- Via Facebook
Bob McClory covered human decency for the Reader. He admired activists and reformers, and every couple of months he would tell a story about one or two of them in our pages. Older than other Reader writers, decades older than some, he described a Chicago that needed every ounce of reform it could get—no argument there—but got plenty. If sin thrived in our city, so did the coin’s other side—virtue. The generous way he reflected on human folly, you might have thought he was a priest.
Which of course he once was. McClory died on Good Friday at the age of 82, and I remembered the wonderful story he told about his courtship in the late 60s—he the associate pastor of Saint Sabina Parish on the south side, Sister Margaret McCalmish the new principal of the parish school. The parish was undergoing wrenching racial change, its survival was unlikely, and Father McClory’s first thought about the eager young educator from Wisconsin was that she was completely out of her depth. But what happened was a love that could not speak its name until—well, until it simply insisted they face it for what it was; then they asked the Catholic Church to release them from their vows.
Listen to McClory telling the story 12 years ago to WBEZ’s Alex Kotlowitz.
Five years ago McClory wrote Radical Disciple, a study of Father Michael Pfleger, who in 1975 followed McClory to Saint Sabina as associate pastor and is there yet. Many white Catholics disagree, but McClory believed Pfeger was a terrific priest, someone who threw himself into his assignment and restored a parish McClory feared was beyond rescue.
“That is the way a priest ought to be,” McClory said about Pfleger. “That is what you think about when you read about the early church and the energy of the people going around the world and the missionaries down through the centuries who have been so activist. If you think the message is so vitally important, you hurl yourself into it totally. I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s got it way, way beyond anything I’ve got.'”
We are not all born to be firebrands. McClory was a superior journalist, his sense of humor wry, his values implicit in his subjects. In 1995 the Vatican announced that the ban on the ordination of women must be considered an infallible teaching. The Catholic in McClory thought, well, that settles it. But his mind wasn’t buying. So he set out to understand the doctrine of infallibility and in 1998 published a book about it, Power and the Papacy.
The Doctrine of Infallibility turned out to have the kind of tangled history that makes it look—in some eyes—as much more of a human construct than the will of God. On the other hand, there’s always been something appealing about absolutism.
To a lot of people, but not to McClory.
“Absolutism does not belong in laws,” he said, “but it doesn’t belong in church laws either. You can be an absolutist, but you can’t be that way when you don’t have certainty. People like things to be black and white in some areas of life. They say, ‘At least with the church there’s not that degree of relativity.’ But there is relativity. God is a mystery. The church is a mystery. Jesus is a mystery. We can act as if we have an absolute grasp on things, but human language changes, our understanding of truth changes—and you can’t attach complete absolutism to anything human.”
In addition to his writing, McClory taught journalism at Medill. I trust he drilled into his students the importance of intellectual humility.