Book Review: Faithful Dissenters by Robert McClory


Robert McClory puts the Catholic church under the historical lens in Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church (2000) to show instances when individuals have stood up against official Church teachings and hierarchy.  These dissenters are sometimes punished in their time, but all have been revealed to be prophetic voices whose ideas are accepted by the Church at large to the Church’s benefit.

The Faithful Dissenters include:

  • John Courtney Murray, who proposed the very American idea of “freedom of religion”
  • Galileo, who respectively tried to incorporate his observations of the heavens into the Church’s longtime understanding of cosmology only to have his studies repressed
    • “Still, there are two facts about which no dispute is possible: first, on the scientific issue, Galileo was overwhelmingly correct and the institutional Church was wrong; second, by seeking to quell an idea whose time had come, Church leaders dealt the institutional Church a severe blow from which it is still recovering,” – p. 26
  • John Henry Newman, who insisted that doctrine actually develops bottom-up from the laity
  • Mary Ward, who founded an order of religious sisters active in apostolic works of teaching and charitable work within the world at a time when women religious were expected to be cloistered
  • 16th century Jesuits who realized the changing economy of Renaissance Europe meant changes in the understanding of usury as well
  • Catherine of Siena, who took it on herself to tell the Avignon papacy to shape up and ship back to Rome
  • Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China who success converting the Chinese to Christianity by controversially incorporating local Buddhist and Confucian philosophy
    • “In a very real sense, his biographers have noted, Ricci tried to do for Confucius what Thomas Aquinas did for Aristotle: provide a complex belief system witha a philosophical and moral undergirding, thus making the mysteries of the faith more approachable to the people of a specific culture,” – p. 97.
  • Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary with startlingly modern concepts of the feminine divine
  • Yves Congar, an ecumenical activist for fellowship, dialogue and respect of other Christian denominations and Judaism
    • “Congar wrote of two great temptations confronting the Church in every age: “Pharisaism,” that is, absolutizing religious rules and regulations rather than serving the spiritual and pastoral needs of the people; and “the temptation of the Synagogue,” that is, freezing tradition in such a way that cannot develop beyond what was understood in the past.  What the Church must do, he insisted, is harmonize itself more generously with the style of a new society — “a society she [the Church] is called to baptize as she has baptized others in the past,”” – p. 124
  • John Purcell and Edward Purcell, who taught that slavery was sinful at a time when it was widely accepted in the Church

In the conclusion, McClory writes:

In two important respects the dissenters described her are unqualifiedly alike.  First, they absolutely refused to leave the Churh in the face of all their difficulties.  One could argue that this stubborn fidelity, this standing in place while contradicting authority, was the principal factor in their  ultimate success and (sometimes posthumous) vindication.  Second, they did not see themselves as disobedient persons.  They shared a remarkable awareness that submission to God and submission to Church authority are not always the same thing.  Some today might call them “cafeteria Catholics.”  In a sense, they were; they maintained that not everything in the cafeteria was edible. Nevertheless, their acknowledgment of Church authority and their gratitude for what the Church offered them over the long haul never left, ” – p. 164

I thought this was a good book as the historical sketches were well-written and informative.  Additionally, it is written very respectfully, resisting the temptation to condemn those who tried to quash dissent as history’s losers or turn this into a rallying cry for our times.  McClory message is that good people can disagree and some ideas are ahead of their time, but eventually that which is of God will triumph.

Author : McClory, Robert, 1932-
Title : Faithful dissenters : stories of men and women who loved and changed the church / Robert McClory.
Published : New York : Orbis Books 2000.
Description : viii, 180 p. : ports ; 24 cm.
ISBN : 1570753229 (pbk.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.