book review

As It Was in the Beginning
(Crossroad Publishing, 2007)

By: Robert McClory
Review By: Fran DeChant

Is Democracy coming to the Catholic Church?  Journalist and scholar Robert McClory has written a thought-provoking book about the past and present of the Catholic Church as it could possibly relate to a democratic system of church governance. His title takes words from the familiar “Glory Be to the Father...” prayer we learned as children.  As It Was in the Beginning dramatically echoes the first three words of the Christian Bible.  The subtitle, The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church, forewarns the reader of a daunting task McClory has set for himself.

McClory delves right in validating both titles by starting with the origin of the Church— which is Jesus.  There is no question that Jesus spoke and acted in a way that was light years beyond his or any culture of the time.  His admonition to his followers is familiar to us from Mark’s Gospel:  “You know that among the Gentiles...their rulers lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants...But it is not so among you.”  Jesus took great risks by challenging the repressive purity cult inherent in Judaism of his day.  In its place he called for openness, inclusivity and compassion.

Was the early church able to internalize this “pre-democratic” system?  If so, for how long?  McClory uses the writings of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles to establish that the Apostles and elders sought participation of the whole church in their decision making.  Their earliest meeting, now known as the Council of Jerusalem, typifies “how the church should make decisions for all time: by listening to many voices, by discerning where the Spirit, who is always out ahead of the church, is leading.”

Unfortunately, the overall answer seems to be: “not very often and for not very long.”   Around the time of the fourth century,  McClory renews his quest for democracy with his description of the socially enlightened writings of Cyprian of Carthage.  My guess is that in the intervening centuries, the infant church was forced to use most of its energy merely surviving underground to avoid persecution.  At the same time, through miraculous action of the Spirit, it drew unto itself masses of humanity, beginning with women and slaves and reaching eventually into the educated classes.  In its earliest form, Christianity was a home church and the Mediterranean home was a patriarchy.  So began the church’s history of absorbing whatever system of governance was prevalent in the society in which it found itself.

As It Was in the Beginning describes fascinating and little known portions of church history.  McClory shows how the outcome of the Arian controversy was truly brought about by an uprising of the people.  He sees the first manifestation of the consensus fidelium, that guidance toward truth emerging from the people themselves.  In a later chapter, McClory connects with John Henry Newman’s emphasis on this same principle of direction coming from the bottom rather than the top.  The American Catholic Church, according to McClory, was founded in an environment rich in democratic mechanisms.  One has only to think of the particularly American town hall meeting to concur with his belief.  Commonly, American parishes during the nineteenth century had boards of lay trustees who shared decision-making with the pastor.  Unfortunately, this very effective use of power-sharing went by the wayside during those decades of strenuous effort by the hierarchal church to pull to itself all forms of authority.  This produced the era of a laity limited to praying, paying and obeying.

McClory devotes an informative chapter of his book to the work of present day reform movements and organizations, including FutureChurch.  However, with the exception of Leonard Swidler’s think tank, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), much of their work is not related directly to creating democratic initiatives.  McClory summarizes his expectations for democratic governance within the Catholic Church in four scenarios.  In the first, he examines the current system of pseudo power-sharing provided by canon law, which are parish councils and parish finance councils.  He pronounces them, “peculiarly undemocratic because, under present church law, they are consultative and advisory only, not deliberative or decision-making.”  He envisions (without clearly describing) an event of such magnitude that would lift  parishes  to new levels of shared responsibility and decision making.  In a second scenario, McClory foresees a reworking of papal primacy so that the separated branches of Christianity will finally come together.  The author looks into the future a third time.  He is not alone in hoping that the church will confront its mission to bring about the reign of God, especially to the poor and marginalized.  This in itself would be sufficient to renew the church.  Finally, McClory sees a scenario that ends celibate and male exclusivity in the Catholic Church.

From my post-Vatican II vantage and my own membership in probably the last American lay directed constitutional parish community about to be merged out of existence I feel very little of McClory’s certainty that a democratic Catholic Church is coming.  I’d like to think he’s right in saying, “Now the recovery of freedom, participation, openness and democracy is underway.”  McClory’s vision isn’t on the horizon for me, but I can go on working and praying for it to come.

DeChant is a frequent reviewer for Focus and a long time FutureChurch member and volunteer.

Focus on FutureChurch

Fall 2008


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