A Bad Penny: Richard McBrien Trivializes Politics and Religion

In the first sentence of Caesar’s Coin: Religion and Politics in America (Macmillan, 294 pp., $19.95) Richard P. McBrien misquotes Lincoln. The error is only a trifling one; it alters neither the meaning of the president’s words nor Father McBrien’s application of them. But the resonances of the Gettysburg Address are so familiar to every American, from the age of ten onward, that even a slight distortion of that sacred text jars the ear and raises a tiny voice of doubt within the reader’s mind. Will an author who begins a serious treatise with a thoughtless verbal slip prove equal to a complex subject such as “religion and politics in America”? The two hundred or so pages of Caesar’s Coin which follow demonstrate that when a controversialist gets the bit in his teeth, small considerations such as complexity and accuracy hold no terrors for him.

Father McBrien describes himself as a “professionally active theologian” interested in politics since his days as a high school pupil. “This book,” he says, “is simply a vehicle for sharing with others something of what I myself have had to struggle to learn.” He intends to share, apparently, not all but at least a measure of what he has learned, for which, I suppose, we should be grateful. Father McBrien claims no particular training in political theory or history, nor, presumably, any experience of practical politics. As a soi-disant ecclesiologist, he is not unacquainted with questions of governance and of power-relationships which inevitably arise within religious institutions. Aside from the contribution to be expected from that sort of expertise, we may fairly assume that Caesar’s Coin — a wonderful title — is the work of an autodidact, who has built upon his adolescent insights.

Father McBrien divides his book into three parts, the first of which, in two chapters, is designed to establish the state of the question, to offer necessary definitions, and to draw proper distinctions. Here we are introduced to Father McBrien’s method of discourse, which is a fascinating exercise in the arts of polemic. The principle applied is assault en masse, the piling up of references so varied and so numerous that the enthralled reader is borne away by their sheer quantity. This is apparently why Father McBrien loves lists, and why he hates to leave anybody or anything off his lists. He shares with us, for instance, the information that “the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism” has had a profound effect upon Iran, and, he adds gravely, “Islam generally has had a significant political impact upon such diverse countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Burma, Chad, Ethiopia, Cyprus, Lebanon, Thailand, and the Philippines.”

This dedication to inclusivity possesses other rhetorical charms as well; thus, Father McBrien eschews the use of Roman Catholic as a denominational designation, because, he says, it excludes Catholics who are not of the Latin rite; and he refrains as much as possible from employing the term “American” for a citizen of the United States, “out of respect for our American neighbors in Canada and throughout Central and South America.”

I am sure the glaring omission was not meant as a conscious slight to the Republic of Mexico, because Father McBrien clearly wants to leave no one out. This desire perhaps explains why he invokes so many authorities whose views really do not interest him very much. At any rate, as he leads us through the thickets of the terminology he has chosen for our enlightenment — church, sect, public religion, civil religion, community, society, nation, state, morality/moral values — he calls to duty a host of lesser guides whom he genially associates with himself. Plato and Aristotle of course are there, and so are Augustine of Hippo and the Apostle Paul. It is fascinating to learn that “with Cicero the field of [political] argument expanded beyond philosophy to theology.” Father McBrien does not invite us to investigate the reasons for this arresting observation, but such diffidence appears in accord with his anxiety not to trouble us with distractions like evidence or coherent argument. He does not want us to have to struggle, as he did. Snippets of quotation are quite enough. Indeed, it suffices in most instances just to mention a lot of people, or, put more vulgarly, to drop a lot of names: Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith, Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Thomas Paine. Father McBrien can tell us in a sentence what Calvin’s political views were; Aquinas occupies him for two or three.

Nor does Father McBrien disdain the moderns. With the same serenity and self-confidence he hovers over the surface of the thought of Robert Bellah, Martin Marty, and Walter Lippmann. George Will gets a friendly nod, as does Clifford Geertz and — an ecumenical touch — Milton Friedman. Ernst Troeltsch fulfills the requirement that an author must always, in this sort of inventory, bring forward a German Kantian of a couple of generations ago. For the most part Father McBrien is even-handed — what he calls “civil” — in that all the savants he refers to are treated with the same indifference. And even when he makes exceptions to this rule, he imitates the Lord who giveth even as He taketh away. Thus, as he sadly dismisses the thought of Jacques Maritain as derivative, he can recommend strongly the contributions to the science of politics of J. Bryan Hehir — the same Father Hehir, who is known by some among his many admirers as the Obadiah Slope of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. And though the work of John Courtney Murray, excellent in its time, is now “dated,” Father McBrien assures us that he himself will “update and move beyond” Murray’s “extraordinary achievement.”

But Father McBrien is at his best when he can combine his penchant for citing famous names with his predilection for drawing up lists. So, within a few pages, we are treated to Niebuhr’s five Christ-and-Culture categories, Avery Dulles’s “models of the Church” (also five), and David J. O’Brien’s Catholic “options” (only four). Inclusion of such material has the incidental advantage of allowing the author to use words such as “schemata” and “problematic.” And Father McBrien — surely as famous as the gentlemen just mentioned — tops them all by providing a list of eight (count them) “levels” on which the clergy participate in politics.

As I read this first section of Caesar’s Coin, I sensed that I had encountered a similar methodology before, but, for the life of me, I could not remember where or when. It smacks of course of certain inferior varieties of social science, in which the guiding principle is a simple accumulation of instances, without analysis or synthesis, a rambling, unconnected catalogue — induction, as it were, run amok. Then it came to me: Father McBrien is only a year or two younger than I am, which means that his seminary education, like mine, took place in the ’fifties, the bad old days before the second Council of the Vatican. His procedure in Caesar’s Coin is a mirror image of the theological manuals then in fashion. Those books, too, had the merit of assembling the great thinkers of the western world, and, so to speak, putting them in their place. All nuance was readily dispensed with, as the wrong-headedness which lay at the core of the work of Rousseau or Kant or Loisy was presented to the reader on a half-page. No thought was required, no struggle, so that the seminarian, thus freed from wrestling with the troublesome questions raised, say, by Hume’s theory of natural religion, could spend his time more profitably learning the intricacies of parish finance.

The analogy, to be sure, limps in many respects, but there remains one essential characteristic common to Father McBrien and the manualists: he and they have already arrived at their conclusions before they trot out the texts they quote so summarily, the paraphrases they advance so confidently, the footnotes they append so pedantically. (Caesar’s Coin has fifty-four pages of notes containing the usual citation of sources along with sustaining argument of one sort or another. Any graduate student preparing a seminar paper could well be proud of the apparatus. The book also includes two appendices [twenty-one pages] composed, predictably, of lists.) Father McBrien, for example, toward the end of the first section of Caesar’s Coin boldly asserts that “the problems of church and state and of church and society are not the same as that [sic] of religion and politics.” I am confident that he accepted this truism before he dipped into the works of Max Weber or Peter Berger, and one may legitimately doubt that Weber, Berger, and the others had much to do with the maturation of Father McBrien’s own thought, such as it is. But certainly the old theological manualists, who sometimes put their conclusions into bold-face type so that the laziest seminarian could not miss them, would have nodded in approval at Father McBrien’s decision to place a key definition in italics: “I should define religion . . . as the whole complexus of attitudes, convictions, emotions, gestures, rituals, symbols, beliefs, and institutions by which persons come to terms with, and express, their personal and/or communal relationship with ultimate Reality (God and everything that pertains to God).”

The mountain hath indeed been in labor.

The pseudo-scholarship of the first section of Caesar’s Coin invites — almost demands — ridicule. But one should take care not to be so distracted by the hilarity of it all that one misses Father McBrien’s intent. He has written a highly partisan book, and he holds distinctly partisan positions. Speaking broadly, those positions represent the views of the bureaucracy of the United States Catholic Conference, of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and of many other thoughtful persons. There is of course nothing wrong with choosing sides in a household dispute which turns for the most part on matters of opinion; there are many mansions in God’s house, and Catholics have always argued zestfully among themselves. But Father McBrien wants to anoint his opinions on contemporary events with the oil of a scholarly tradition which he has invented for the purpose. How can one gainsay my arguments, he asks in effect, if I represent in this time and place the accumulated wisdom of the ages? This tactic might have succeeded had he been able at least to relate his present views to some respectable school of thought, but he has failed to do so and — the most curious feature of Caesar’s Coin — he appears to have no interest in doing so. Plato, John Courtney Murray, and I, he seems content to say, have all contributed to political enlightment. I suppose such a stance is part of the inevitable loneliness of the auto-didact.

The second section of Caesar’s Coin (chapters three and four) proceeds pretty much along the lines of the first. Father McBrien’s focus is narrower here, however, and so the narrative is relatively more intelligible. In chapter three he examines some of the background to the religion clause of the first amendment, with special reference to the contrast between Jefferson’s “wall” of separation dividing church and state and Madison’s “line” of separation. Though some unnecessary confusion arises from a failure to delineate carefully enough Madison’s use of “republic” and “democracy,” the treatment otherwise is unexceptionable if pedestrian. But suddenly Father McBrien spies a chance to draw up a list, and, while he denies explicitly any “claim to constitutional expertise,” he nevertheless provides thumbnail sketches of no less than fifty-eight decisions (by my rough count) of the U. S. Supreme Court in religion-related cases, all these in twenty pages.

In chapter four, Father McBrien explores the response to the uniquely “American religious landscape” by the three major religious groupings in the United States. The Protestants receive eight pages in this discussion, the Jews three, and I feel no competence to comment on the author’s observations about them, except to note his almost pathological distaste for Protestant fundamentalists. As for the Catholics (eighteen pages), Father McBrien begins with a startlingly muddled little historical survey; his description of the Americanist Crisis of the 1890s is wrong in almost every particular, and he flatly misstates — one hopes out of ignorance rather than malice —  the thesis of the papal letter Testem benevolentiae (1899). But I should hardly say “startlingly”; I am not alone among the practitioners of my humble craft to have noticed that the theologians who most loudly espouse an “historical” in preference to an “outmoded scholastic” perspective in their work, often either refuse to learn any history, or, in the spirit of Father McBrien’s mentors, the old theology manualists, pick and choose among the historical data to suit their preconceived notions.

Father McBrien at any rate is more comfortable talking about contemporary affairs, and, though he contends more than once that the thought of John Courtney Murray is “dated,” his own book comes alive, at the end of chapter four, when he quotes extensively from Murray and summarizes the familiar story of the relationship between Murray’s interventions and the genesis of the splendid decree of Vatican II on religious freedom. Father McBrien’s intense desire to pre-empt Murray and the teachings of the council is quaintly transparent.

It is something of a relief to reach page 135 of Caesar’s Coin, the beginning of chapter five (and of the third section), because there the point of Father McBrien’s book — the purpose of all the flim-flam that has gone before — becomes clear. The chapter is entitled “Abortion: the Hardest Case,” and it is the first of the two in which, Father McBrien says, he intends to move the discussion of religion and politics in America from the theoretical to the practical plane. What it is in fact is an unabashed apologia for the views of Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. The vehicle Father McBrien uses is a lively and extremely biased account of how the abortion issue was played out during the presidential campaign of 1984.

There is no reason to enter once again into those quarrels of three years ago which seemed to pit Governor Cuomo against Archbishops O’Connor and Law (as they were then). Suffice it to say that Father McBrien here fits into place what I might call the last brick in the edifice of his methodology. He first defines what the middle ground is, then places Governor Cuomo (and himself) squarely upon it, and finally denounces those who disagree as extremists of the “left” or of the “right.” Predictably, the extremists of the “right” are judged the worse: the quarrel was initiated by Archbishop O’Connor, complicated by the obtuseness of Archbishop Law, and exploited by the minions of the Republican administration. Representative Ferraro on the “left” does not, to be sure, escape altogether unscathed in this cautionary tale — even Homer sometimes nods — though her sins are venial compared to the “virulence” of “right-wing” Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants. But why go on? The account is a classical example of propaganda.

The sixth and seventh chapter of Caesar’s Coin contains a grab-bag of instructions on how to think properly about such disparate public questions as pornography, homosexuality, prayer in public schools and state financial aid to private schools, conscientious objection, and the sanctuary movement. There are a few pages — almost an afterthought — allotted to the Catholic bishops’ recent pastoral letter on nuclear armaments. None of this commentary strays an inch from the party line, and at the end one grows weary of the pomposity, the jejune prose, the air of omniscience worthy of an anchor on the eleven o’clock news. And one grows almost angry at Father McBrien who identifies “civility” as agreement with himself and who has the chutzpah to demand that Caesar’s Coin set the terms of the arguments presently raging among us Catholics about abortion and a host of other matters: “The public debate over abortion, even when conducted in a civil manner, can neither promote clarity nor facilitate the resolution of conflict unless the debate honors the basic definitions, distinctions, and principles that have been engaged throughout this book.”

Father McBrien has not written a wicked book, only a trivial one. Unless it could be argued that to trivialize such an important subject is itself a species of wickedness.


  • Rev. Marvin R. O'Connell

    Rev. Marvin R. O'Connell is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in Catholic Church History. Father O’Connell has lectured widely in this country and abroad and is the author of several books and hundreds of articles. He is best known among Notre Dame students and friends as the biographer of the university’s founder, Fr. Sorin. Among his other books are: Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis, The Counter Reformation: 1559-1610, The Oxford Conspirators: A History of the Oxford Movement 1833-1845, and the novel McElroy.

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