Robert McClory, a pastor to the People of God

Robert McClory (CNS/Courtesy Northwestern University)

Robert McClory has left us for a better place, and we are the poorer for it. Oh, I know he lived a rich and full 82 years. And no one, after all, can expect to live forever. But Bob is someone we wanted to hang on to for as long as we possibly could. He died on April 3, Good Friday, in the arms of his family after contracting a bad infection exacerbated by a serious blood disease.

NCR readers know Bob best as a blogger and the gifted author of nine books. He was also a respected teacher of other journalists; a beloved husband, father, and grandfather; a man who left the active priesthood but never stopped ministering; and a friend to very, very many people. (More than he realized, I suspect.)

I knew Bob as a passionate advocate for reform in the Catholic church. I would venture that at one time or another, he spoke to reform-minded Catholics in every major city in the U.S. We looked to him when we no longer knew what to make of this goofy church. When we weren't sure it was worth hanging in as a pew person for one more blasted second.

In fact, I like to think of Bob as our own personal Moses, helping us traverse the long, dry desert of clergy sex abuse, financial scandals and post-Vatican II pushback. Only Bob had a much better sense of humor than Moses. Anyway, I don't recall any biblical passages where Moses cracked everyone up with droll reflections about the absurdity of the desert slog or the Pharaoh's high-falutin' ways.

Bob always made us laugh. Then he made us think. And then he challenged us. While he respected our struggles with the church (indeed, he shared them), he helped us understand why we could never, ever give up. And he gave us hope.

One of Bob's favorite topics was what he called "faithful dissent." He talked and wrote about it for at least 15 years. And this at the height of what I now call "the heresy hunts." You know, the scary times before Pope Francis when if you tried to respectfully discuss a taboo topic such as Communion for the divorced and remarried or ordaining women, you were shunned as a "heretic" and threatened with excommunication.

But Bob saw right through all that.

He saw the value in "faithful dissent" and helped us to see it, too. For Bob, "dissent" could be a positive -- indeed, a necessary thing. Here is what he told one Michigan group: "Dissent must be respected at times as a legitimate manifestation of the Holy Spirit working in the Church ... out ahead of the Church, which the Holy Spirit is known to do."

One of his books, Faithful Dissenters, lists many examples from church history of people who disagreed with the church and were later vindicated. People like John Henry Newman, who wrote that ordinary Catholics should be consulted about church teaching. Newman's thinking would pave the way for the Second Vatican Council.

And then there's Mary Ward, who was briefly excommunicated after founding a group of women to serve English Catholics at a time when priests and nuns were imprisoned and killed. (Women weren't supposed to be out and about, ministering to people hungry for God's word -- go figure.) Ward's community, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was disbanded and then reconstituted 58 years after her death. But it wasn't until 269 years later that her sisters were permitted to publicly name her as their founder. In 1951, Pope Pius XII called Ward "that incomparable woman given by the Holy Spirit to Catholic England in the darkest of periods, that holy woman."

Yet Bob was far from naive about dissent:

I think dissent is a little bit like cholesterol: there's good dissent and there's bad dissent ... but you'll only know which is which after you're dead. But people say, "Well, then, I'm not going to take a chance ... I'm going to be loyal and not dissent in any way; and therefore I'm saved." Oh, wait a minute! In both cases you're taking a chance. In the case of following the institutional Church exclusively and in dissenting you're taking a chance. There's always a leap of faith involved.

Here is a sampling of wise McClory humor and gentle challenge about diverse responses to struggle with the institutional church:

In my years at Northwestern University, we got into discussions on religion, and students would tell me, "I am a recovering Catholic." Sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous. When they get a feeling they should go to church, they call up a friend who talks them out of it. ... Now I would not call those people dissenters. I would call them dropouts -- and they're doing what their conscience tells them -- so I'm not going to fight or argue.

Then there's a second group that I would call people who stay in the Church, but complain all the time ... They don't like the pastor; 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 ... Those people, and there are many of them, I do not consider that to be dissenting. I would call it whining.

And there's a third group -- and maybe that's the largest group of people -- who just come to church on Sunday without any joy, without any enthusiasm, without any interest, to tell you the truth, except to fulfill their Sunday duty. ... And they are not singing -- hymns are going on, and you know who's singing, but not them. ... This is a terrible, sad situation. They're like zombies. ... I would not call that dissenting. I would call that moping.

But there's another group of people. There is another group of people, who are thoughtful about these things -- who are prayerful, who talk to God about it, and who have talked to others about it, about their concern. And 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. And I think some of these people ... whom I would call dissenters, dissent in a creative way: priest, religious men and women, and many laity. ... They try to live as if the Church of the future is already present. ... And 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.

When it came to living dangerously, Robert McClory never shirked from speaking out boldly when the situation warranted, often naming names. He sharply criticized then-Bishop Leonard Blair after his July 2012 public radio interview with Terry Gross about the attempted takeover of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. He accused Blair and his bishop sycophants of "taking the church to a dark place where submission to episcopal teaching is expected to be automatically accepted -- always and without exception."

Citing Blair's failure to consider long-standing checks and balances in the church such as the hierarchy of truths, the sense of the faithful and reception of teaching, McClory pointedly asked, "Where are the thoughtful bishops who know what's going on here? ... This is not a time for polite silence."

We will miss you, Robert McClory. We will miss your passion, your wisdom, your droll wit and your unerring pastoral sense in caring for the People of God. I quoted this antiphon two years ago when my pastor, Fr. Paul Hritz, died. It applies equally to you:

"Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God; there was not found the like to him who kept the law of the Most High" (From the Common of Pastors, used for a pope or for a bishop).

And Bob, now that you are dead, you must know that your dissent was the good kind. The kind that nourished God's weary people trudging to a still-distant promised land.

But we'll get there.

We'll get there because you helped us trust the Spirit's pillar of fire in our own hearts "out ahead of the Church. As the Spirit is known to do."

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Christine Schenk's column, Simply Spirit, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here