The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian and professor at Notre Dame who unflinchingly challenged orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church for five decades and popularized and perpetuated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, died on Sunday at his home in Farmington, Conn. He was 78.
The University of Notre Dame, which announced his death, said he had a rare brain disorder. He retired in 2013 and had recently returned to Connecticut, where he was born and raised.
“No Catholic theologian in the United States has made a larger contribution to the reception of Vatican II than Richard McBrien did,” the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a professor of human values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in an interview on Tuesday.
After he was ordained in 1962, Father McBrien, the son of an Irish-American police officer and an Italian-American nurse, wrote 25 books and a nationally syndicated weekly column. He became the chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a consultant during the making of the 2006 movie “The Da Vinci Code.”
“At his peak in the 1980s and ’90s,” The National Catholic Reporter said in its obituary, “it is arguable that McBrien had a higher media profile than anyone in the Catholic Church other than Pope John Paul II. He was the ideal interview: knowledgeable, able to express complex ideas in digestible sound bites, and utterly unafraid of controversy.”
That fearlessness manifested itself in his outspoken support for the ordination of women as priests, the repeal of obligatory celibacy and the acceptance of birth control; his defiance of the papal doctrine of infallibility; and his willingness to publicly confront the crisis of pedophilia in the priesthood. (He called for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston shortly after it was revealed in 2001 that he had kept abusive priests working in parishes. Cardinal Law stepped down in December 2002.)
In 1984, in collaboration with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president, Father McBrien invited Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York to speak at Notre Dame to reconcile his personal convictions as a Roman Catholic with what he saw as his public responsibility in a pluralistic society to uphold access to abortion.
That extraordinary address by Mr. Cuomo, who died this month, came after his public debate with the new archbishop of New York, John J. O’Connor, who said he did not see “how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion” — a circle that included Mr. Cuomo and Geraldine A. Ferraro, that year’s Democratic nominee for vice president.
Father McBrien told The National Catholic Reporter in 2012: “If there are any reasons for the bad patch the church is now going through, it is the appointments to the hierarchy and the promotions within made by John Paul and Benedict. By and large, they have all been conservative. That’s why so many Catholics have left the church, are on extended vacations, or are demoralized or discouraged.”
Richard Peter McBrien was born on Aug. 19, 1936, and grew up in West Hartford, Conn. He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., and a master’s from St. John Seminary in Brighton, Mass.
His first assignment as a priest was at Our Lady of Victory Church in New Haven. He obtained a doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he was captivated by the work of the French Dominican theologian Yves Congar.
Father McBrien taught at the Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., and Boston College, and in 1975 was named the first visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In 1980, he was recruited by Father Hesburgh to serve as chairman of Notre Dame’s theology department, ostensibly to fortify its Catholic character. Father McBrien had no illusions about the symbolism of his new position.
“At other universities, if they are less Catholic than they should be, it doesn’t have the same effect,” he said. “If Notre Dame went secular, it would be like turning St. Patrick’s Cathedral into a restaurant.”
But he differed with doctrinarians over the definition of a theologian, contrasting it with the catechist, whose role is to present the unalloyed fundamentals of Catholic belief.
“The theologian’s job,” he said, “is one of critically reflecting on that tradition or raising questions about it, even challenging it, and that’s how doctrines evolve and move forward.”
He was chairman until 1991, then president of the faculty senate, and remained a professor until his retirement. He is survived by his brother, Harry, and his sister, Dorothy Heffernan.
Father McBrien was never formally rebuked for his forthrightness, but since the 1990s, a number of diocesan newspapers had dropped his column. The Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,reviewing his book “Catholicism” in 1996, complained that it made “inaccurate or at least misleading” statements that allowed or stimulated readers “to make a choice” about the virgin birth of Jesus, homosexuality, women’s ordination and other doctrines.
Father McBrien had anticipated that criticism. “There is only one Christian faith,” he wrote, “but there have been literally thousands of beliefs held and transmitted at one time or another” — some of which endured, while others “have receded beyond the range of vision or even of collective memory.”
He also wrote “The Church and Politics,” “Lives of the Popes” and “Lives of the Saints,” among other books, and was general editor of The Encyclopedia of Catholicism.
Father McBrien maintained that the church, grounded as it was in egalitarianism, would do better to beatify regular holy folk with whom most Catholics could identify.
“Saints are examples rather than miracle workers or intercessors,” he said. “They are signs of what it means to be human in the fullest and best sense of the word. Which is also why the church has been wrong to have canonized so many priests and nuns rather than married lay people who lived ordinary lives in extraordinary ways, rejoicing in their children and grandchildren and doing good for so many others.”