Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"The Grieving Church" by Revd Dr Richard McBrien

On 27 April last, the Revd Dr Richard McBrien published "The Grieving Church" in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter. While I do not consider myself a fan of Fr McBrien, I do think he has something worthwhile to say here. Below is the text of the article, with my emphases and comments.

I received an e-mail recently from a lay pastoral associate, whose ministerial focus is on adult education and who possesses a graduate degree from a Catholic university. I have his permission to cite a portion of our exchange.

I have suppressed some of the details lest his pastor identify the source and seek to jeopardize the pastoral associate’s job. [This is most unfortunate, since the Code of Canon Law insists that the lay faithful have a right to make their opinions known to the Church's pastors; cf. canon 212.3.]

The e-mail came from a large suburban parish in which the pastor has apparently done everything that he can to remove most traces of the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. [It should not be ignored that like the 'conservatives' or 'traditionalists' who intensely dislike the the Second Vatican Council, so too were the Arians who were the 'conservative' party at the First Council of Nicaea; cf. Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983), 33-76. It was an 'innovation' that the non-Biblical word homoousios would be used in the Church's progressing dogmatic vocabulary.]

The pastor has done away with all contemporary music at Mass, and has restored pre-conciliar devotions along with auricular confession. He even gives the impression that confession is the greatest of the sacraments.

Perhaps there is some misunderstanding here because the Council of Trent, back in the 16th century, made clear that the greatest of the seven sacraments is the Eucharist. [Correct-it's found in the Thirteenth Session, Chapter Two; but Fr McBrien's detractors do not concede that he has maintained Orthodoxy on this point.]

Under the pastor’s control, the parish has no youth ministry [The General Directory for Catechesis, nn. 181-185 mandates that special attention is to be given to the youth of the Church. This pastor should at least get a clue from the Holy Father's affinity for evangelizing and catechizing young people.], no parish council [If the diocesan bishop has mandated that each parish have a pastoral council, then this pastor is in violation of canon 536] nor any other consultative body [I wonder whether he has a finance council, which is mandated by canon 537]. According to my correspondent, “consultative is not in his vocabulary.” He also gave vocal support to the minority of U.S. Catholic bishops who proclaimed in effect that “Catholics could burn in hell” if they voted Democratic in the recent presidential election.

My correspondent reported that other members of the parish staff are hurting “terribly.” Indeed, they share the feelings of the woman who darted out of church recently during the homily – in tears. [This happens too often. Many of our younger priests seem to be ignorant of the fact that pastoral charity is the paramount priestly virtue--cf. Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, nn. 13, 20, 28, and especially 30. Despite the fact that the Directory is issued by the Church's supreme authority, I wonder how many seminarians study it.]

She informed the pastoral associate that she could no longer handle the situation, and that she had to leave the parish. She said that all that she ever hears from the pulpit is what sinners the parishioners are, and why it is so necessary for them to “go to Confession.” [The sacrament of Reconciliation has been called by the Church a "tribunal of mercy." But what often seems forgotten is that Jesus' gripe was always with the religious folk who passed themselves off as better than the prostitute, the publican, or the Roman soldier. I could easily fill this blog posting with citations, but if this basic fact of the gospel narratives is questioned, then it is likely that our ultraconservative or traditionalist is Biblically illiterate. In fact, I've been called a "neo-Protestant" for citing the Bible to one such traditionalist.]

That particular Sunday, with the old-fashioned church music, all the statues covered in purple as they were before Vatican II, and the usual severe words in the homily, the pressure was simply too much for her to bear. [Hello? The Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom, anyone?]

The woman poured out her frustrations, saying that the pastor had taken the parish back to a church that she knows nothing about and in a manner that showed no understanding of others’ feelings.

At the end of his first e-mail, my correspondent asked, “Are we expected just to get used to it?”
In my reply, I wrote: “No, you are not simply to ‘get used to it’. Parishioners need to go elsewhere, like the woman who left Mass in tears.” [I fiercely disagree. The parishioner should approach her bishop or better the vicar for clergy. The lay faithful have a right to make their needs known to their pastors; cf. canon 212.3; if the pastor in question is in fact violation of the norms of liturgical law, she can appeal to canon 214.]

I continued: “If there are no parishes or other worshipping communities in the vicinity where the pastoral leadership is healthy rather than driven by a narrow ideology, then one simply has to ‘take a vacation’ from the church until the skies finally clear and we are bathed in sunlight once again.” [Some commentators, refusing to give Fr McBrien the benefit of the doubt, assumed he meant skipping Mass and the sacraments. I think what he has in mind is a vacation from the Church as one's employer. I've done that before, and returned with even more gusto. Sound advice, Fr McBrien.]

In response, the pastoral associate noted that “the number of our parish families who are already on vacation from the church is amazing. It hurts to see it.” [This woman "hurts to see it"--a sure sign of her pastoral solicitude. If only her pastor had the same kind of pastoral solicitude!]

“It’s new territory, dealing with people grieving for their church,” he wrote. [Absolutely. All it took was a mis-reading of the Holy Father's motu proprio summorum pontificum and a hasty reading of his theology.]

The lead article in America magazine’s 100th anniversary issue (4/13/09) is by a Dominican who is justly admired the world over. It is Timothy Radcliffe’s “The Shape of the Church to Come.” [Master Timothy is a remarkable Christian, a superb pastor, and a beautiful human being. I had the honour of meeting him at the 2001 General Chapter at Providence College. No-one who works for the Church can afford to ignore him.]

What follows here is a continued commentary on the problem of the “grieving church” and not meant as a criticism of Timothy Radcliffe’s fine article in which he deplores the polarization that is “deeply wounding and inhibits the flourishing of the church.” [Stay tuned for my next posting, "Traditionalism and the Works of the Flesh." Suffice it to say that the active polarization of certain segments in the Church is lumped by St Paul into the same category as "fornication", "drunkenness", and "impurity"; see Gal 5:18-21.]

However, he does identify this polarization as consisting of self-defined “traditionalist” Catholics in open conflict with self-defined “progressive” Catholics.

My experience with the worldwide Catholic church is surely much more limited than Timothy Radcliffe’s, and I would defer to his experience if indeed he has come across a significant number of Catholics who actually identify themselves as “progressive.” On the other hand, I know of countless numbers of Catholics who proudly call themselves “traditional” or “orthodox.”

The pastor in the true story above surely would regard himself as “orthodox,” but the woman who left the church in tears would never have defined herself as a “progressive” Catholic. That adjective would mean nothing to her. [Indeed. These polarizations become more acute as one moves westward in the United States.]

She and other Catholics like her grieve simply for the loss of their church, a church renewed and reformed by Vatican II.

It is not polarization but the pastor of the story and many like him who are responsible for the grieving church. [No--I think Master Timothy is right. Stay tuned for my next blog posting!]


  1. Are you maybe (and I shudder to accuse you of this) being a bit too charitable to Fr. McBrien? Apart from not being consultative, McBrien's informant criticizes the pastor for restoring "pre-conciliar devotions along with auricular confession." Fr. McBrien seems to be whining about a priest encouraging people to go to confession. If people are leaving that Church because the pastor's a bastard, that's one thing, but if they're leaving because they're being told to go to confession, or can't tolerate the covering of images during Lent, then we may be better off without them. McBrien's whole analysis is wrong because he doesn't seem to know the difference between being a traditionalist bastard, being a progressive, and being a Catholic.

  2. I am astonished that one could be guilty of being "too charitable." We know that charity is the paramount Christian virtue; in fact, at the Second Reading of today's Mass (Dominica V in Paschale), St John reminds us that "we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us."

    Regarding the sacrament of Confession, I do wonder what our correspondent meant. On this point, I would disagree with the correspondent if he or she was under the impression that the sacrament had been discontinued; on the other hand, I wonder if the pastor in question has refused to receive penitents face-to-face, as canon law allows at the discretion of the penitent, not the celebrant (can. 964.2). We simply do not have enough information from Fr McBrien to know what precisely is being critiqued. If we assume the worst of all possible worlds, then the response, simply, should be to invoke the teachings of the Church, especially Trent, the praenotanda of the Rite of Penance, and the Propers of Mass from Dominica II in Paschale. My impression from the letter was a sort of juridiical blitzkreig in which a diluted Catholicity was lambasted and anathemized rather than confronted with pastoral charity.

    At the same time, I find it difficult to believe that Fr McBrien opposes the Sacrament of Penance. One would have read the relevant texts of his Catholicism; I'm honest enough, I suppose, to say that I'd rather read Fr de Lubac's book by the same title!

    Regarding "pre-conciliar devotions," we have here another instance of ambiguity. Suffice it to reiterate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council: "Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See" (Sacrosanctum concilium, 13). The document goes on to say, "But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them."

    My question to the pastor would be: What kind of catechesis has been provided in re-introducing such "pre-conciliar devotions"? As we are approaching Ascension Thursday and Pentecost, ideally a pastor would provide a catechesis on the gift of the Holy Spirit and publish a copy of the Decendary to the Holy Spirit or the Pentecost novena. At the same time, norms of Sacrosanctum conciium, 13 ought to be observed, e.g., that each day of the novena draw its sources from the daily gospel and collecta.

    I'm not sure what you mean by Fr McBrien know knowing the difference between being either a "traditionalist," "progressive," or a "Catholic." But I do like your refusal to qualify one's Catholicity (e.g. "traditionalist Catholic" or "progressive Catholic"). I also share your reservations about Fr McBrien (and, perhaps, our correspondent). The bigger picture, I suppose, is the modu operandi of such pastors as sketched out in our correspondent's letter. If pre-conciliar devotions and Penance have fallen into disuse, it would be a terrific time to provide catechesis on these items rather than simply "laying down the law." Otherwise we fall prey to causistry once again.

    In all fairness to the pastor whom I've already got a bad impression of, it is only fair to say that the same sort of modus operandi can be found in all areas of the ecclesiopolitical spectrim; I've found it in both centrist/moderate and liberal/progressive corners of the Church as well as in the traditionalist/conservative corners. But, as Master Radciffe has said many times, what is needed is dialogue and giving our opponents a fair hearing. Above all, we should remember that we belong to the same Church and share at the same Eucharistic table.

    Thank you, Jamie!


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