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.