In McClory's As It Was in the Beginning, the Catholic Church is equated with the idea of control. Its goal "is to make humanity obedient and submissive, lest the curse of the free will tear the world apart" (pg. 14). This book seems to: 1.) reveal the voice of the masses; 2.) illustrate the factors (now present, that never were in the past) that will democratize the institution that is the Catholic Church (the prediction is that it will become "consciously participative" in the 21st century).
First, an analysis of the past is offered, centering on the community Jesus founded. The central question asked here is: What would Jesus do? Answers focus on his own time, centuries later, and the present, with an eye toward the future. The flaws of the contemporary church are mirrored in the past. From there, church-splitting debates and a resulting Nicene Creed spawn the rise of the laity, with the urging of some in authority who lead by enlightenment. The book progresses with a discussion of a community of faith guided by the Holy Spirit. This clashed with the thought that a monarchy was the best form of government (pg. 70) in church and state. The next turn is to what is aptly cited as the "resistance to Papal Supremacy" (pg. 72). This came about as a result of ultimate corruption. With the proclamation of the infallibility of the Pope in 1870, such "conciliarism" (resistance) became a thing of the past, vanishing "from the church's consciousness" (pg. 83). "Americanism" as a form of experimental democracy in the Catholic Church follows—but is sharply countered by "20th century obedience to authority... as a principal Catholic virtue, the most reliable sign of holiness, and the basic requirement for leadership and promotion in Catholic parishes and schools and in the larger church" (pg. 98).
The present is tackled in the middle portion of this historically accurate account. The voice of the laity was rising by the late 1950s -- and they had much to say. The "historical-critical" method was applied to the study of Catholic theology (pg. 102). The "church-from-below style" (pg. 110) was met with suspicion by many residing at the top. Those in power, of course, have the most to lose—and the least to gain in sacrificing their place in the name of a stronger people, or flock. Church reform, it is decided, must come from the laity—or not at all. Finally, the laity are depicted as educated and filling positions of influence in the church. Unlike the time of Constance, these smarter voices will not fade, but will continue to ring strong and true.
From there, learning to live with democracy is underscored. One of the most compelling arguments on historical problems centers on the opposite nature of modernity to the church. "If modernity stressed reason, the church stressed faith. If modernity stressed human progress, the church stressed original sin. If modernity stressed freedom of thought, the church stressed the binding nature of its dogmas. If modernity stressed democracy, the church stressed authority" (pg. 118). The blunt dismissal/ objection heard today is "The Catholic Church is not a democracy." This comes to "settle all arguments, calm all fears" (pg. 123). And then, the greatest insight of all is offered: "... monarchic rule simply doesn't work for a society that values participation and unity" (pg. 126). It is like living in dual worlds all at once—active participation on the one hand, and expected passivity on the other. Many Catholics within our democratic society find the shifting of gears when it comes to their undemocratic church challenging at best, improbable at worst.
The church as a democracy is treated next. Since it is of the people, by the people, for the people, in some ways it reflects a democracy—where Vatican II pointed to the church without distinction as "the people of God" (pg. 132). The contraception issue, no ordination of women, and anti-gay stands have contributed to the numbers of alienated, "fallen away" Catholics. Others stay—acting against the tenets with an informed conscience. They are part of the fully adult church—"the People of God" (pg. 144). Such freedom is accorded to both groups. And with that, a convergence of crises is discussed. Interestingly (and accurately), the sex abuse crisis brought to the foreground the epitome of the "top-down" problem "...without wide participation, without voice and democratization, the church is unable to be true to itself..." (pg. 159). The church is depicted by McClory as the "last deeply rooted feudal system of the western world" (pg. 160). It is aptly pointed out that Jesus was decidedly un-feudal when he told the Apostles "The greatest among you must become like a lesser person and your leader must be a servant" (pg. 160). On that note, reform from above is highlighted. As it turns out, it is more like refusal from above to even consider issues raised sincerely by a strong voice of the laity. And now comes what is styled as a section on pressure from below. The Call to Action group is presented as mainstream, but due to mounting hierarchical conservatism, the group is eventually labeled as leftist, while maintaining its original ideals all the while. The Voice of the Faithful also took up the calling along the way.
In a brief section devoted to the future, a vision is stressed that presses on to fulfillment. Along the way, the "participative" element of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church dissipated. In order to reclaim it, the drive for married priests and women's ordination will eventually win out. That is what the author optimistically predicts. While the present reviewer is more cautious than speculative on such a grand level, the book is highly worthwhile in terms of rich historical content, and thought-provoking discussion that cuts to the core of past and present Catholic culture wars.