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Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past

Robert McClory has a brand new book that seems to have been written in the 1970s. The title is As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church. His understanding of the history of the early Church echoes that of anti-Catholic Fundamentalists who imagine that the papacy was instituted relatively late, by the Emperor Constantine, and that for its first three centuries the Church operated on congregationalist principles like those found in today’s “Bible churches.” McClory imagines that the early Church functioned as though it were an early version of a New England town meeting. (“What do we believe today? A show of hands please!”) His grasp of Christian history is no better than that of the people I profiled in Catholicism and Fundamentalism.

McClory is professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University. He has been prominent among dissident Catholics for a long time. His publisher describes him as “one of the most widely read writers in the field of post-Vatican II liberal Catholicism,” and that is true. He has written regularly for the National Catholic Reporter and U.S. Catholic, the two most prominent dissident publications in America.

He began his writing career 35 years ago and seems never to have changed themes. Back then he was against Humanae Vitae, in favor of a “reworked” papal primacy, and desirous of seeing women wear the chasuble. His latest book pushes the same ideas. Its final section asserts that the Church is about to embrace his principles. Like Lincoln Steffens, he has “been over into the future, and it works.” Steffens, though, was wrong about the Soviet Union in 1921; what he saw in its future just wasn’t there. McClory is wrong about the future of the Catholic Church. Instead of nearing realization, his desired future is receding into the hazy past of the era of leisure suits.

This was confirmed to me—as if I needed such confirmation—by viewing a video of the closing liturgy of this year’s West Coast conference of Call to Action, an organization that pushes the same ideas that McClory pushes and that came into being shortly after he started his journalistic career. The video showed a congregation that best could be described as geriatric. Few people seemed to be younger than 60, and many clearly were over 80. The most charitable word I can think of for the liturgy itself is “goofy.” The chief visual attraction was four people dressed as gigantic hand puppets with paddle-like hands. At one point—it may have been the sign of peace, but it was hard to tell—the congregants stood up, raised their hands in the air, and bounced around the room, to the extent their aged limbs allowed them to do so. It looked like an aerobics class at a rest home.

Who will be attracted to that kind of Catholicism? The video itself gives the definitive answer: no one not stuck in the amber of 1970s dissent. The people that McClory appeals to in his book are the people that Call to Action appeals to at its conferences, and they belong to a generation that is disappearing rapidly. If time has not been able to change their minds, it inexorably has changed their numbers and their influence. They are the wave of the past, not of the future. Dissent is tired, flaccid, unattractive. Orthodoxy is vibrant, strong, enticing.

McClory is oblivious to this. The final subtitle in his book is “It Will Surely Come!” He is convinced that the Church “is moving back toward what it was meant to be.” The irony is that in this final thought, at least, he is right—but in a way that will disappoint him. The Church, under Benedict XVI, truly is becoming “what it was meant to be.” I wonder how many readers of McClory’s book will grasp a truth that the author himself misses.

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