division and disunity in the Body of Christ.  As a result, he fails to help us live our faith more fully — in hope and joy and love. That is an unhealthy and unhelpful outcome, no matter where one lies on the theological spectrum. I agree with letter writer Sharon Hude: It is time for The Messenger to feed us with something more life-giving.

(Deacon Agnoli is director of liturgy and of deacon formation for the Davenport Diocese.)

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