Fearful it could inspire dissent, Roman Catholic bishops challenged the latest edition of a popular introduction to the faith by a prominent moral theologian.
The Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices said this week that the new version of the Rev. Richard McBrien’s “Catholicism” has inaccurate descriptions of church positions on issues including the virgin birth and the ordination of women.
However, the University of Notre Dame professor charged that the bishops denied him due process in responding to the allegations. He said the bishops have not produced any evidence the book would undermine the faith of readers.
“In my judgment, Rome was putting pressure on them,” McBrien said.
Church officials said the statement on the new edition of the 16-year-old book--which has sold more than 150,000 copies--is a follow-up to similar criticism by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine to the 1985 edition.
The bishops generally are “loath” to criticize books, said the Rev. J. Augustine DiNoia, executive director of the secretariat that reviewed the book.
But in this case, he said, they believed it was important to act publicly because the preface had incorrectly indicated the official church generally approved of the work.
In the new preface to the HarperCollins book, McBrien said the bishops’ doctrine committee “engaged in a careful and essentially sympathetic review of the text.”
Church officials said no further action was planned against McBrien, and that the review “raises no questions about the author’s standing as a theologian and a priest.”
McBrien said he had requested the right under the bishops’ own 1989 guidelines for resolving disputes with theologians to meet with the Committee on Doctrine to discuss the issues but was turned down.
Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, acting chairman of the committee, said the dialogue was not called for because the issue was “simply a continuation of what went before.”
But McBrien said he could have presented evidence that the book has given many students a greater appreciation of Catholic tradition.
Church officials claimed that 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.
In his preface, McBrien said the 1,286-page book attempts to mediate between different approaches in the church, and that he is convinced healing and reconciliation are possible between the traditional and contemporary voices within the church.
“I still intend this book, therefore, as a bridge between the church of yesterday and the church of today,” McBrien wrote.
But the secretariat said “the reader will see without difficulty” that the book considers the official church teaching to be in error on many issues.
“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,” the secretariat said. “For some readers it will give encouragement to dissent.”