Reviewed by John KREJCI , Nebraska Wesleyan University, LINCOLN, NE, 68504
I met Jim Shannon only once, in May of 1997 when he attended a Call to Action Conference in Lincoln, NE. At age 76, he had driven 500 miles from Minneapolis to attend our conference entitled, "It's a Matter of Conscience," on freedom of conscience in the Catholic church. He did not make his presence known to the participants. However, he did call me aside from my duties as master of ceremonies and disarmed me with his kindness and warm support for me and our local Call to Action Chapter. This conference commemorated the one year anniversary of our excommunication by the local bishop. Our group had dared to organize and discuss mandatory celibacy, the role of women in the Catholic church, the need for more democratic structures, fiscal responsibility and disclosure, and the role of individual conscience. After reading the Reluctant Dissenter, I now understand much better why "Bishop" Shannon came and what motivated him to be so kind and supportive. He offered to us the love and understanding that had not been given to him by his superiors or colleagues when he made his painful decision of conscience to walk away from the episcopacy and the active ministry of the priesthood. His matter of conscience was the 1968 Papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which restated the Vatican position condemning all forms of artificial birth control.
As other reviewers have already stated, this is "a most significant autobiography...of an authentic spiritual seeker." It is an "honest, account of life, difficult to write for any of us, but inspiring as he addresses faith, love, and ministry to others, honesty and forgiveness." "(T)his is not only the tale of a man of conscience facing a great institution but it is also the story of love and its ever fresh power." Like Jim Shannon, the book is honest and straightforward. It presents a gifted man, appreciated by almost everyone, except his fellow bishops, but with little pretense and certainly no episcopal pomposity. (His admission that he did NOT have Romanita, perhaps best translated as a type of duplicitous ecclesial diplomacy, sheds light on his gentle and loving persona.)
The book begins with early childhood in a strong Irish Catholic family in St. Paul, MN, traces his education through Military Academy to St. Thomas College, St. Paul Seminary, Yale, and, much later, law school in Arizona. A passion for learning was central to his life. Woven in his intellectual pursuits and the fabric that holds them together is his strong faith, loyalty to the Catholic Church, and his priestly and episcopal ministry. The autobiography leads the reader through his first assignment at the Cathedral, teaching at St. Paul Seminary and St. Thomas College, his 10 year Presidency of St. Thomas College, and the high point, his participation in the 4th session of the Second Vatican Council. The Council would be both high point and stumbling block for the young bishop.
The last half of the book chronicles the euphoria of the post Vatican II years, Bishop Shannon's move into the media spotlight, the irrational and unrelenting criticism by arch-conservative Cardinal McIntyre, the 1968 encyclical condemning birth control, and the author's dilemma of conscience. This conflict between conscience and loyalty to official church teachings eventually led Shannon to request a leave of absence from his pastoral duties and move to Arizona. He subsequently married, taught and again became a college administrator. He completed an extremely successful career as an executive to philanthropic foundations in his home state of Minnesota.
The significance of this book , in addition to being an impressive and engaging account of one person's journey of faith, is the insightful description of the downside of the authoritarian hierarchical structures of the Catholic church and the injustices this system imposes on both clerical participants (including bishops) and the hundreds of millions of faithful Catholic laity. Today few priests or laity would torture their consciences over church teaching on birth control. The sensus fidelium, the experience and wisdom of the faithful, has settled the issue in practice. Research indicates that about 85% of Catholics do not feel bound by Humanae vitae. (Birth rate in Italy is 1.2 children per family!) But this was not the case in 1968. Birth control was the central issue in the Catholic church.
Bishop Shannon was intensely loyal to the Pope, his superiors and to the teachings of his church. But he was a man of honesty and integrity, who could not, in conscience, impose such heavy burdens on struggling married couples. His "mistake" was to be open and honest with his fellow bishops in an ecclesiastical, clerical culture that was secretive, duplicitous, and totally intolerant of anyone who would not "go along with the program." The junior bishop was harassed by arch-conservative Cardinal McIntyre, rebuffed in efforts to communicate his concerns with his fellow bishops, isolated by the clerical culture of blind loyalty and obedience. A "don't question, don't speak" milieu created an unhealthy and suffocating environment.
This environment contrasted sharply with Shannon's experiences of the academic freedom characterized by open debate and respect for divergent opinion that he had come to value in the university. Jim Shannon's conflict would merely be interesting history if it were not for the fact that the closed, secretive system he encountered is still operating today in the Catholic church.
The Vatican Curia, in the person of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has appropriated to itself powers that the Second Vatican Council intended to be the collegial authority of bishops. Regional Synods of Bishops have been countermanded by the Curia, hiding under the mantle of Papal approval. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger even asserted that the Papal encyclical denying ordination to women was infallible. In the past 30 years theologians, almost too numerous to mention, have been investigated, harassed, denied due process, and often condemned without reason. I am sure that Shannon's heart sank when he learned of the recent Papal encyclical, Ex corde ecclesiae, which attempts to limit severely the freedom of inquiry of theologians at Catholic institutions.
Reluctant Dissenter is an balanced, sensitive description of a system that does not serve the church well. It deserves to be read by those who love the church, as Jim Shannon does, so that they can participate if they choose in the move from a secretive, monarchical hierarchy to a more open, democratic and inclusive church. If this small volume would have been published 20 years ago when it was first written, it would by now be all but forgotten. Today, the author's kindly but penetrating analysis gives hope to those, who grasp the critical needs of the church. In addition it serves as a moral guide to move us beyond pain and injustice, to retain idealism, and believe that we can make a difference.