Reviewed by James DALLEN, Religious Studies Department, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
Issues of orthodoxy and dissent preoccupy many of us these days. Heated charges and counter-charges fly across dioceses, campuses, and the internet. As always, history provides perspective, and McClory's Faithful Dissenters makes an interesting read in this regard.
In one sense, the book is part of the battle. Ideological clashes often use the term "dissenter" to cover a wide range of people who might otherwise be labeled heretic, gad-fly, critic, prophet, fresh thinker, unpopular, unconventional, eccentric, or even deeply committed Christian. McClory uses dissenter in a similar loose fashion to include individuals who were theological movers and shakers (Murray, Newman, Congar, Aquinas), victims of ecclesiastical politics and clerical stupidity (Galileo, Mary Ward, Mary McKillop), fresh and unconventional thinkers (Sor Juana, Hildegard of Bingen, Matteo Ricci), and participants in ecclesiastical and doctrinal controversies (Catherine of Siena, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Grossteste). In retrospect, most of these were simply ahead of their times-as were the Jesuit critics of Church positions on usury or the American brothers Purcell in their arguments for abolition of slavery.
What all the figures McClory has chosen have in common is that they were eventually vindicated. They took risky stands, often suffered for it, but contributed to the purification and growth of the Church they loved. One generation persecuted the prophets and another builds shrines to their memory! McClory does not attempt a single grandiose conclusion but rather calls attention to the variety of situations. Some were advocates for a minority position that eventually became dominant. Others utilized new information or reflected on a developing experience. Still others articulated the experience of the faithful in a new way or broadened the field of reflection to include areas of experience that had previously been overlooked. Some responded to new pastoral needs and others had new insights. McClory draws two conclusions regarding these figures. First, they loved the Church and refused to leave it despite criticism and persecution. Second, they did not see themselves as disobedient but rather as obedient to God. Like many so-called "cafeteria Catholics" today, they were not simply choosy on the basis of personal taste but rather of service in warning that some items were inedible or even put the Church at risk of food poisoning. Throughout, McClory uses the category of "responsible dissenters." Though he offers no checklist for recognizing those who might fit into that category today, his examples suggest that we might benefit from learning to disagree without being disagreeable and from recognizing that a community of disciples is always a work in progress. In particular, bureaucrats (and academics!) need to look away at times from their cluttered desks to what the Spirit of God is up to in the lives of real flesh-and-blood people. Guarantees of certainty are few and far between until-sometimes much later-the Harvester of history separates the wheat from the weeds.
McClory writes as a journalist rather than a theologian. As a consequence, he is readable even if some nuances are omitted. There is at least one amusing misprint: "the city canons [sic] were fired to herald the victory" (160). The book, or excerpts from it, could be useful in the classroom or other settings for examples of how "faithful dissenters" move the Church forward. It should, of course, be supplemented with examples of how other dissenters have chosen dead-ends or lost their way.