McBrien was ordained as a Catholic priest for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford in 1962 and is the author of several books and articles discussing Catholicism. He is most well known for his authorship of Catholicism. He also served as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1974–1975. In 1976 he was the awarded the John Courtney Murray Award for outstanding and distinguished accomplishments in theology. He died on January 25, 2015.
McBrien's scholarly interests included ecclesiology, the relationship between religion and politics, and the theological, doctrinal and spiritual facets of the Catholic Church. He produced a syndicated theological column for the Catholic press, although the number of Catholic papers willing to print his column subsided over time (see "Controversy" below).
McBrien published 25 books and was the general editor of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism. He also served as an on-air commentator on Catholic events for CBS in addition to his regular contribution as a commentator on several major television networks. He was also a consultant for ABC News. He wrote several essays for the National Catholic Reporter, as well as the The Tidings in Los Angeles.
McBrien was a controversial figure in the American Catholic Church, due mainly to conflict surrounding his published works and public remarks.
USCCB critique of Catholicism
McBrien's Catholicism sold over 150,000 copies in its original two volume, 1980 edition. Together with its revised, one volume edition (1994), Catholicism was a widely used reference text and found in parish libraries throughout the United States. Nevertheless, sections within the text (e.g. McBrien's treatment of questions surrounding artificial birth control and women's ordination, issues for which he presents arguments both for and against) have been a matter of contention. Critics have noted that Catholicism does not bear a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur declarations from the Church that state the book is free of moral or doctrinal error. It was criticized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine on the grounds that it contains statements which are "inaccurate or misleading," that it exaggerates "plurality" within the Catholic theological tradition, and that it overemphasizes "change and development" in the history of Catholic doctrine, even though official dogmas of the Catholic Church are, according to the Magisterium, unchangeable truths.
Scholarly reviews of Encyclopedia of Catholicism
McBrien also served as the general editor of The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. According to the review of that book in First Things, "one has the impression that it was written for undergraduates who have little or no idea of what was once the common world and parlance of Catholic culture.". The review itself elaborates, "It is intended as a handy reference for students or journalists who need a quick and succinct explanation of some Catholic term or practice." It concludes by stating that some "articles are models of precision and succinctness. The better ones include Revelation, Apostolic Succession, Conciliarism, Faith, Hell, Heresy, Homosexuality, Immortality, Inerrancy, Justification, Magisterium, Mary, Purgatory, and the Vicar of Christ. These have the merit of explaining clearly and concisely what the Catholic Church believes and why."
Accusation of plagiarism
A formal complaint was sent to the University of Notre Dame where he teaches in January 2006, alleging plagiarism by McBrien. He vigorously denied the claims and John Cavadini, Chair of Notre Dame’s theology department, dismissed the charges.
The DaVinci Code
McBrien served as a paid consultant for the controversial film The DaVinci Code, a movie that offended many Catholics because it portrayed a sexual relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
In September 2009, McBrien published an article in the National Catholic Reporter in which he criticized the centuries-old devotional practice of Eucharistic Adoration, calling it "a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward." McBrien's outspoken critique, shaped by an understanding of the Eucharist which centers upon the communal meal (and thus locates the proper place for the Eucharist within the setting of the Mass), was met with a sharp and critical reaction from some Catholics.
Criticism of Popes
Criticizing Pope John Paul II, McBrien stated that, "He’s left the Catholic Church with probably the worst crop of bishops it’s had in centuries" and that "Some of my liberal friends just say he’s a disaster and can see nothing good that he’s done."
In a 1991 op-ed piece, McBrien discussed "the prolonged, slow-motion coup that has been under way in the church since the election of Pope John Paul II in October 1978." (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1991-12-10/news/1991344148_1_vatican-council-vatican-ii-catholic-church, retrieved December 10, 2012)
In regards to the papal conclave after Pope John Paul II's death, McBrien said several times during the sede vacante that he did not expect Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) to be elected. In fact, he predicted that if the German were elected, "thousands upon thousands of Catholics in Europe and the United States would roll their eyes and retreat to the margins of the Church."
Referring to the conclave itself, McBrien complained about "watching 115 men in liturgical dress. There isn’t a woman among them."
McBrien’s Lives of Saints and Lives of the Popes provide detailed biographical information in addition to discussing the larger religious and historical significance of saints and popes. He later published pocket guides to each of these volumes to supply more accessible information.
- The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (2008, ISBN 0-06-124521-6)
- The Pocket Guide to the Popes (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-113773-1)
- The Pocket Guide to the Saints (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-113774-X)
- Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, ISBN 0-06-123283-1)
- 101 Questions & Answers on the Church (Paulist Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8091-4250-3)
- Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from Saint Peter to John Paul II (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000 (revised in 2006), ISBN 0-06-065304-3)
- Responses to 101 Questions on the Church (Paulist Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8091-3638-4)
- The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, ISBN 0-06-065338-8)
- Inside Catholicism (Signs of the Sacred) (HarperCollins, 1995, ISBN 0-00-649052-2) A Roman Catholic theology, history, and morality.
- How To Give Up Sex (co-authored with Roger Planer and John Riley: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989, ISBN 0-450-49473-X)
- Ministry: A Theological, Pastoral Handbook (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, ISBN 0-06-065324-8)
- Caesar's Coin: Religion and Politics in America (MacMillan, 1987, ISBN 0-02-919720-1)
- In Search of God (Dimension Books, 1977, ISBN 0-87193-082-X)
- The Remaking of the Church: An Agenda for Reform (Harper & Row, 1973, ISBN 0-06-065327-2)
- For the Inquiring Catholic: Questions and Answers for the 1970s (Dimension Books, 1973)
- Who is a Catholic? (Dimension Books, 1971)
- Church: The Continuing Quest (Paulist Press, 1970, ISBN 0-8091-1525-5)
- The Church in the Thought of Bishop John Robinson (Westminster Press 1966, SCM Press 1966)
- "The separation of church and critics". www.post-gazette.com. December 22, 2002. Retrieved September 22, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- http://richardmcbrien.com/ McBrien's official website
- National Council of Catholic Bishops (April 9, 1996). Review of Fr. McBrien's Catholism. CatholicCulture.org. Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.
- Guarino, Thomas. "The View from South Bend." First Things 56 (October 1995): 53.
- Catholic News Agency (March 14, 2006). "Controversial Notre Dame priest accused of plagiarism…again." Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.
- Catholic News Agency (January 16, 2006).Fr. Richard McBrien named in ‘apparent plagiarism’. Retrieved on: 2009-04-05.