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Winter Books

Faithful to conscience and tradition


By Robert McClory
Orbis Books, 180, $16


In this book, Robert McClory gives us a refreshing, focused approach to faithful dissent. He does this through stories of people whose courage and fidelity to a higher law helped them to resist lesser, culturally bound traditions in order to contribute to the broader and longer tradition of the church. Some of them have since been declared saints of the church.

The 17 women and men whose stories are told in this book are now dead. They conscientiously resisted teachings of church authorities on issues that the church has since resolved in their favor. Among them are such well-known persons as John Courtney Murray, Galileo, Catherine of Siena, John Henry Newman, Yves Congar, Thomas Aquinas and Hildegard of Bingen, as well as lesser-known persons such as Mother Guerin, Sor Juana, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Matteo Ricci and Mary MacKillop.

These varied witnesses span time from the fourth to the 20th centuries. They stretch across the world from Australia through Europe to the Americas. They include men and women, clerics, religious, laity from various walks of life, all of whom showed by their lives that fidelity to a higher law, together with faithfulness to the church, occupy no specialized niche in the life of the church. Each person held in common with the others personal integrity and strength of conscience. They all remained faithful to the church throughout their lives, in spite of personal suffering at the hands of authority. Preservers, not destroyers, of tradition, they are remembered for their contributions to the developing tradition of the church.

The breadth and variety of McClory’s choices give compelling witness to the broad reach of tradition and elasticity, to the Spirit working with surprising twists and turns in lives of people that inspire us. Each chapter is complete in itself, relatively short, with content focused securely on the topic. This makes for enjoyable reading. Look at the table of contents and start with whatever chapter you like. The writing is investigative, brisk, concise and entertaining. McClory uses direct quotes from these persons and from their writings so that we get a flavor of their personalities. He provides a wealth of information on each one. The introduction and conclusion provide the principles that their lives expressed.

An observation on the author’s use of sources: McClory uses almost no first sources in his footnotes, even though many of the people about whom he writes were prolific writers. Instead, he quotes them through secondary sources. For example, footnotes for the chapter on Murray are almost entirely from Donald E. Pelotte’s 1976 book, John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict, with one additional footnote from Murray’s own 1967 article, “Freedom in the Age of Renewal,” and another from a 1996 book on Murray. The chapter on Mary Ward cites only two books, with one reference to a document of the Second Vatican Council.

But this is meant to be a popular work, not a reference book. Perhaps it will draw readers to sample first source writings of these challenging people.

This book gives us a positive, interesting way to read about dissent in the church. We read of real people who influenced the development of tradition. They are prophetic people, ahead of their times, whom time vindicated at great cost to themselves. Murray’s contribution to the Catholic concept of religious freedom is one that strikes close to home.

McClory offers provocative insights on an essential process by which the church’s tradition unfolds and stays faithful to its roots through the course of history. His popular style makes reading about the controversial topic of dissent inspiring. It makes one trust the work of the Spirit over the long haul, in the church and the world, in people’s lives and in the communion of saints.

Bishop Kenneth Untener heads the diocese of Saginaw, Mich.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000