Review of Fr. McBrien’s “Catholicism”

by the National Council of Catholic Bishops’s
Committee on Doctrine

[released April 9, 1996]

In recent letters to Father Richard McBrien, Archbishop John R. Quinn, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, acting chairman upon Archbishop Quinn’s retirement, expressed disappointment that the new edition of Father McBrien’s book Catholicism did not sufficiently correct several deficiencies that the committee had identified in its examination of the first two editions of the book undertaken in the early ’80s. This examination culminated in a 1985 statement specifying a number of deficiencies that the committee hoped would be corrected in any future editions.1

In addition to bringing this matter to the author’s attention, the Committee on Doctrine has also determined that a more general review of the book would now be helpful to the Catholic community at large. This review was prepared by the staff of the Committee on Doctrine and is published with the authorization of the committee.

This review provides an outline of the major difficulties that the book poses from the standpoint of those who are concerned to monitor the possible effects of the book, not on theological specialists, but on theological beginners, the vast majority of the people of God in every age. Insofar as Catholicism is a work of speculative theology, professional theologians may evaluate it; insofar as the book is an introductory textbook of Catholic theology, it has certain shortcomings from the pastoral point of view that will be examined in this review.

The problems which Catholicism poses as an introductory text fall into three categories. First, some statements are inaccurate or at least misleading. Second, there is in the book an overemphasis on the plurality of opinion within the Catholic theological tradition that makes it difficult at times for the reader to discern the normative core of that tradition. Third, Catholicism overstates the significance of recent developments within the Catholic tradition, implying that the past appears to be markedly inferior to the present and obscuring the continuity of the tradition. Falling within the latter two categories are difficulties that reappear throughout the work; they constitute a pattern that could be overlooked by an exclusive focus on particular passages.

A. Examples of Inaccurate or Misleading Statements

1) The Impeccability of Jesus Christ

Catholicism insists that it is possible to hold the faith of the church while maintaining that Jesus Christ could have sinned. “It is not that Jesus Christ was absolutely incapable of sin, but rather that he was able not to sin and, in fact, did not sin“( p. 547). The book argues that “both views-the one favoring impeccability and the one that does not-are within the range of Catholic orthodoxy” (p. 547). This position, however, cannot be reconciled with the Christology of the councils.2 In two natures, Jesus Christ is only one hypostasis (or person), the hypostasis of the Word. With Christ there is no possible subject of the verb to sin. There are indeed two wills in Christ, but only one person, one subject. The contention that Jesus could have sinned, if followed to its logical conclusion, inevitably implies a Nestorian or an adoptionist Christology, though it must be said that Catholicism does not draw such extreme conclusions.3

2) The Virginal Conception of Jesus

Catholicism presents the virgin birth of Jesus as being of uncertain and perhaps even doubtful historicity.4 The book argues that belief in the virgin birth should be considered a theologoumenon, “a nondoctrinal theological interpretation that cannot be verified or refuted on the basis of historical evidence, but that can be affirmed because of its close connection with some defined doctrine about God” (p. 542). While the adjective non-normative has been deleted from the new edition’s definition of theologoumenon (in the study edition, p. 516), the book continues to describe belief in the virgin birth as “nondoctrinal.” This belief, however, has been a constant part of church teaching from the first century and has been reaffirmed by the Holy See since Vatican II.5

It is confusing to say, as Catholicism does (p. 543), that the cooperation of Joseph in the conception of Jesus was not excluded by any explicit definition. That point has been implicitly taught in the creeds, and the implication has been spelled out by constant and repeated magisterial teaching since the fifth century.

The 1985 statement of the Committee on Doctrine pointed to (among other matters) the treatment of the virginal conception of Jesus in Catholicism as one of those that were found “confusing and ambiguous.” This description also applies to the treatment of this question in the new edition, for it remains substantially the same. The book seems to suggest that as a result of modern biblical scholarship the scales tip against the factual historicity of the virginal conception. Interpreted in this way, Catholicism comes very close to denying, if it does not actually deny, an article of faith.

3) The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

While Catholicism offers an examination of the virgin birth and concludes that this belief is a theologoumenon, its treatment of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is purely descriptive and never systematic. The matter is discussed in terms of a descriptive history of the development of this belief, an account that itself appears in the course of an overview of the development of veneration of Mary in general (pp. 1078-1100). This overview has a decidedly skeptical tone, emphasizing the lack of reference and the occasionally negative references to Mary in the New Testament and in the early church, the influence of apocryphal and particularly Docetic writings, and the opposition of major saints and theologians (Bernard, Bonaventure, Aquinas) to doctrines such as the immaculate conception.

The book stresses that the New Testament says nothing about the perpetual virginity of Mary (rather, it speaks of brothers and sisters of Jesus) and asserts that even in the second century there is no evidence for this belief apart from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (pp. 1081-83). According to Catholicism, the development of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary “coincided with a newly positive assessment of virginity” (p. 1083). While the book does not explicitly conclude that the cause for the acceptance of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was the church’s desire to promote virginity as an ascetical state, the reader seems to be invited to draw this inference. It was because the church sought to foster the “glorification of the Virgin Mary for ascetical reasons” that the church ignored the opposition of those like Tertullian who recognized that such a doctrine “introduced a new danger of Docetic trends” (p. 1083). The acceptance of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is presented as closely if not inextricably linked with the fostering of asceticism, which supposedly arose only in the third century. After pointing out the absence of evidence for this belief in the New Testament and second-century fathers, including the opposition of Tertullian, the text continues:

“Mary’s perpetual virginity, however, came to be almost universally accepted from the third century on. By now consecrated virgins had been established as a special state in the church, and Mary was presented to them as their model” (p. 1083).

Although Catholicism does not arrive at any explicit conclusions as to the status of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, the description of the history of the development of this belief gives the impression that rather than a truth that the church only gradually uncovered, the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was a creation of the third-century church as part of its program to promote virginity and asceticism. The book apparently favors the view that Mary had “normal sexual relations after the birth of Jesus” and that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters, while admitting, however, that the New Testament evidence does not constitute an “insuperable” barrier to the belief that Mary remained ever a virgin (p.1081).

B. Overemphasis on Plurality Within the Catholic Theological Tradition

1) The Focus on Description

Catholicism is committed to presenting a wide plurality of theological positions, both Catholic and non-Catholic. This emphasis on description, however, leaves the necessary task of synthesis relatively neglected. The book gives an overview of the theological scene in all of its variety and presents numerous brief summaries of many positions. It confronts the reader with a broad range of opinions and requires the reader to make judgments among them. The problem, however, is that the reading of the text itself does not prepare the reader to do this. The rapid succession of brief summaries does little to help a beginner to understand, for often such summaries are only useful if one already has knowledge of the subject. The book does not do enough to enable the reader to grasp what is the main current of the Catholic teaching and theological tradition.7

The central problem is the fact that the intended audience of the book is those who are just beginning to study theology. The book requires the reader to find his or her own way through what is sometimes a bewildering number and variety of positions. There is a difference between respecting the intelligence of the reader and making unrealistic demands upon one’s intended audience. While a trained theologian may have little trouble negotiating through the various positions presented, a beginner does not have a developed sense of what are really important departures from Catholic tradition and what are not. The danger here is that the reader could simply become confused about what the church believes. It is a weakness of this book that, by devoting so much attention to the presentation of the multiplicity of opinion, it provides insufficient direction for those seeking to know what is truly at the core of the faith.

2) The Mainstream and the Fringes

Catholicism’s emphasis on the plurality of theological positions on various issues is that by including so many positions it leaves the reader with the impression that all of these positions are part of the mainstream theological conversation, when in fact a number of them are decidedly on the fringes. The burden is on the reader to discern which positions are in the mainstream and which are not.

For example, when the book places the Christology of Hans Kung between that of Karl Rahner and Walter Kasper, it implies that all three are equally representative of the Catholic theological tradition. Similarly, the opinion of a radical feminist such as Rosemary Radford Ruether appears among the Catholic positions on ecclesiology (p. 704) and worship (pp. 1073-74). Matthew Fox is treated as one of the major figures of post-Vatican II spirituality; the only hint that the text gives as to Fox’s position on the outer fringes of Catholic theology is the understated caution that “the titles of his early trilogy of spiritual books tended to veer somewhat from the conventional” (p. 1048). This descriptive approach, with its successive summaries of various positions, does not provide the beginner with enough information to assess the place of these positions within the Catholic theological tradition as a whole.

One of the schools of thought presented is that of feminism. The label feminism connotes a broad range of concerns and opinions. While feminist theology has made an important contribution to Catholic thought, some of the positions taken by feminist theologians are in fact quite far from mainstream Catholic theology, if not actually inconsistent with orthodox belief. The problem is that Catholicism embraces feminist theology as a category in toto, without making any distinctions, and gives no hint as to the extent to which some forms of feminist theology are in tension with the Catholic theological tradition. The book portrays feminist theology as part of the established consensus of contemporary theology and adopts its language, speaking in terms of “patriarchy” and “androcentricism” (pp. 350-355, 533). In the Preface, the book presents the emergence of feminist theology as the foremost example of positive change in the church since 1980 (p. xliv). One of the essential criteria offered for Catholic Christology is a congruence with a feminist interpretation of Christ:

“Christological explanations which interpret the maleness of Christ in an androcentric way or the headship of Christ in a patriarchal way effectively deny the proclamation and praxis of Jesus regarding the universality of God’s love and the openness of the kingdom to all, women and men alike” (p. 533).

Catholicism offers no explanation of the meaning of the terms patriarchy and androcentrism, however, and fails to give the reader a sense of the degree to which aspects of feminist methodology are in tension with the tradition.

Particularly troubling are the discussions of the “fatherhood of God” and ‘God language” (pp. 352-55) and the treatment of the maleness of Jesus in a chapter on Christology (pp. 512-13). It seems to be implied that the practice of speaking of God as Father or Son and of Christ as bridegroom is “patriarchal” and “androcentric.” The reader is not alerted, however, to the difficulty of reconciling these radical theses with biblical usage and the Catholic tradition. The biblical and traditional language, even in cases where it is figurative, cannot be reduced to freely chosen metaphors for which we may substitute others at will. Titles such as Father, Son and bridegroom are indelibly inscribed in the Christian consciousness and have authentically theological reasons behind them. The admittedly demanding but nonetheless crucial questions of revelatory language and of the “analogy of faith” at issue here do not receive adequate treatment.

3) Insufficient Weight Given to Magisterial Teaching

While Catholicism is concerned to include a wide range of voices in the theological conversation, the teaching of the pope and bishops is often reduced to just another voice alongside those of private theologians. By presenting the range of views, the text is obviously intended to reflect the fact that there is serious debate over certain questions in the contemporary church. The problem is not that the book describes positions in opposition to those of the magisterium, but rather that its presentation often lends them more weight than the magisterium itself. The method in several controversial questions is to present the official teaching and then to follow it with a rebuttal by Catholics who disagree. The impression is thus given that the “official” teaching is only one among a number of opinions, in no way binding on the faithful.

For example, the presentations of the questions of contraception, homosexuality and women’s ordination all take for granted that these are open questions; the official church teaching appears as merely one of the options for the reader.8 Different positions are presented, and it is left to the reader to make a choice, while the text implies that the “official church position” is erroneous on all three points.9

In the treatment of contraception-one of those matters pointed to in the Committee on Doctrine’s 1985 statement as “confusing and ambiguous”–it might have been appropriate to mention that five popes since 1930 have consistently taught that contraception is intrinsically evil. For this and other reasons, Catholics who reject this teaching would be invited to reconsider their positions. The treatment of contraception in Catholicism, however, does not encourage such Catholics to undertake a reconsideration of their views on the matter, but rather confirms them in their lack of acceptance of magisterial teaching.

Likewise, the question of women’s ordination is another problematic aspect of the book cited in the 1985 statement that has not been corrected. Again, the issue is handled simply as a “disputed question” in theology. The official teaching of the church is inserted in a section headed “arguments against,” thus giving the impression that whatever doctrine the church may have on the question is not binding.

A further weakness is that the arguments on each side are presented so succinctly that they are hardly intelligible unless one consults the documents to which the book refers. In particular, Catholicism gives an oversimplified summary of the 1976 report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The book maintains that the commission “reported that it could find no support for the exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood on the basis of the biblical evidence alone” (p. 776, emphasis added). It does not report the commission’s statement that “the masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested to by Scripture in an undeniable way.” While acknowledging that the New Testament by itself alone does not settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the priesthood,” the report did say: Some think that in the Scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility, considering that the sacraments of eucharist and reconciliation have a special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out by the New Testament.”

Finally, there are passages in the book that speak of popes having “erred in matters of faith” (p. 781; cf. p. 762) and having come down on the side of a heretical position” (p. 479) without explaining the scope and significance of such errors. In the absence of further explanation, such statements could serve to cast doubt on the reliability of church teaching. Catholicism gives insufficient clarification on such issues.

4) Doctrinal Minimalism

Also in keeping with the emphasis on the plurality of opinion within the Catholic tradition, the overall direction of the text of Catholicism is toward reducing to an absolute minimum the church teachings and beliefs that are to be considered essential to the Catholic faith and to which one must adhere in order to consider oneself Catholic. In part, this is the result of the aforementioned inclusion of a range of widely divergent and sometimes contradictory positions in the theological discussion, an inclusion that implies that there is very little that these positions hold in common.

At the same time, a tendency toward minimalism also arises from what appears to be the book’s concern to accommodate those who may have difficulty accepting some part of the Catholic faith as it has traditionally been understood. At times, the text seems to make every effort to provide Catholics a way out of accepting church teachings or beliefs that are controversial or difficult to understand in terms of contemporary ways of thinking. For example, the book seems to go out of its way to allow someone to remove the doctrine of the virgin birth from any connection with history by asserting that “whether the Holy Spirit’s involvement positively excluded the cooperation of Joseph is not explicitly defined” (p. 543). The implied conclusion of the discussion of the belief in the virgin birth is that as long as one affirmed that in some way Jesus shared an intimate communion with God from birth, then the virginity of Mary is not essential (p. 542). Similarly, the text often implies that the most intellectually respectable position is the minimalist position, the one that makes the least demands upon the believer in terms of reconciling belief with current attitudes of thought, as in the argument for positing ignorance in Jesus, where the book asserts that “there is no incontrovertible proof that [Jesus] claimed a unique sonship not open to other persons” (p. 551).

It is against this backdrop that the brief section on the binding force” of the Marian dogmas (pp. 1102-4) appears somewhat troubling and ill-advised, even if the conclusions, drawn from the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, are in themselves quite nuanced. It seems to fit into a pattern of setting minimum requirements for belief.

C. Overemphasis on Change and Development

Catholicism’s clear affirmation of the superiority of modern theology and modern anthropology -based upon the advances made by modern science and philosophy-provides a crucial background for its presentations of various positions. The problem is that this embrace of modernity is so enthusiastic as to imply a certain naive denigration of premodern thought (and thus of all forms of thought that do not embrace modernity). The text is at times quite harsh in its criticism of patristic and medieval thought (pp. 163-65).’ From the perspective of Catholicism, modern thought has definitively superseded ancient and medieval thought.

Significant scientific, philosophical and theological advances in our understanding of human existence did not occur until the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, with the discoveries of Darwin and Freud, the new social analysis of Marx and the new focus on the human person as subject in the philosophy of Kant, in idealism and in modern psychology. The medieval view of human existence could not, and did not, do justice to the special character of the person” (p. 164).

In this view, only with the Enlightenment do we have the basis for an adequate anthropology and thus for an adequate theology. “In the final accounting, the Enlightenment marks the division between an often precritical, authority-oriented theology and a critical, historically sophisticated and philosophically mature theology” (p. 641)

Thus the contemporary theologian who has absorbed all the advances of modern thought is in a superior position with regard to the tradition as a whole (and also to ecclesiastical authorities who may be still operating from a premodern or preconciliar point of view). For Catholicism, modern thought becomes the prism through which the tradition must be viewed and judged. This is the basis for the book’s emphasis on change in the tradition. After the Enlightenment, everything is now subject to revision because of the attainment of this higher vantage point. “Because of the scientific, philosophical and theological developments outlined in Chapter 4, the time for an anthropological recasting of all the traditional doctrines is at hand” (p. 166). The book often does not explicitly say that some traditional teaching must be discarded, but it points the reader in this direction by noting that history seems to be moving in a certain direction, thus implying that the traditional doctrines are soon to be superseded. Examples would be belief in the virgin birth and the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts.”

Catholicism interprets Vatican II as the justification for this approach to theology. In this view, Vatican II marked a great change in direction because the church ceased to oppose and instead welcomed the modern world and sought to incorporate the advances of modern thought (pp. 77-80; 92; 95; 166-67; 910-11; 1214). Preconciliar and premodern are here effectively convertible. Left unmentioned are the ressourcement movement leading up to the council and the council’s own calls for renewal through a further ressourcement by a return to the sources of the tradition. In Catholicism, the council appears simply as an aggiornamento, a one-sided embrace of modernity.

The overall effect of this exaltation of the modern over the traditional is to provide a justification for those theological positions that call for a much greater accommodation of church teaching to contemporary culture and at the same time a distancing from traditional beliefs that are considered outmoded or incompatible with modern thought. The book often implies that the” theologians are pointing to the future of the church and that the pope and the bishops have not yet caught up. In this sense, the theologians -and by implication the readers-have a superior vantage point from which to look upon church teaching and tradition. Church teaching can be effectively dismissed simply by being classified as reflecting “preconciliar thought.”12

Summary and Conclusion

Catholicism poses pastoral problems particularly as a textbook in undergraduate college courses and in parish education programs. The principal difficulties with the book lie not only in the particular positions adopted, but perhaps even more in the cumulative effect of the book as a whole. The method is to offer a broad range of opinions on every topic with the apparent intention of allowing or stimulating the reader to make a choice. This places a heavy burden on the reader, especially since some of the opinions described do not stand within the central Catholic tradition. The reader who is a theological beginner could easily assume that all the authors cited are equally a part of the mainstream Catholic conversation, whereas some of the authors are closer to the margins. While the book could be a helpful resource to theologians looking for a survey of opinions on some question, it might well be bewildering and unsettling for Catholics taking undergraduate courses in theology. For some readers it will give encouragement to dissent.

The problem is further aggravated because Catholicism gives very little weight to the teaching of the magisterium, at least where there has been no explicit dogmatic definition. At many points the book treats magisterial statements on the same level as free theological opinions. On a number of important issues, most notably in the field of moral theology, the reader will see without difficulty that the book regards the “official church position” as simply in error.

This review has focused exclusively on the problematic aspects of Catholicism. Certainly, as the 1985 statement of the Committee on Doctrine affirmed, there are many positive features to be found in the book. Nevertheless, this review concludes that, particularly as a book for people who are not specialists in theological reasoning and argumentation, Catholicism poses serious difficulties and in several important respects does not live up to its ambitious title.


1 Origins, vol. 15, no. 9 (Aug. 1, 1985): 130-32. The Preface to the new edition of Catholicism is somewhat misleading when it characterizes the Committee on Doctrine review as “careful and essentially sympathetic,” thereby implying that the bishops had no serious concerns with the book. In fact, in the way that the Preface refers to the committee investigation and statement, they appear almost as a subtle endorsement of the book or as a guarantee of its reliability as a guide to Catholic teaching in the sense that the book has withstood the careful scrutiny of the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

2 In the anathemas against the Three Chapters, the Second Council of Constantinople (553) condemned the opinion attributed to Theodore of Mopsuestia that Jesus attained impeccability only with the resurrection (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum 434).

3 It is not that Catholicism is openly Nestorian or adoptionist. The book does uphold the divinity of the Son and the doctrine of the Trinity in general (p. 318). It explicitly affirms that the Word of God became human for our salvation (p. 480) and that ‘Jesus Christ was, in his very being and from the beginning, the Word made flesh’ (p. 556). Yet although the book at some points talks about maintaining both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, at other points it seems unclear about the singleness of the hypostasis or the identity of the person. For example, the book speaks of the question of Jesus’ sinlessness as being a question of “the intimate communion of Jesus with God” (pp. 548-49). Jesus Christ “was so completely in union with the Father that he was in fact absolutely without sin” (p. 547). Because of the hypostatic union Jesus was “aware of himself as a subject in whom God was fully present and as one who was fully present in God” (p. 556). Such statements certainly admit of an orthodox interpretation, yet there is a somewhat confusing tendency to juxtapose Jesus and God, as if they were somehow separate.

4 The book identifies two factors that have brought to an end the “virtual unanimity of belief” in the virgin birth and led many to deny the virginal conception of Jesus-“a newly critical way of reading the New Testament, and a newly evolutionary way of perceiving human existence and human history” (p. 543). Throughout the book, both of these are presented as unambiguous advances of modern thought and modern theology. Indeed, the book points out that the two factors that have led many to deny the virgin birth are “two of the same factors which generated a change in our understanding of Jesus Christ and of Christian faith itself” (p. 543). The implication is that those who embrace the new theology (supposedly vindicated at Vatican II) are those who deny or at least call into question the virgin birth.

5 The book itself refers to the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Fourth Lateran Council and the Second Council of Lyons.

6 See Lumen Gentium, 52 and 57; Denz.-Schon. 291, 294, 427, 442, 503, 571, 1880.

7 In the chapter on Christology, the book itself reveals an awareness of the problem of making one’s way through the wide range of Christological positions briefly summarized in the text: “How does one even begin to evaluate such a wide array of theological positions?” (p. 530). The book does speak of “an objective and objectifiable Christian and Catholic tradition-(p. 530) and offers six “Christological criteria” to help the reader discern this tradition. This attempt at synthesis, however, is extremely brief (three pages) compared with the 35 pages of summaries of various Christologies. (The fact that these three pages are followed by another 30 treating “special questions in Christology” that either cast doubt on church teaching or at least reflect unfavorably on it does not help with this problem of discerning the core of the Catholic tradition.)

8 On birth control: “There are two sides to the birth control question in Catholic moral theology” (p. 982). With regard to homosexuality, the book summarizes the current state of theology by presenting three positions, the “official magisterium” view standing at one of the extremes and the position of Charles Curran and Richard McCormick representing a “mediating” position (pp. 996-1000). At the end of the discussion of the ordination of women, the book begins its conclusion with: “Whatever position one takes on the ordination question …” (p. 779).

9 The presentations of the conflicting positions often fail to be evenhanded, for the expositions of the dissident opinions are usually more fully developed than those of the “official” position, particularly since the expositions of the dissident opinions include the counterarguments that respond directly to the arguments used in support of the “official” position, whose counterarguments are not presented (e.g., pp. 983-89; pp. 777-78).

10 The book also at points presents a superficial understanding of patristic and medieval theology as when it asserts: “We are not composite beings, made of body and soul as two separate parts (as the medieval Scholastic philosophers had it)” (p. 159).

11 As pointed out above (Footnote 4), the book asserts that the factors that have led many now to deny the virgin birth are clear advances on the part of modern thought and modern theology (p. 543). Likewise, with regard to homosexuality, it is because “new questions are arising in light of new developments and scientific research in medicine, psychiatry and psychology” that the traditional teaching must be re-examined (p. 996).

12 For example, with regard to the question of natural law and the new approach proposed by some contemporary moral theologians, the book argues that “the hierarchical magisterium … has continued to employ the philosophical approach of the preconciliar manuals of moral theology,” as in Veritatis Splendor (p. 962).

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