ColumnistsFr. Brian D’Arcy

A critical voice filled with love and hope

Robert McClory
Robert McClory

Robert McClory taught us the power of positive dissent..he will be dearly missed

Large institutions react poorly to criticism from within. Political parties use the whip to silence dissent. The Church silences and excommunicates. 

All organisations use some form of bullying. There is no place in today’s controlling society for loyal opposition. 

On Good Friday the worldwide Church lost one of its most articulate and loyal dissenters. The death occurred in Chicago of journalist and teacher Robert McClory at the age of 82. 

I have followed his writings for well over 30 years. His comments were sharp, incisive and fearlessly critical when they had to be. It was always tempered by a love for this Church he was often uncomfortable in. 

Those who knew him have written breathtakingly beautiful tributes since his death. A nun, Sr Christine Schenk, who co-founded FutureChurch, compared McClory’s leadership through his writings to Moses who: “Helped us traverse the dreary desert of clergy sex abuse, financial scandals, and post-Vatican II pushback. Only

Bob had a much better sense of humour than Moses… Bob always made us laugh, then he made us think. And then he challenged us… he helped us understand why we could never, ever, give up. And he gave us hope.” 

When I first read Robert McClory’s work I learned that you could criticise the community to which you belonged in a positive way when it was done out of love.

McClory in his writings called it “faithful dissent”. Others called it loyal opposition. The Church has never been a safe place for those who don’t mindlessly follow customs which are clearly destroying the Church itself. Until Pope Francis came along anyone who dared to dissent became victims of “the heresy hunt”. 

McClory pointed out that Church history is full of people who disagreed with the Church and were later vindicated. John Henry Newman wrote that ordinary Catholics should be consulted about Church teaching and in so doing paved the way for the Second Vatican Council. He was ostracised at the time, but a few years ago was beatified for his vision.  

McClory wrote: “I think dissent is a little bit like cholesterol, there’s good dissent and bad dissent... but you’ll only know which is which after you’re dead.” 

At other times McClory wrote about students who would tell them that they were “recovering Catholics” — a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous. 

“When they get a feeling they should go to church, they call up a friend who talks them out of it…  I would not call those people dissenters I would call them dropouts. They are doing what their conscience tells them so I am not going to fight or argue. 

“There’s a second group of people who stay in the Church but complain all the time… they don’t like pastors, they don’t like the bishop, and they don’t like the Pope, and they will tell you why, and they will go over it, and over it until your stomach turns… I do not consider them to be dissenters, I would call that whining. 

“There’s a third group — maybe the largest group of all — who come to a Church on Sunday without any joy, without any enthusiasm, without any interest, except to fulfil their Sunday duty. This is a terribly sad situation, but they are like zombies. I would not call that dissenting. I would call that moping. 

“But there’s another group of people who are thoughtful about these things — who are prayerful, who talked to God about it, and who have talked to others about their concerns. They have come to a decision and their decision is: ‘I do not agree with this position of the Roman Catholic Church, I deny it.’ And they take responsibility for that kind of very strong decision. I think some of these people… whom I would call dissenters — dissent in a creative way... they try to live as if the Church of the future is already present. They manifest it not by talking about it, as much as living it, as of course Jesus did. It’s an interesting way to live. It’s also a very dangerous way to live.” 

That’s probably the most insightful piece I’ve ever read on the need to cultivate good dissent in one’s spiritual life. 

McClory himself was a priest for 12 years in Chicago. He worked with the poor in an African-American parish. He worked closely with a nun who was a head teacher, Margaret Comish. 

They decided they would continue working together, so they sought dispensations from their vows and married in the early 1970s. He spent the rest of his life as a writer, a father, a loyal member of the Church, and a doting grandfather.