Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 1, 2001
The stories of 17 who challenged the Church
Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church, by Robert McClory. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 2000. 180 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Mary Ward (1586-1645) was an early advocate for women's rights in Church and society. From a very young age, she wanted to become a nun. The problem was, there was not a single convent in her native England.
The English Catholic Church of her day was outlawed. So, she was smuggled out of the country to Catholic Belgium. On the continent, she became the foundress of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM).
Ward believed that she had not been called to conventional, enclosed religious life. Inspired by the example of the Jesuits, she conceived of an institute of women, living in a non-enclosed community, free of episcopal authority, who would carry out apostolic work of justice, mercy and service in the world.
Mary was obviously ahead of her time.
After several false starts, and continued exile from her homeland, Mary went about forming her band of followers into unique communities in several continental centres. She sought approval for her order from the pope and tentative permission was granted.
But Ward met with considerable resistance because of the radical nature of her ideas. Leaders in the Church as well as in secular society were just not ready to take direction from a woman.
In January 1631, notification came from Rome that her institute was to be suppressed. Mary was charged with being "a heretic and a rebel to the Holy Church" and she died under a cloud of ecclesial disapproval.
In 1877, almost two and a half centuries later, Pope Pius X gave final and official endorsement to the order. In 1909, 323 years after her birth, IBVMs were finally allowed to identify her as their foundress.
Today, vital ingredients of most Catholic religious orders include a number of Mary's ideas: the blending of contemplation and action, freedom from enclosure, the optional wearing of contemporary dress, the managing of their own affairs, and an eagerness to adjust in response to the challenges of the age.
Mary Ward was a pioneer religious visionary whose perceptions far surpassed the times in which she lived.
Each in their own way, the 17 subjects of Robert McClory's Faithful Dissenters make a strong historical case for creative and healthy dissent in the Church. Throughout the ages, brave and dedicated persons, women and men, have dared to criticize authority and to live out their vocation within the Church in spite of obstacles encountered. They were called arrogant and disrespectful. They suffered much.
To dissent from legitimate authority, says McClory, is to stand apart and to place oneself in opposition to established norms, regulations and decrees. Authority, by its nature, does not favour dissent and views it as a threat to good order; fearing that it will destroy the foundations upon which the institution is built.
Today, widespread dissent is expressed in the Church over such issues as contraception, women priests, priestly celibacy, homosexual activity and marriage after divorce. What do we make of these challenges?
This book struggles with such questions as: Is it possible that a long-accepted tradition or an interpretation of Sacred Scripture may be erroneously expressing God's design, or does the Church's stamp of approval guarantee the truth? Does the obligation of legitimate Church authority always take precedence over innovative response?
Is the non-acceptance of a Church doctrine by great numbers of Catholics, over a long period of time a sure sign of rampant infidelity, or is it a call for reconsideration by Church authority? Is dissent by its very nature disruptive of good order, or are there situations when it creates a greater good?
McClory might have enhanced his book if a number of stories of persons whose contributions have not yet been vindicated, had been included. All told, however, these accounts are credible, inspiring and hopeful.
What all dissenters in this study share in common is that they did not leave the Church and they did not view themselves as disobedient. Here are stories of costly fidelity that have greatly enriched the Church and helped it to move more faithfully into the future.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)