"As It Was In The Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church" by Robert McClory

A book review by Robert M. Kelly

"In the Beginning" is the most complete account I've read of what ails the Catholic church, where these pathologies come from, and why the solutions to them will likely be incorporated into the structure of the church — eventually. McClory is able to show these processes because of his unique perspective. He was a priest for many years. His training has given him perspective on what's gone wrong, and why. But the story of his clerical service, dating roughly from the 1940s to the 1970s, is not the strength of the book. The history of the Catholic church, stretching back two thousand years, is the real star of the show.

McClory is expert at providing an overview, then swooping in and highlighting significant trends every few hundred years. His interest is in finding precedents for lay participation in the church. He explains how these came about, and suggests the benefits that could occur if they were revived. He shows clearly that lay participation was common in the early church, a point that even conservatives who uphold the hierarchy at every turn must concede. Indeed, the body of believers during the first century of Christendom, following the advice of none other than Jesus Christ, did without priests, bishops and popes.

Some of the most interesting stretches of the book describe Gregory's reform pontificate (around 700 A.D.) and the theological basis of the conciliar movement (1000 A.D or so). Here McClory shows a deft scholarly hand at compressing and explaining much neglected theology and ecclesiastical development. You will not hear references to these things during a Sunday sermon,nor during a papal encyclical. These explanations disclose that lay participation is not a new nor a radical idea.

He explains how the monarchical trappings of the church, which repel so many, first came to be. He also shows how these habits became fixed and, one is tempted to say, immutable. I say _tempted_ because McClory shows time and again that much of what we take to be immutable, fixed, and infallible in the church is anything but. The strongest lessons in the book show that the hierarchy of the church first resists, then argues with, and (at long last) incorporates change. McClory demonstrates that the 'sense of the faithful' (beliefs held by the vast majority of ordinary people) can be as important as papal pronouncements.

The official Catholic church has experienced an unprecedented wave of bad press over the last 12 years or so. These revelations have included horrific allegations, largely substantiated, that thousands of clergy have caused harm to thousands of children of the laity. McClory tells this tale, too. Yet, this is not a negative book. On the contrary, he shows that the real problem in the clerical ranks is not the love of sex, but the love of power. That doesn't excuse the injustices, but it does point to the causes and to some likely solutions, which have to do with decentralization, transparency, and listening to the voices from below.

For committed Catholics who love church teachings but hate the ossified structure which has gained such an apparent stranglehold on the church, this book could be a revelation. It may not prove that the church is worthwhile (that may require more faith than many can muster). However, McClory's book makes a powerful argument that the Catholic church could be worth a lot more than is apparent. His book all but demonstrates that the church, as bad as it may be, is not yet beyond hope. That is a singular achievement.

The book has a few flaws. Tighter editing would have improved readability by removing redundancies and trite phrases. The introduction spends rather too much time on the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. While the digression is pertinent to the theme of problems in church management, it seemed somewhat at odds with the main topic. The themes of the novel are many, and the inclusion of thought-provoking hypotheses and ethical debates pulled this reader's attention off McClory's main theme. The resultant confusion could not have been what the author intended, particularly in an introduction.

The body of the book is not confused but proceeds in a straight line at a slow pace. It might fairly be called plodding. But, much historical writing is plodding, and building a case as strong as McClory's depends on covering a lot of ground. He has enhanced this dry church history by showing the effects of ideas, opinions and a wide cast of characters on that history. He has also included his own story and, in a quietly effective manner, his enduring faith in the viability of the Catholic religion. This is a view that few are qualified to provide, and fewer still would be capable of integrating into a two-thousand year history.

Big Doings In Holyoke: Mater Dolorosa Controversy Rolls On

            A city council vote will take place in Holyoke, Massachusetts about whether a Polish historic district will be created. One of the anchors of the proposed district is the Mater Dolorosa church, which has been a thorn in the side of Roman Catholic Bishop McDonnell since his decision to close the church and merge the parish with another parish nearby several years ago.
            Recently, a petition from the pastors of four Catholic parishes in Holyoke was directed to the city council members seeking to influence their up-or-down vote on whether the historic district should be created. 

            As  a longtime Catholic of the Springfield Diocese and follower of the parish downsizing plan which has been implemented here, I believe this petition from the pastors contains questionable assertions. Those assertions are the subject of this blog post.

The assertions are paraphrased.

Assertion # 1: The four undersigned pastors care for the people of God in Holyoke by administering their donated money.

Assertion # 2: The inclusion of Mater Dolorosa property in a historic district would:
1. force the OLOTC parish to become a property manager.
2. cause fiscal responsibility for MD to fall squarely on the OLOTC community.
3. tie up the money of OLOTC parish to maintain the property of MD.

Assertion # 3: A "yes" vote will prevent OLOTC parish from caring for the people of God in Holyoke by causing parish administrators to spend less of the money collected from its parishioners on the parishioners themselves.

Assertion # 4: We, pastors employed by a religious organization, ask you, a secular body politic, for your support in our opinion about what is best for the people of Holyoke.


Let's take these one by one.

            There is nothing radical in Assertion #1 but it's worth noting that this peculiarly Catholic "care" has two limitations: Number one, it has to do specifically with the "care of souls." In Catholic theology, this is the only care that matters. This spiritual care for Catholic adherents has nothing to do with the civic involvement of Catholic parishioners, and still less to do with care for the general population, or care for the values that the general population might or might not embrace, such as historic preservation. All of these issues, including the civic responsibilities of Catholic adherents, are properly the subject of secular debate.
            Number two, this "care" is also limited because the Catholic Church is not a social agency. Although the Catholic church has a generally good record of generosity toward all citizens, it has also proven on occasion to be intolerant, small-minded, and vindictive, particularly on gay rights and abortion rights issues.
            Oddly, this obsession with control has been even more on display when those within its ranks have a difference of opinion with central administration. Let us not forget that Bishop McDonnell sued the former parishioners of Mater Dolorosa and attempted to evict them from their own church. In fact, lawsuits have been a prominent feature of the McDonnell administration. See here:

            This is not the time to go into every culture war battle of the past. Suffice to say that the Catholic church, as represented by these four pastors, and by implication their immediate supervisor, Bishop McDonnell, certainly have no moral high ground to stand on when it comes to putting the values of all citizens ahead of the institutional aims of the church. On the contrary, we've seen that when the institutional aims of the church conflict with the rights of abuse victims, gay rights advocates, historic preservation advocates, and displaced parishioners, the response of Bishop McDonnell has been to support the centralized institution above all else.
            Although Assertion # 1 is true on its own merits, toward the end of the letter the pastors conflate this spiritual "care" which is good for the parishioners of Holyoke with the general civic "care" of all the citizens of Holyoke. The two "cares" are not the same, nor can they ever be, because of the plurality of religions in America and the need to maintain a separation of church and state, a value which Americans hold dear.
            Assertion #2 has three clauses, each of which claims that the money of OLOTC would be tapped following the successful integration of MD into a historic district. Those who don't understand church finances (and even longtime parishioners do not) might be swayed by this argument, because it has logic on its side. After all, even the most fervent supporter of MD must admit that it takes money to keep a property up, and the money must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, logic has little to do with church finances.
            The facts are these: all church property in the Springfield Diocese, many millions of dollars worth, has been deeded over to the bishop. There are other financial arrangements that could have been made. For example, a minority of Catholic dioceses nationwide are beginning to convert to a system in which each individual parish incorporates themselves, leaving central administration as a separate unit. In point of fact, this would be a better fit with canon law, according to canon lawyers such as Nicholas Cafardi.  However, the vast majority of dioceses, including Springfield, are still using corporate sole. The first permission to a church group to use corporate sole in the Commonwealth was granted to the Archdiocese of Boston by the legislature in 1898; the Springfield Diocese followed soon after.  For more on this aspect, see:

See also: 

3 historical articles on Corporation Sole (Boston Globe)

              Corporate sole is maintained by investing the office of bishop with the powers of a one-person corporation, in perpetuity. The power is indivisible. The only one who gains the power is the successor bishop. An outstanding advantage of the system is that corporate sole avoids probate. But, there are many more advantages, the chief of which is that all of the money is in one pot, and the pot is controlled by the Bishop.
             This highly centralized system is completely at odds with the idea that OLOTC, or any other parish in Holyoke, is responsible for MD. The opposite is true. The individual parishes are responsible for upholding the diocese financially, just as the dioceses are responsible for upholding the Vatican financially. MD at present is under the complete jurisdiction of the bishop, and will remain so regardless of the vote of the Holyoke city council. The corporate sole system, under which all power over the parishes is given to the bishop, was simply never set up to have one parish care for another. The structure of corporate sole will not change if  a historic district is created.
            What the historic district would change, however, is the scrutiny of Bishop McDonnell's treatment of the MD church. It is this change, which would entail better maintenance and preservation of outstanding cultural features, which Bishop McDonnell is fighting. At the moment the church is mothballed, and in decline. 
            A "yes" vote would bring to the public eye the responsibility of the Diocese to maintain the stone structure of MD, including its tower, and the duty to provide adequate heating and general maintenance, including minimal landscaping. More seriously, the lack of reasonable maintenance may subject the diocese to fines if it engages in "demolition by neglect," and does not maintain MD's historic appearance, for example, if it were to replace stained glass windows with plywood. That possibility is not as remote as it may sound. 
            Most serious of all, a historic designation would undercut the ability of the Springfield Diocese to sell the church and the ground under it to the highest bidder. Despite the protests of church officials to the contrary, it is simple unbelievable that this possibility is not a part of the options being considered within the chancery for the future of MD.

Assertion # 3: A "yes" vote will prevent OLOTC parish from caring for the people of God in Holyoke by causing parish administrators to spend less of the money collected from its parishioners on the parishioners themselves.

            This is not true. Parish administrators such as Rev. Scherer and Rev. Lunney do not have the power to decide how much they will spend on their parish. The money of these parishes, like all money in the diocese, is administered by the bishop. He alone can decide. The little money that goes toward maintaining MD at present can come only from the general funds of the diocese, because that is the corporate sole system. Again, there is only one pot of money, and the bishop controls the pot.
            The former parishioners of MD have been told repeatedly by Bishop McDonnell during their long court battles (and this is on permanent record in several civil courts of law, by the way) that MD, as a parish entity, no longer exists, and that MD, and indeed all churches in the diocese, "belong to" the bishop. How then is it possible for Bishop McDonnell to argue now that MD, as an entity, still exists, and that the newly created parish, OLOTC, is responsible for it, and will somehow become even more responsible for it, should a historic designation pass? The contradictions abound.

Assertion # 4: We, as pastors of a religious organization, ask you, a secular body politic, for your support in our opinion about what is best for the people of Holyoke.

            Read the last assertion through, and you'll find that it amounts to an argument that the city councilors should trust the judgment of four men about what is best for everyone in Holyoke.
            The most positive spin that can be put on their statement is that they sincerely believe that shooting down a historic district would be in the best interest of their boss, the bishop, to whom they have sworn an oath of loyalty. Yet even this interpretation is undercut by their questionable allegations about how corporate sole works and about how money is administered within the Diocese of Springfield.