History and mystery: Two themes that guided the late Fr. Richard McBrien

I still remember my very first class with Fr. Richard McBrien. It was 1997, and I was a new graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. McBrien had stepped down as chair of the Department of Theology several years earlier. He had since published a revised edition of his landmark book Catholicism, followed by the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, and was just finishing up another massive volume on the lives of the popes.

As a theology student interested in all things Catholic, I couldn't wait to start McBrien's "Ecclesiology" seminar. And the first day of class did not disappoint.

Years ago, author Robert Fulghum taught us "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Sometimes I feel like "All I Really Need to Know About the Church I Learned on the First Day of Class with Professor McBrien."

Two insights from that first day have stayed with me. Together, they capture the heart of McBrien's ecclesiological vision -- his lasting contribution to the theological study of the church. The first of these insights has to do with history. The second with mystery.

The first thing McBrien did on that first day was to walk us through the syllabus. The course was arranged historically. It began with an extended treatment of the churches of the New Testament, continued with a survey of patristic, medieval and early modern sources, paused for a significant section on the Second Vatican Council, and concluded with the theological debates of the present.

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As he explained the format of the course, McBrien said, almost as an aside, "When we study history, we realize that there is very, very little about the church that cannot change."

As someone raised in a more traditional Catholic environment, I couldn't decide if this was heresy or revelation. Either way, I found it deeply liberating. It was a way of being honest about the past and open to the future.

Later in the course, McBrien would say that history "both roots and relativizes." And he loved to quote Pope John XXIII's description of history as "that great teacher of life."

At one point, I remember McBrien drawing on a distinction made by Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner between Christology "from above" and Christology "from below." For McBrien, the same distinction could be applied to the study of the church. One could do ecclesiology "from above" -- emphasizing the divine origins of the institution, laying out its perfections and its holiness, treating "the church" as abstract and universal. Or one could do ecclesiology "from below" -- stressing the historical reality of the community, observing the interaction with different social and cultural contexts, always acknowledging that "the church" is concrete and local.

In his typical way, McBrien pointed out the virtues of each approach. He argued for balance and the need for dialogue. He warned against the danger of embracing one approach to the neglect of the other.

But then he asked, "Which airplane would you rather be on, one that can't get off the ground, or one that doesn't know how to land?"

Vatican II's image of the church as a pilgrim people -- the people of God passing through history -- runs as a leitmotif throughout McBrien's work. It highlights an often overlooked aspect of his contribution to Catholic theology, namely, the bringing together of ecclesiology and eschatology. We can see this from his early doctoral work on Anglican Bishop John Robinson to his final book, The Church, tellingly subtitled The Evolution of Catholicism.

This eschatologically informed ecclesiology tempers the perennial Catholic temptation to triumphalism. It was the unspoken theological premise behind McBrien's outspoken critique of the absurdities and outright evils perpetrated in the name of "the church." As Vatican II taught, and as McBrien repeated again and again, the church is not the reign of God. It is "the seed and beginning" of that reign, and always at its service.

History, then, points toward mystery -- the second great insight I got on that first day of class.

After walking through the syllabus, McBrien turned to some general comments about the course. He pointed out that not every study of the church is ecclesiology. Ecclesiology entails the theological study of the church -- a study from the point of view of faith.

To do ecclesiology in a Catholic context is to study the church with the conviction that there is something more to this reality than what the historian can unearth, something more than what the sociologist can measure. For McBrien, to do ecclesiology is to affirm that -- despite everything -- this flawed and frustrating human community draws us before the very face of God.

The church is a sacrament, a mystery. It is what Pope Paul VI called "a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God."

McBrien's harshest critics too often overlooked this conviction. McBrien conveyed such a deeply ecclesial sensibility, such a rootedness in tradition, such a confident affirmation of the transcendent, that to accuse him of being some kind of secular liberal is to miss the point of what he was trying to say.

McBrien might have been surprised to hear it put this way, but as a student I saw a kind of piety to his work. His theology displayed a devotion that was driven by a real love for the church. He worked so long and fought so hard because he cared so much. His arguments were guided by what I would call a sacramental spirituality -- a deep sense that the community of disciples ought to serve as a sign and source of grace. In a time marked by pervasive cynicism, McBrien really believed that we as a church are called to reflect to the world something of God's infinite interest and love. We are the church. We are God's continuing creation, Christ's ongoing incarnation, and the Spirit's unending work in the world.

History and mystery. These two themes so guided the ecclesiological vision of McBrien that they spilled out in his first few minutes with a new group of students. But as important as these two themes are on their own, just as important is the fact that they always came together. It was never one or the other. It was always both/and.

Here was the living center of McBrien's contribution -- a sense of catholic inclusivity that he captured in one of the most often-quoted lines from Catholicism:

Catholicism is characterized, therefore, by a both/and rather than an either/or approach. It is not nature or grace, but graced nature; not reason or faith, but reason illumined by faith; not law or Gospel, but law inspired by the Gospel; not Scripture or tradition, but normative tradition within Scripture; not faith or works, but faith issuing in works and works as expressions of faith; not authority or freedom, but authority in the service of freedom; not unity or diversity, but unity in diversity.

McBrien will be remembered as a great popularizer of Catholic theology -- a proponent of Vatican II who did more than any other theologian to bring the fruit of that council into the daily faith lives of American Catholics. But he should also be remembered as a great ecclesiologist. He was a teacher who understood that the church can never be reduced to the caricature of its critics or the idolatry of its apologists. He was a teacher who encouraged his students to face both the sad history and the wonderful mystery that marks life together in Christ.

[Edward P. Hahnenberg is the Breen Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology at John Carroll University and the author of A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II, among other titles.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: History and mystery: Professor McBrien taught me all I needed to know about church .

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