By Barb Arland-Fye
“Father (Richard) McBrien died,” my husband said while checking his email after dinner last Sunday night. I had mentioned the theologian’s name earlier in the day in a conversation about his weekly column that appeared for years in The Catholic Messenger, unaware that he had died.
The retired professor at the University of Notre Dame who served 11 years as head of its theology department had been ill for some time. He died Jan. 25 at age 78 in Connecticut.
Readers of The Catholic Messenger either loved his column or hated it. Supporters referred to Fr. McBrien as a “progressive” Catholic, while opponents viewed him as a liberal who antagonized conservative Catholics. A search of the newspaper’s archives show that Fr. McBrien’s columns date back to at least 1975 in The Catholic Messenger. He delved deeply into issues impacting the church and took a critical look at its leadership. We ran his columns until 2012 when illness prevented him from writing regularly.
My initiation into the brouhaha over Fr. McBrien’s column began shortly after I assumed the managing editor’s position at The Catholic Messenger in February 2002. Working for the secular press for 21 years seemed like a cakewalk in comparison to responding to the passionate letters and phone calls I received about Fr. McBrien’s weekly column.
Always a priest in good standing, he advocated for ordination of women to the priesthood and setting aside the requirement of priest celibacy, among other hot button topics. Feedback on his columns provided insight about what Catholics were thinking and how they perceived the church at work in the world today.
One letter writer wrote in August 2004: “… Father Richard McBrien certainly shows himself to be a water carrier for the Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) by reporting and thus advancing all of its avant-garde ideas (he calls it “answering questions”). Do you suppose he would have been invited or would have attended that VOTF event if he didn’t have an affinity for its liberal demands? (Women priests. Married priests. “Non-ordained lay persons celebrating the Eucharist.” Does that mean “consecrating” the Eucharist? Get real!)
Conversely, in February 2012, a letter writer wrote: “… Along with the weekly headlines, Fr. McBrien’s column is among the first I read, because of (not despite) the fact it sometimes presents counterpoints to our popular awareness of things ‘Catholic.’ Fr. McBrien’s weekly input of just a few dozen column inches represents a very small percentage of the Messenger’s content, and I think we can tolerate that deep a scratch in our collective epidermis. Contrary to the accusations of last week’s letter writers, the occasional counterpoint does not cause me to ‘wonder then wander’ or to seek ‘an excuse to leave.’ To the contrary, it draws me in and I usually read the whole paper from front to back….”
Throughout its run, Fr. McBrien’s column had the approval of The Catholic Messenger Board of Directors, led by the bishop who also serves as the newspaper’s publisher. The board wrote:
“The purpose of the editorial page of any newspaper is to present opinions, not to report news. The opinion of the board is that Fr. McBrien’s columns fulfill that function; they are thought-provoking and raise important issues in the contemporary church. Moreover, he is a priest-theologian in good standing and his opinions are well within the acceptable standards for Catholic theological opinion.”
To be honest, I didn’t always agree with Fr. McBrien’s opinions or his approach toward the Catholics he criticized. But I spent considerable time defending his right to write about them in The Catholic Messenger.
I believe that all Catholics should have the opportunity to read about and engage in dialogue pertaining to the church. We learn from one another and can deepen our own understanding and perspective by our willingness to listen to other viewpoints.