Saturday, December 1, 2018

Hauerwas on Richard McBrien

I recently finished reading the memoir by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas. One of the more fascinating periods of his life was his stint of teaching at Notre Dame University in the 70's, which he describes as follows:
We came to understand ourselves not as a Catholic department but as a “theology department in a Catholic context.” We probably did not know what we meant by that description, but it sounded good. At the very least, it meant that we were determined to “be Catholic,” which meant that we desired to hire Catholics to fill positions when they came available. Burtchaell, much to the displeasure of many Catholic members of the faculty, had begun a campaign as provost to urge all departments at the university to hire Catholics. Anyone unfamiliar with Notre Dame may think dits Catholic identity is no less certain than the pope’s. But in truth, Burtchaell was right to insist on hiring Catholic faculty if Notre Dame was to avoid drifting into the cultural mainstream. Of course, the kind of Catholics hired made all the difference.

I soon learned that self-hating Catholics were no help. Indeed, I began to find tiresome the Catholic habit of blaming the “hierarchy” or the “clergy” because it had rained on Tuesday. I began to think that Catholics had developed the bad habit of not taking responsibility for the conditions that made them possible. For many Catholics, the church just seems so “there.” Moreover, many of the Catholics at Notre Dame had never lived outside the Catholic world. They talked constantly of making the church relevant to the world, but they had little idea what the “world” was like. I kept trying to suggest that we Protestants had long made all the mistakes they seemed desperate to copy.

Some faculty wanted Notre Dame to be the Catholic Yale. I had been to Yale and liked it well enough, but I saw no reason why Notre Dame should try to be what it never could be. I thought it quite enough of a challenge for Notre Dame to be Notre Dame. Following [David] Burrell’s lead, I felt like I was part of an exciting intellectual adventure that might avoid the sterile “liberal” and “conservative” alternatives that seemed to shape the theological world.

From Hauerwas' account, Notre Dame in that time appeared to be an intellectually stimulating, philosophically-rich academic environment where multiple traditions engaged each other and, more importantly, where teachers of non-Catholic persuasion were necessarily obliged to engage the teachings of the Church (and Catholics in turn were expected to critically engage non-Catholic traditions as well). For example, Hauerwaus lauds the appointment of a professor of Judaic studies: "we thought it a mistake to hire someone who would teach only the historical background necessary to understand Christianity. More important, and challenging, would be the appointment of someone in Judaica who would force us to recognize the continuing challenge Judaism represents for Christians." It was also there that Hauerwaus encountered and found his own thinking provoked by such scholars as John Howard Yoder, Robert Louis Wilken, Alasdair MacIntyre and others -- many of them Protestants, yes; but Christians nonetheless and anything but "liberal".

And then Richard McBrien happened.

Hauerwas' account of McBrien, coming from a Protestant even, is simultaneously comical, persuasive and telling: "... in the interest of re-Catholicizing the Department of Theology, the university had hired a Catholic liberal." Hauerwas remembers:

I was about to confront another side of the Catholic world. I had known vaguely that this other side existed but largely had been able to avoid it because of David’s extraordinary, capacious theological vision ...

Dick McBrien, however, often seemed to care primarily about Dick McBrien. In particular, he cared about being the talking head on television who confirmed that the Vatican was made up of reactionary conservatives. He had actually written an article in which he said that if he had not become a Roman Catholic priest he would have most liked to be a U.S. senator. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a priest or a senator, but it was difficult for me to understand how the ambition to be one or the other could exist in the same person. But then, I really did not understand Irish Catholicism, particularly as it sometimes became a parody of itself in the cities of the Northeast. Dick was "political." I thought I was “political,” but I was a rank amateur compared to Dick. I simply did not understand how manipulations by the chair could so quickly turn the direction of the department. [...]

Early on, he told me I was the one person in the department he did not want to lose. But he then explained that under Burrell’s leadership we had tried to be a nondenominational department of theology that could compete with Yale, Harvard, and Union. But that was a mistake. Instead, he said, we should be denominationally Catholic and competing with schools such as Boston College and Marquette.

I was absolutely dumbfounded. I responded by observing that Protestants are denominations. Catholics are the church. He did not get the point, which was crucial for understanding what we had been trying to do before he arrived. That is, we knew that only Catholicism could sustain a theology department that included faculty who represented other forms of Christianity as well as Judaism and who sought to do history and theology in a manner that exposed the pain of our disunity and the possibilities of unity. That Catholics should think of themselves as a denomination confirmed that Catholicism in America had become a form of Protestantism.

Dick, quite understandably for a theologian of his generation, assumed that theology was primarily a weapon to be used to fight battles between Catholic conservatives and liberals after Vatican II. We had tried to be a department that avoided those battles. We did so because we thought that too often the way battle lines were drawn between Catholic conservatives and liberals was intellectually uninteresting. Those battles represented and reproduced the insular character of Catholicism. Ironically, Catholic liberals who wanted to be “open to the world” had often never lived in “the world.” [...]

As far as I could tell, McBrien’s deepest passion was to Americanize Rome. He wanted the American church to be more democratic. There is much to be said for making the church more democratic, but, to continue the analogy, Dick’s way of going about things made it appear that his true interest was in being the first president of Roman Catholicism in America.

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