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Twisted Sister

Ok, first, sorry for the title, but couldn’t resist the double-entendre and the 80s reference, I’m a sucker for pop nostalgia even if in this case I never actually liked the band. Disclaimer aside, what follows is actually fairly serious: the recounting of my unfortunate recent encounter with a religious sister over a question of heterodox reading material in the context of a class for Catholic clerics-in-training of which I am a part. I write this with all sincerity and humility and with no interest in committing the sin of detraction, even in the anonymous sense (since I have no plans to mention the woman's name) but in a word, I was appalled by what I heard from this religious sister. The class was focused on the subject of bereavement and in addition to the material on the subject at hand, the class received a fairly lengthy printed excerpt from Fr. Richard McBrien’s book Catholicism, as an example of the Church’s position on Catholic spirituality. Fr. McBrien is a theology professor at Notre Dame University and has published many works on theology in addition to the aformentioned volume which is typically used in collegiate and seminary environments as an ostensibly concise explanation of the faith. The reason that coming across his name in the class was jarring for me was that I had recently been acquainted with Fr. McBrien’s position on a number of contemporary church issues and was dismayed by his assertions and contentions on a number of topics. The more I researched his positions and writings the more I was dismayed. Here is a short list of Fr. McBrien’s clashes with the Church over the last couple of decades:

  1. His book Catholicism published originally in the 80s contained serious doctrinal error; among its many problematic stances, the book maintains it is possible for Catholics to believe Jesus Christ could have sinned, casts doubt on the virgin birth, and holds that homosexuality, contraception and women’s ordination are open questions, with the official church teaching merely being one option of belief.

  2. Catholicism was officially disapproved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the grounds that many of its statements were “inaccurate or misleading.”

  3. The Bishops asked for corrections to the book. They never came. The most recent edition of the book, published in the mid 90s contained the same errors.

  4. Following the latest edition, the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine & Pastoral Practices issued a public warning – something it does with exceeding rarity – given the serious errors that the book contains and because “it might be bewildering and unsettling for Catholics taking undergraduate courses in theology…” and that “For some readers it will give encouragement to dissent.”

  5. McBrien has a record of consistent criticism of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI including describing the last three decades in the church as “the prolonged, slow-motion coup that has been under way in the church since the election of Pope John Paul II.” And referring to JP II’s papacy by saying “He’s left the Catholic Church with probably the worst crop of bishops it’s had in centuries… some of my liberal friends just say he’s a disaster and can see nothing good that he’s done.”

  6. He’s launched ad hominem attacks against Mother Angelica of EWTN and orthodox priests affiliated with other apostolates, along with publishing long lists of what he calls “ultraconservative” bishops who he claims have “assaulted” and “undermining” the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

  7. In a 2009 NCR article McBrien called Eucharistic Adoration “a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward.”

  8. McBrien was a paid consultant on “The Davinci Code” a movie that offended millions of Catholics and Non-Catholic Christians by an indescribably ridiculous and ahistorical view of Christianity, savage attacks on the Catholic Church and by asserting that Jesus was not divine and had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.

There is so much more, but I would ask the reader to do his own research, and I have included a couple helpful links at the end of this blog in order to accomplish that end.

So trying my best to follow the words of Christ in Mathew 18:15, I approached this nun personally during one of the breaks and simply asked if in the spirit of being fair and balanced, she planned on mentioning to this class of clerical candidates that some of the material they had just been given did not meet with the approval of the US Catholic Bishops. I thought that was pretty important given that after all, the Bishops are our fathers in the faith, they are “above us in the Lord” (1 Thes 5:12) and that we owe them deference and dare I say, obedience? Sister became incensed at the suggestion. She mentioned that Fr. McBrien had “not been given a fair hearing,” that we were “not called to obey the bishops, but to obey the ‘spirit’ of God'” and that the Bishops “had not roundly rejected McBrien’s work.” As charitably as I could, I pointed out to her that none of that was true. That without obedience to the bishops, we simply become high-church protestants, that if obeying a self-identified ‘spirit of God’ was the only requirement for Christians then any Four-Square Baptist or Pentecostal minister could warrant the same Magisterial authority as the Pope, and that the US Bishops had, in fact, rejected McBrien’s work, not once, but several times. All of this easily verifiable with any internet search on the relevant terms. The conversation was not as direct as I describe since I am collapsing things in the interest of time, it was nuanced and not angry or pointed, but I did in fact convey the points I mention. At that point, she said that it was clear to her that I just thought I “knew everything” and she walked off in a huff. Here a religious sister in the context of helping to form clerics in the faith, I among them, when approached charitably about a work of serious heterodox claims, refused any kind of correction, opinion or counterpoint. She was completely intolerant of my positions because they did not agree with hers. In effect, she was demonstrating the reasons we need a Magisterium to begin with, since without one, each of us individually becomes final arbiter of doctrinal squabbles, leading irrevocably to division.

Here’s the point. Context is everything. The issue isn’t about being “open to opposing points of view” or being sensitive to “ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue,” nor is it about the practical value of “being exposed to people with incorrect views on Church teaching” as preparation for the realities of Parish life. All of these I accept, and would welcome in the proper context. After all part of an apologist’s avocation is being in dialogue with people they don’t agree with. The issue is that the context here was teacher-to-student. The one forming and the one being formed. A person of some ecclesiastic position and authority and those under that same authority. It was a class of formation for clerical life. In that context the material, without a suitable disclaimer, was simply wrong to share as a matter of course. No doubt Sister was just following her conscience. And yet we are not called to merely follow our conscience, but our well-formed conscience. And how do you form your conscience well? By reflecting, praying and meditating on what the Church has taught and affirmed in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, through the Magisterium, for 2000 years. Some reference links for your own perusal:

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