Of Richard McBrien and the persecution of the Catholic Church in China

The gentlemanly Sando Magister has a must-read piece today at his site Chiesa called: Bishops Or Mandarins? The Dilemma of the Chinese Church.

Here is the introductory section of Magister’s piece, just to give you some context.  Then I will give the selection from an interview with the new Chinese-born Archbishop Secretary of Propaganda Fide which left me troubled and angry.

ROME, June 10, 2011 – The Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, the organism with which the Beijing authorities assert the “autonomy” [a key point] of the Chinese Church from the pope, has been threatening for some time to create a dozen new bishops of its own, ordained without the approval of Rome.

On November 20, 2010, the threat was realized with the illegitimate ordination in Chengde of a new bishop, Joseph Guo Jincai.

And another illicit ordination was scheduled for yesterday, Thursday, June 9, in the diocese of Hankow.

In extremis, however, this ordination was postponed. With no explanation of why.

But everything points to the influence of resistance from the faithful and from the candidate himself, the priest Shen Guoan. [The people themselves and the candidate stood firm.]

And perhaps there was even more influence from the energy with which from Rome, on June 3, the new secretary of the congregation for the evangelization of peoples, [Archbp.] Savio Hon Taifai.

The frankness with which Archbishop Hon expressed his criticisms of the ecclesiastical policy of Beijing and of the part of the Chinese Church that submits to it confirms that a stance of confrontation, instead of accommodation, prevails in Rome.

The following are the most significant passages of the interview with Hon, now considered the main strategist of Vatican policy on China.


Magister’s piece then has the salient bits from the interview done originally with Asia News.  Here are the headers.

  • On the threatened illegitimate episcopal ordination of Hankow
  • On the consequences of illegitimate ordinations
  • On why some bishops and priests submit
  • More on those who submit, and those who instead resist
  • On a way out for the weakest
  • On the steps to be taken with illegitimate bishops

And then we come to these last two excerpts:

– On the support given [get this] by American and European theologians to the “autonomy” of the Chinese Church

HON: Unfortunately, there is a theology in America and Europe that is also penetrating into the Chinese Church. This theology claims precisely autonomy in the selection of bishops, and independence from the Holy See. And so there are persons in America and Europe who are pushing the Chinese bishops to behave this way. “If you succeed,” they say, “we will follow you.”

Until a short time ago, these problems of independence and autonomy were only at the level of governance. Now they are also at the theological level.

– On how to free the bishops in prison

HON: In all the encounters with representatives of the Chinese government, we constantly insist on the liberation of these brothers of ours. But the government doesn’t pay any attention to us. These bishops are elderly, their liberation should also be a humanitarian act. But unfortunately, we do not receive any response. Maybe public appeals should be made, instead of asking in private.

In practical terms, supporting “autonomy” from Rome, in China, means prison and persecution for faithful Catholics.

Archbishop Hon is talking about the theological corrosion coming from America and Europe, which undermines faithful Catholics.  He talks about the theological support given to the the government-sponsored Church, the Patriotic Association … from American sources.

Richard McBrien of the National catholic Reporter incessantly pushes for the autonomy of local Churches and tries to diminish the role of the Roman Pontiff.  McBrien harps on authority from below and the election of bishops and their appointment not by the Pope or his delegates, or those whom he chooses to consult, but by local Churches.

At the time I am writing, on the site of the National catholic Fishwrap, McBrien has a piece in which he pushes precisely the sort of autonomy that Archbishop Hon says is resulting in problems for faithful Catholics in China.

This is how McBrien begins:

The sacking of William Morris as bishop of the Australian diocese of Toowoomba raises more than a few theological questions about the relationship between bishops and the Bishop of Rome.

Many Catholics believe, and so apparently does Benedict XVI, that the Bishop of Rome is free, by the will of Christ, not only to appoint all bishops in the Roman Catholic church, but to dismiss them as well.This is an incorrect assumption, and the firing of Bishop Morris provides us with a teachable moment in ecclesiology.


In China, bishops, priests, lay faithful who are faithful to the Catholic Church are persecuted.

Meanwhile, McBrien and his crowd are giving comfort and aid to the persecutors.

Finally… this is not merely a matter of exporting really bad ideas to China.  McBrien and his lot are trying to import the model of the Patriotic Association to the United States.

Protest Fishwrap.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Augustin57 says:

    We need to find out to whom Fr. McBrien answers and have them pull the plug on this guy. He’s a loose canon, pointed at friendly troops! He needs his faculties removed and he needs to be laicized. Period.

    Just my friendly (to the Church), humble opinion, of course. :)

  2. Jbuntin says:

    McBrian makes me furious!
    Augustin57: I agree with you!

  3. servusmariaen says:

    I remember vividly in the 80s when Fr McBrien’s book “Catholicism” became required reading for the priests of the diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana under the leadership of then bishop Thomas Murphy. I was in high school. We had been spared most of the foolishness so prevalent in the remainder of the US until that time (1983). I remember having a discussion regarding obedience to the Magisterium of the Church with Bishop Murphy (at my confirmation) and I remember him asking me where I ever came up with such a concept of Magisterium. Anyway, Fr McBrien and his “Amchurch” cohorts have been doing everything they can to dismantle any vestige of Catholicity and we are going to continue to reap the bitter fruits of it for years to come.

  4. Rich says:

    I wonder if McBrien secretly delights in the fact that his theology causes so much harm to the universal Church. After all, with the concrete application of such theology as in China, such ideas gain better ground and become more widespread.

  5. Legisperitus says:

    I have never known a man calling himself a Catholic who was both so profligate in spreading radical ideas and so apparently indifferent to the welfare of the universal Church and to the temporal and spiritual sufferings brought about by the ideas he espouses.

  6. PM says:

    One curiosity is that for many years the Patriotic Church in China was in liturgical matters more “conservative” than the Church at large. Cut off from Rome, the Chinese did not follow Vatican II. By the 1980s the underground Church had introduced the vernacular mass, using texts brought in from Hong Kong and Taiwan. By the end of the 1980s, however, the more sophisticated proponents of the official position discovered the Council and began to make use of the kind of argumentation favored by Father McBrien, emphasizing the “autonomy” of individual churches and the like.

    In his article Father McBrien claims that the papal monopoly on the appointment of bishops dates from the concordat between the Pope and Napoleon. Jesus, he says, had nothing to do with it. Putting the accuracy of the historical generalization aside, the alternative to Papal appointment, then, would have been appointment by Napoleon (and, earlier, by the Kings of France). This is presumably not McBrien’s model–but it is pretty much the way the Chinese regime would like things to be.

    For the past many years the norm in China has been that new bishops had both Papal approval and the approval of the political authorities. This tacit arrangement was violated last fall, but the events of the past few days give hope that the regime may be backing off on its threats to continue along this line. The new bishops, however, tend to be very young; they have not personally experienced the harshest persecutions and, in the way of the world, probably include a disproportionate number of those who get along by going along. Msgr. Hon hints (less abrasively than his predecessor Cardinal Zen) that the newer bishops, all of whom have been vetted by the regime, may not all have the stuff to stand firm against regime pressures.

    I would conjecture that much of the backbone the Chinese clergy has displayed is a response to disdain the Catholic laity,which has never bought into the Party line, has for the official church. I’d also conjecture that if there were the kind of “democracy” and “autonomy” McBrien purports to want, the outcome, whether in China or elsewhere, would be considerably more orthodox than he would be comfortable with. (Confucius: “When ritual is lost at court, seek for it among the people.”)

    The downside of the kind of autonomy implied by the McBrien model (here arguing only from a worldly and political perspective, not from that of theology) is that it can leave the Church naked to subjugation by the state or by the dominant culture (the latter the greater danger in the democratic west, except now the state has become more militant in imposing the dominant culture).

    But in the meantime Maureen Tilley, professor of theology at Fordham, is complaining that while John Paul II and Benedict the XVI are willing to reach out to the Patriotic Church in China (and to the SSPX), but have no use at all for the likes of her (or, presumably, Richard McBrien). See Oh, well. . .

  7. MarkH says:

    Excellent connection between AmChurch and the Communist Catholic Church, thank you Fr Z! This is a worst-case scenario for schism in the United States: that dissidents such as McBrien, probably under the power of hate crime legislation, will conspire with the government to drive the real Church underground, while “ordaining” their own hierarchy. God help us avoid such a fate.

  8. benedetta says:

    Would Fr. McBrien, theologian friends & fishwrap propose that the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists should, as they would apparently support this for some Catholics, be under organization and control of, an extension of apparatus of, the Chinese government?

  9. Augustin57 says:


    A schism in the Church in America was predicted a long time ago by the late (God bless is soul!) Fr. Fidelis Albrecht, who also predicted “legalization” of abortion, among other things.

    I think the schism has already begun, by people like Fr. McBrien and folks like him. They have separated themselves from the Church by rejecting certain teachings of the Church in favor of their own man-made doctrines that are in contrast to the constant teaching of the Church.

  10. benedetta says:

    PM, very interesting. Also by the application of Fr. McBrien’s ideas the Church of England has zero legitimacy with respect to what Jesus wanted? Or would he wiggle around that result through his rationale?

    What Fr. McBrien and company do is this. We are in our culture, litigious and media saturated as it is, with the way that crafty lawyers select the result desired and then even though in many instances (and we can all think of high profile or famous instances of this…and it is to some extent an aspect of human nature to do this…aka rationalizing) in fact the result and the arguments strain both common sense and reason. We all know of examples where the reasoning employed and the arguments while perhaps scrupulously and obsessively technically permitted under the legalisms, in fact violate the spirit of the law and are often terrible precedents for resting the development of further law and holdings. The reasoning is torturous and jurists and juries must then employ a variety of techniques and means to distinguish and distance the development of the law away from a weird but occurring in legalism precedent and ensure that the fabric of social discourse and interaction, the spirit of the law can continue faithfully despite a recorded strange result.

    Of course aside from the litigious world and the way that the media now operates, it is of course a tendency of human nature to begin with, and then even more so in the American culture now to select out what we desire first and foremost and make circumstances and all else fit the result, the choice. Perhaps even the tendency alone if it were only that could be somewhat innocuous, as if ordering from a menu or selecting an item on the cafeteria line. However it simply is not innocuous and not a relatively acceptable choice among other worthy ones that may be made when we take a look at what Fr. McBrien is all about, and all of those who have swallowed his theology, even without realizing what it is or does.

    If we select out a result from the grab bag list of demands that the fishwrap, professional dissenters and theological underminers propose, the very instinctive thing to do (once one recovers from shock, in some cases, or gets over the fact that the result itself is quite startling) is to then reason it through using the very simple and essential truths of the faith that may be grasped by, the average 10 year old believer, or an unlettered but filled with worldly experience of another believer, or a degreed theologian, even, say, a Cardinal. The truths that are essential and can be readily grasped and comprehended, in the heart of the believer, for millenia.

    Using this criteria, one discovers that the results that Fr. McBrien and others insist upon (and it is a brutal and angry insistence that permits zero dialogue or discussion) can simply not be arrived at by way of the faith as handed down for millenia, whether one references the accepted sources, either scripture, or tradition, or both together.

    To this Fr. McBrien and friends even often agree but insist away anyway, in a completely demeaning, clericalist, authoritarian, totalitarian way.

    As if it is not enough for two human beings of equal dignity to merely agree to disagree, then, not only is it insisted that the other must believe and accept in it, affirm it for one’s self and even teach it to one’s children as the one true faith, but, further, one must also worship those results in the Mass and in the practice of the Christian life of holiness by means of sacraments and works of mercy, or else. What is the or else, you might ask. Well many really quite average run of the mill garden variety believers have had to encounter it or have stumbled upon it and it is breathtakingly vicious. There is simply no dialogue or respect or relationship with it. And one could ponder it but of course where the assent to the simple truths of the faith is lacking, to begin with, and one asserts that whatever one wants to believe because it is what one wants rules, there is simply chaos, and brutality. There is no community. There is something like a collection of people who agree to some of the same political views, in theory without truly agreeing, who then worship that for lack of anyone being able to overcome the vicious crusade that stamps out any difference of “opinion”.

    And then on a practical level, in terms of the faith and going out to the whole world and passing the faith on to other generations such that it can be lived and is relevant in all times and places, then, one sees the results of the wholesale adoption of the McBrien and others way and it is a disaster. It is here and it would be for China or any other place that would adopt it.

    I find it hilarious that a Fordham professor and the rest of this gang who has so triumphantly and militantly “owned” the market for decades now, and pretended as if JPII and the Pope himself is, not legitimate, not authoritative, not even an equal in a “dialogue”, now will complain that they are privvy to the same sorts of dialogue that the Holy Father would engage in with groups in schism. Essentially, they are admitting to what they teach and have done to American Catholics and have asked Catholics to embrace. To the odd cafeteria raised Catholic to whom the simplicity of the faith dawns and asks…well, what about the abortion? They curse them out and whether that one would like to be attached to the Latin Mass or has read the Wanderer, ever, or not, well, after having been ostracized thus they may find that is the only place open to go. This is what’s been going on and it ain’t pretty.

    They can have all their power, their publishing, their rallying groups (as if this is still the 60s?), their pretense, their institutions, their prochoice and their weird and failing teachings to children. After the dust settles, the faith which is established and readily verifiable by the same sources as ever endures, has already overcome. No matter what. I will not teach my family their lies though and if I am sentenced to worship with those attached to the TLM or the prolifers effectively imprisoned, so be it.

  11. Captain Peabody says:

    This should be no surprise. Historically, most of the forces opposing the authority of the Pope over the whole Church and pushing for independence for local churches have been either temporal powers seeking to dominate these local churches and do with them whatever they wished or else officials of these churches seeking to gratify themselves to these powers and to society at large.

    The Eastern Emperors for the most part wanted to elevate themselves to the ultimate power in their Church, free to define doctrine, punish ‘heretics,’ and depose even the Patriarch of Constantinople at their whim, actions which the Pope of course would and did oppose to the point of martyrdom; and of course in service of this end, they sought to do everything in their power to deny, diminish, and derogate the universal authority of the Pope, appealing more and more to the popular suspicion of and distrust of the “barbarian” West and the consequent desire for Eastern autonomy to accomplish their goals.

    When Pope St. Martin was kidnapped from Rome by Imperial forces and brought to Constantinople in chains as a public example for daring to speak against the heresy of Monothelitism, people seeking to help the Pope were warned away with the words, “Anyone who aids the Pope is an enemy of the State.” And when his constant ally in combating heresy, the great Eastern saint and mystic Maximus the Confessor, was brought to trial for his beliefs in an Imperial court, his attempts to argue his case were reproached with the words, “Why do you love the Romans and hate the Greeks?” All of this should feel very familiar to anyone aware of the current situation of the Church in China.

    And of course, the most well-known example of this comfortable alliance between heretics and the state is the English Reformation. Henry VIII opposed practically every one of the Lutheran doctrines and ably opposed them at first; but when the Lutherans switched from merely opposing the Pope for theological innovation to opposing the Pope for stealing and usurping the natural rights of the Monarchs over their countries, churches, and clergymen, well, Henry quickly changed his colors, as did many other monarchs, princes, and barons throughout Europe. The Protestants quickly became adept at flattering the egos and ambitions of the temporal powers; and indeed, Protestantism as a whole survived its initial outbreak for little other reason.

    Henry, of course, was quite taken with these “new doctrines” about the absolute power of the King over his subjects’ bodies and souls. Men like Thomas Cramner, radical theologians and Protestant reformers who would never be able to get anywhere near the King from theological argumentation, were able to gain unprecedented power and influence merely by appealing to the King’s ego and serving his every whim; Cramner himself preceded his solemn oath of loyalty to the Pope (a traditional feature at the ordination of a Bishop) by stating plainly that he considered the oath only a formality and he held absolutely no allegiance to anyone but the King, and as his first act of office sent a crouchingly deferential request to the King begging him “on his knees” to allow him to open annulment proceedings. Henry himself was quite clear as to the reason for his denial of the Pope’s universal authority:

    “Well-beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects; yea, and scarce our subjects; for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope clean contrary to the oath that they make to us, so that they seem to be his subjects, and not ours.”
    Sound familiar?

    In every age, unscrupulous heretics have sought to deliver the Church into the hands of the temporal powers, and to do so they have always had to deny, ignore, or derogate the authority of the Apostolic See; for the freedom of the Church is founded on little else.

    McBrien, a man whose program and doctrine involves little else but conforming the Church to modern American society, removing its pesky moral voice from the public sphere, and proffering the modern state as its replacement, seems to me to have little whatsoever to differentiate him from these past heretics. And so of course he has much in common with the totalitarians of the Chinese government, who merely wish to conform the Church to modern Chinese society, remove its pesky moral voice from the public sphere, and proffer the state as its replacement.

  12. JKnott says:

    @Augustin57: Fr. McBrien is from the Archdiocese of Hartford. I don’t know if that would be who he reports to in his work.
    For many years Fr McBrien wrote a column in the diocesan newspaper, “The Catholic Transcript”. The only saving grace was the orthodox column by Fr Liptak which often refuted some of Fr McBrien’s ideas. After many complaints and a new editor, his columns were removed from the paper.
    I’m not sure if Archbishop Mansell has authority over his work. The priests here would know that better.

  13. AAJD says:

    Until 1990, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was the largest persecuted underground religious body in the world. And why? Because her leadership, almost all killed in the Gulag (save for Patriarch Josef the Confessor Cardinal Slipyj) refused to allow a communist government to control the appointment of bishops and other matters crucial to the very life of the Church. For anyone to think that a communist government (or any other type of government) should have a hand in episcopal selection is so deranged as to be nearly demonic.

  14. benedetta says:

    The problem with what Fr. McBrien, fishwrap, and the professional dissenting Catholics teach can be easily grasped if one takes one of the items from the list of wants and inserts it in a sentence from an average believer: So, you mean to tell me that you wish to teach my child, and for me to teach my child, that it is ok for a woman to kill her own child in her womb? And this is a good thing? And that we should celebrate this in a liturgy which regards this as one of many views which can be accepted?

    And even if one does that, accepts it, and goes along with the program, from experience, from testing, from study, it just does not work. And one wonders why it does not work, and the main reason is that in the places where it has been embraced everyone who even has a thought to the contrary is ostracized into submission. Then there is the reason why any go along with the results-oriented theology in the first place. That is complicated but from my vantage there are two points which interrelate. One, the Eucharist has been portrayed as a mere symbol. Two, through the odyssey of the quest for the historical Jesus, assorted lost and extraneous gospels, through an emphasis on why to doubt, mistrust and endlessly debate, faith itself, people have lost faith. It is an intellectual exercise to a great extent, or one identifies with Jesus in one way or another and wishes to follow in one way or another but still that is not faith, or one has decided so long as one is nice, a good person and votes in such a way which is an extension of one’s evolved, enlightened, informed self that this somehow reflects, faith. Then of course the liberal brand of clericalism is retained and employed and to excess. People are convinced that the only way to be of service to a parish as a lay person is to be very busy with various programs and projects.

    Because this is very far from Vatican II’s call to universal holiness, the faith is pretty much gone in the places that have fully adopted and implemented the McBrien program. As a practical matter, even if one would have wanted the results that he performed theological contortions to effectuate and disseminate to various empowered leaders in the Church, the fact is that the effect on the faith has been terrible destruction. If one looks in terms of the social justice alone, supposedly the centerpiece of the dogma, the results are very poor.

    His time has come and gone. He and others are hanging on to attempt to put the final nails in the coffin of the Church. I don’t fault them for youthful exuberance, in its day. But the wisdom of years and the knowledge of what has occurred should now aid in their reversion back to the faith, and there is still time for them to do what they can to repair the damage they have done. Rather than whine about the fact that people have not found their way workable in the practice of the faith, they could roll up their sleeves, change their way of thinking, to get up to date.

  15. slater says:

    Liberal catholics are more loyoal to the left wing agenda than they are to the Pope. I wonder if McBrien and his lefty friends would object to the Chinese dictatorship’s policies?

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