Father Richard McBrien Extended Interview

Read excerpts from Judy Valente’s interview with Richard McBrien:

On religious America:


By one standard, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the entire world, if you take religious by conventional criteria — going to church, confessing a belief in God, doing religious things — prayers, prayer groups, reading the Bible. But “religious” in terms of what’s in one heart, that is having a real faith, a real understanding of the sacred, the transcendent. That’s not measurable, and I don’t know how religious we are. I’ve been a Catholic Christian all my life, and I wince and sometimes I gag when I hear the name of Jesus or see the name of Jesus on cable television or on billboards or bumperstcickers. Those are moments I feel much more akin to an agnostic than a Christian. Because I don’t see much relationship between Jesus-talk and invoking the name of Jesus … with the carpenter’s son of Nazareth, the one who got himself executed at a relatively young age because he stood up against people who, in a sense, were in the religion business, who went around with their tassels and their religious accoutrements and were always judging everybody else, looking down their noses at other people. Jesus excoriated those people as hypocrites who put the law ahead of justice and mercy and kindness. Some of the most exclusively religious people are also some of the most reactionary people when it comes to respect for people who are different from them — whether it be gays or lesbians or people of color, people of different ethnic background, people of a certain economic status. Some of the most reactionary people are exclusively religious people. When I say I am sometimes turned off it is because I see such a discrepancy between what I believe Jesus was all about and what the Christian movement was all about and what it has come to be, and not just among Evangelicals and fundamentalists, but also in my church, the Catholic Church, with our pomp and circumstance and our titles and laws and regulations and all the rest. Again, it’s a cliché to say it, but if Jesus were to come back and see it all, I think he’d be appalled by a lot of it.

On Catholic identity:

Whether it’s America, France, or Uganda, or Indonesia, the most important thing about being a Catholic is participating in its sacramental life. There’s nothing more important than that. I mean, Catholicism is the Eucharist, it’s baptism, confirmation, it’s the anointing of the sick, it is marriage, holy orders. That is what Catholicism is all about. It’s a religion that celebrates and ritualizes the most important moments of passage in a person’s life, in a family’s life, in a community’s life. Now there are a lot of other aspects of Catholicism outside of its sacramental life. It has a rich body of teaching on social justice and human rights and peace which I’m enormously proud of as a Catholic. Unfortunately, most Catholics aren’t aware of it. And many Catholics even oppose it, without realizing it. I’m also enormously proud over the centuries, not just now, of the Catholics Church’s involvement, especially in religious orders of the ministry, with the sick and the poor, the marginalized. Mother Teresa got a lot of publicity, but the kind of work that Mother Teresa did and got a lot of publicity for is done every day of the week all over the world by Catholic nuns and lay people and priests who are doing these traditional ministries to the sick and the poor and the marginalized and the powerless. And so those are characteristics too. But when you come right down to it, it seems to me you come back to the beginning. Catholicism is really identified by its sacramental life. And one of the reasons, by the way, that the vocations crisis, the declining number of priests, is so serious is that the sacramental life depends — not totally, but it depends — in large measure on having a sufficient number of qualified priests to administer those sacraments and to make them available to the millions of people who belong to the Church.

On the significance of the sacraments:

To understand the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, one has to understand what I call the principle of sacramentality. And when we talk about the sacramental life being central to Catholicism, it’s not just the seven sacraments, although that’s obviously a central part of it. Catholicism is a tradition that has a sacramental vision — it sees God in all things. God is not a reality totally separate from the material world. On the contrary, God is the creator of the material world and God is present through that. In fact, our only access to God and God’s only access to us is with things of the earth — with history and especially with one another. That is what sacramentality is all about. That’s why Saint Francis of Assisi is such a popular saint, you know, with all the birds, the stars, the moon, the rivers, the fish and all the rest. Everything, in a sense, is part of this grand drama that reveals the beautiful face of God and through which we can respond to God’s call to salvation and to intimate communion with God.

On the Eucharist:

Being a Catholic means being a participant in its sacramental life. The most important thing about the Catholic Church is the Eucharist, the Mass. The summit and the source of the whole Christian life is the liturgy, and the center of the liturgy in the worship of the Church is the Eucharist. That’s the most important thing about being a Catholic. It’s being part of a eucharistic community, and then you broaden that out and you see that the Eucharist is the central sacrament, but the six other sacraments are like satellites. They flow from the Eucharist, and they flow back into the Eucharist, and that’s what it means to be a Catholic –to be part of a sacramental community. I can’t account for what Catholics actually believe about the Eucharist. I suppose some of us theologians and maybe some bishops would be a little bit taken aback by some of the ideas that some Catholics have, or their ignorance about the Eucharist. But what they should believe and what I think what many of them do believe instinctively and live out in their Catholic lives is that the Eucharist is the family celebration. It’s the occasion when we get together as a Catholic family to remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — to have the opportunity to participate somehow in the great redemptive work of Jesus Christ not only on the cross but in the resurrection and the ascension back to the right hand of God the Father. Somehow we feel drawn into a mystery, a reality that puts us at the very center of the universe itself, that puts us in touch with that which is most important in all reality — God and the things of God. Catholics have that sense that when they go to Mass, when they participate in the Eucharist, — even if it’s not always done as well as it should be done and as well as they should understand it, that nonetheless they feel that they’re part of something much bigger than what they could understand. When they come away from the Eucharist, they feel they’ve been in touch with something that is more important than anything else they do in their lives. The Eucharist begins when the people gather. The Second Vatican Council pointed that out. Christ is present already when the people gather for the Eucharist. He’s present in the community. But when you talk about the Eucharist, you also talk about the sacrament of the Eucharist as well — the bread and wine that have been transformed into the body and blood of Christ in the whole action of the Eucharist. But that’s really part of the whole Eucharistic action. It’s not the whole of the Eucharist. Otherwise you wouldn’t have to have all the ritual. You’d just come in and have the priest say “this is my body, this is my blood” and give out communion. The reason they have readings from scripture and all the other elements that make up the Eucharist is because there’s more to the Eucharist than making the body and blood of Christ present for Holy Communion. That has to be seen in the larger context. First and foremost it is participation, a continuation of the Lord’s Supper, which itself was an anticipation of His sacrifice on the cross and the resurrection that followed which is the culmination of the redemption. People might not be able to pass a theology exam on it. But they have an instinct about it — that when they are participating in the Eucharist they are participating in something that really defines them as Catholics, but also draws them into a Mystery that they sense is more important than any specific institutional elements that identify them as Catholics.

On Hispanic Catholics:

Right now Hispanic Catholics constitute about 25 percent of U.S. Catholicism — maybe the percentage is even a little larger. I think it’s wonderful. Catholicism in America has been built on its immigrants, and we have to be very careful — those who belong to ethnic groups who came earlier look down on immigrants, not only Hispanics, but Vietnamese and Asians and so on, as if they are just guests in our house. It’s as much their house as anyone else. That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism. It is open to all cultures and to all traditions. My general reaction is the large Hispanic percentage in American Catholicism today is clearly a plus. It brings to Catholicism a culture, a spirit that is very Catholic in a sense. It’s high on celebration. It’s high on unity and family, at being at ease with the things of this earth — food and love and all the rest. Whereas some of the Catholic immigrants from, say, northern Europe have been uptight about a lot of that stuff and are very dour. We can do with a lot more open and responsive and spontaneous elements of Catholicism that Hispanic culture has always cultivated and manifested. But on the other hand, we don’t want to go to the extreme and pander to Hispanics. They’ve got as many problems as non-Hispanics. Hispanic Catholicism, for my money, in some respects is too conservative — too focused on some private devotions, too uncritical toward the hierarchy, the pope. There is something in the non-Hispanic tradition, the cultures that came from Europe — the sense of due process and human rights and suspicion of authority. I think we can learn from each other. On the whole, the large percentage of Hispanic Catholics in the church in the U.S. is definitely a plus. I look to that to be a constant source of enrichment in this new century.

On Catholic trends in America:

Perhaps the most significant development in the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, was the great flourishing of Catholic higher education — the development of universities like Notre Dame and Boston College and Fordham and many colleges and high schools and parochial school systems. What we have produced in this country is clearly the most mass-educated laity in the history of the Catholic Church. That’s not to say that French Catholics or Mexican Catholics or Ugandan Catholics are not educated, but the American experiment in higher education has been a great success. With education comes a critical spirit, and I think probably the best thing that has happened to American Catholicism because of the great advantages of its higher education system is that now do we not only have a better educated Catholic laity, but a more critical Catholic laity. They don’t simply [believe] things because the priest says so or the bishops say so or even the pope says so. And that’s a good thing. Some people think that’s bad, that we’ve become more rebellious. We’ve become cynical. What’s better? To have someone do something because they’re convinced it’s right, or to have someone do something because they’re told to do it, but don’t see why they should have to do it? Educated people who have developed critical faculties — once they are convinced this is the right thing to do, they’ll do [it] with conviction, and they’ll do it better than if they were under duress. Another thing that’s happened in American Catholicism that’s been very positive, [and] it’s not limited to the United States, is, of course, the elevated consciousness of women in the Church. This is, again, related to the educational development of the Church, but it’s the most significant development, I think, in the Catholic Church in the last two decades of the twentieth century — the rise of the truly feminist consciousness of the Catholic Church of the ’80s and ’90s and now into the twenty-first century in the United States. [It] is really a different Church than it was even right after Vatican II precisely because of the new role women are playing as theologians, as pastoral leaders, as writers, as teachers, as scholars in a way that just didn’t exist. … It’s a whole new game and a whole new day and it’s a wonderful change.

On the ordination of women:

That’s coming. Ordination of women will eventually come. Not in the next few years, certainly not under John Paul II, but it will come eventually.

On being “a good Catholic”:

A good Catholic is a good human being. A good Catholic is also a good Christian — someone who really believes in Jesus Christ and all that Jesus Christ stands for and tries to live by the standards that Jesus Christ set for us all. [A good Catholic is] a loving neighbor — kind and merciful and compassionate and just and all the rest. [And] forgiving. Not just seven times, but seventy times seven and so forth. A good Catholic takes seriously the sacramental life of the Church and the implications of it. For example, if we celebrate the Eucharist together, we don’t ask one another whether you’re white or black or brown or red, or whether you are male or female, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are French or Indonesian or whatever. We’re all one family gathered around the one table that represents Christ. And then to go out and live that way … we must go out and be willing to break whatever little bread we have with others. We carry the eucharistic mentality into our lives. So that’s what a good Catholic is. A good Catholic is not somebody who is “loyal to the pope.” I wrote a history of the popes. There are a lot of popes you wouldn’t want to be loyal to. That in itself is not a virtue — or obeying your bishop. Most Catholics don’t know who their bishop is and have never met him … where Catholics really encounter their Church is at the Eucharist and in the various other sacramental moments of their lives — baptism of a baby, marriage of a daughter or son, anointing of the sick, of their dying parent or loved one. That’s when Catholics come face to face with the Church. A good Catholic is one who allows or herself or himself to be drawn into that mystery of its sacramental life and then, more importantly, to live out the implications of it.

On the Catholic vote:

There’s a Catholic vote, but it’s divided. In the United States, in the 2000 election, Catholics voted by about 3 percentage points for Gore over Bush. President Bush is making a big mistake in trying to court the Catholic vote, assuming that the Catholic vote is a conservative vote. The advisors he has chosen to help him understand the Catholic vote are politically conservative Catholics. Should they be consulted? Of course. But he had better consult a more politically liberal Catholic as well. Because otherwise he’s not going to understand why he didn’t get the majority of the Catholic vote in the last election and why in most elections Catholics tend to vote Democratic rather than Republican. They don’t vote Republican because of abortion. I’m always amused when I see a bumper sticker: “I vote pro-life.” What I feel like writing on it is, “I vote Republican. Pro-life is my excuse.” These are people who are politically conservative. There are a lot of Democrats who are pro-life. I’m pro-life. But I vote Democratic. Pro-life means different things to different people. Lots of pro-life Catholics are also for capital punishment. A lot of pro-life Catholics are also for spending lots of money on the military. My point is that the Catholic vote is there, but unlike the votes of other groups, Catholics are not an ethnic group; they’re multi-ethnic. African Americans, Jews — those votes are a lot more uniform than any sort of Catholic vote. The Catholic vote is almost divided down the middle. It’s right now narrowly Democratic. And it’s up for grabs. But if President Bush thinks that he’s going to get more of the Catholic vote by taking a more conservative line on issues like the environment, missile shields, abortion, stem cell research, he’s wrong. Most Catholics by a slim majority are politically liberal. And that’s why they vote Democratic. He’s got to find a way to reach them. But he’s not going to reach them by getting advice only from Republican Catholics who want him to continue to court Republican Catholics.

On Christian tolerance of other religions in the U.S.:

The Christian community in the United States is very diverse. I think the more fundamentalist you are, then the less tolerant you are. It’s not because they’re bad people but because of their theology. They really do believe you have to say “Jesus is Lord” to be saved. Well, that means Jews can’t be saved. And some of [fundamentalists] have been blatant about it and said so. And then, of course, they had to pull back because it was politically incorrect and they were embarrassed. But that’s what they believe. Catholics tend to be much more tolerant because it’s a big tent religious community; we have room for lots of diverse people. We’re used to diversity; we’re used to respecting differences. We’re not all perfect. We have our bigots; we have our narrow-minded people. But by and large Catholicism (it has that name “catholic” for a reason) tends to be, in principle, open to all. There are fundamentalist Catholics, but Catholicism is not a fundamentalist tradition. It’s not a tradition that takes the Bible literally, then interprets it narrowly — taking a text out of context. Catholics have never done that. We do have fundamentalist Catholics, usually in regard to the papal statements rather than the Bible, but it’s all the same mentality. Catholics and mainline Protestants would tend to be, as groups, more tolerant of different religions than, let’s say, Assemblies of God and Pentecostals — not because they’re bad people, but because the theology they live by doesn’t permit them to even be open to the possibility that God is also present to and working through other religious groups. There’s only one true group, namely ours.

On the treatment of Catholics by people of other faiths:

A lot of my fellow Catholics think there’s a lot of anti-Catholicism around and they’re screaming about it. Well, I’m sure there is a lot of anti-Catholicism around, but a lot of Catholics are bigoted towards other groups too. American Catholics are long past the time when we have to feel like a beleaguered minority. We’re the largest single religious group in the country. We constitute about twenty-five percent of the population of the United States. We have had a president, we have Catholics in the Cabinet and a lot of Catholics have ascended to the highest rungs on the economic ladder, in business, the corporate world, academia, the professions. We’re the last people who ought to be screaming “anti-Catholic, anti-Catholic.” There’s a lot more anti-Semitism around than anti-Catholicism. The problem with a lot of Catholics is if someone takes a political view different from their conservative political view, they claim it’s anti-Catholic. If someone is for stem cell research, for example, they say that’s anti-Catholic. Or you’re pro-choice you’re anti-Catholic. You’re not anti-Catholic; you just have a different point of view. There is a lot of anti-Semitism. There’s certainly a lot of racism directed against African Americans. No one can deny that. But the last people who should be complaining about being put down in our society are Catholics. We’ve made it in this country.

On the rise of Catholics in society and Catholic identity:

Catholics have gone up the economic ladder (and that’s not to deny there are a lot of Catholics still on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, but there are more Catholics towards the top than ever before). My concern is that as they got higher up on the economic ladder, they became less committed to the Church’s teachings on social justice, human rights, the right of workers to unionize, because they’re now in the employer group, and they’re now looking at the workers as adversaries, and they’re now against the unions. Some of the biggest union busters in the country are religious communities that run hospitals. We have bishops who vigorously deny the right of their school teachers to unionize — all against Catholic social teaching. At Catholic colleges you have increasing numbers of students, undergraduates in particular, who come from very well-to-do Catholic families for whom Catholic social teaching is either unknown or is rejected because it flies in the face of their own economic values. They have made it, and Catholic social teaching by its very nature tends to be focused on bringing some sort of balance in society — lifting up the poor and the powerless, bringing justice, and justice usually means somebody’s giving up something. And who are the ones who give up but the ones who have? In the old days, when the Catholics were the have-nots, Catholic social teaching was embraced generally because the Church was fighting for them — for their rights to unionize, for a just wage. Today, when the Church fights for those things, it’s in some case fighting against the Catholic employers who want to deny the right to unionize or a just wage. To me that is the main negative result of the growing economic success of the Catholic population of the United States. It’s made many of our Catholics who are well off less sensitive to the ongoing demands of Catholic social teaching.

On the interaction of religion and culture in America:

One of the things that is a great irritation for me is to hear a number of my fellow Catholics, and bishops included, using the term counter-cultural. They say, “We’ve got to be counter-cultural. What they really mean is be against the ordination of women because the culture believes in women’s rights; be against any kind of stem cell research because the culture wants that, and we’ve got to be against the culture; be against ordinances that respect the rights of gays and lesbians in their alliances because the culture is getting pro-gay and pro-lesbian, but we have to be against the culture. That’s a false understanding of counter-cultural. If you want to be counter-cultural, be counter-cultural against the culture that says the more money you have and the more power you have, the better you are. The very bishops who preach counter-culturalism buy totally into the culture of wealth as an index of worth. If a poor person or a person without any dough calls a bishop and wants an appointment, he won’t get it. But if a big-time donor, a multimillionaire calls for an appointment, not only will he get it, but he’ll have all the time he wants. They’ll put his name on a building. In our society, there’s a tendency to equate success with monetary success and professional success. Of course, that’s a good index of success. But we tend also to say the people who didn’t achieve that sort of success, because they didn’t have certain advantages, are losers. We can ignore them and forget them and look upon them as a special little cause that better-off people engage in to make themselves feel a little less guilty –go to the soup kitchen once a year or something like that. The Catholic Church really should be counter-cultural in this sense, that they remind people of all traditions and no tradition that we are really brothers and sisters under God; we have a responsibility to one another, and the measure of success is not how much money we leave when we die, but how much good we do with the money and the resources we have while we’re alive, to leave the world a better place. There are some wonderfully generous people and movements in our culture, but I think American culture is very much an acquisitive culture. It’s very much set upon getting things, possessing things, getting your family ahead, getting your children into the best schools. But if I’m up, pull up the ladder. Every time we see evidence of people who want to give back to the community from which they’ve come, their hearts are touched. Well, American religion should try to help people see that their hearts can be touched, too, and our corporate heart should be touched, because that should be the spirit of the country at large. Unfortunately, we have strong anti-immigration biases in this country. We have strong biases against the poor; we have politicians who try to make people believe that the reason they’re having a hard time is because of these poor people, which, of course, is a lie. Too many of our politicians, in a sense, advance the worst in our culture for the sake of their own political fortunes. That offers the religious leadership not only an opportunity but a challenge to offer a counter-cultural witness to the leadership of the country — to say no, these are the values, even if you’re going to be accused of socialism. If we really want to have our country realize whatever destiny it has, it’s in living up to the grand words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: liberty and justice for all.