The Catholic 'story': Fantasy- driven, endlessly seductive

Monday Book Review

March 25, 1991|By Joseph Procaccini

THE CATHOLIC MYTH. By Andrew M. Greeley. Charles

Scribner's Sons. 322 pages. $21.95.

ANDREW GREELEY never met a word he didn't like, nor a parenthesis. (The book includes no less than 400 parenthetical comments like this one.)

Despite these literary fetishes, he spells out his views on American Catholicism captivatingly enough from the dual perspectives of sociology professor and priest. His third persona, author of 19 novels, permeates the work with spicy anecdotes, some seemingly apocryphal, about bishops and Vatican intrigue. Greeley the man infiltrates this "objective" sociological treatise, transforming it, at times, into an autobiography.

The reader discovers a combative and self-pitying priest-scholar who laments that his church has never recognized his brilliance. Greeley the literary artist has a penchant for seeing or hearing parts of reality that no one else does. This habit gets him in trouble. For instance, he and his current ecclesiastical boss, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, totally disagree on the accuracy of the following account attributed to the cardinal in a conversation concerning the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reasserted the church's ban on artificial birth control: "I had to say those things because I am president of the conference (of bishops) and the Holy See expects me to issue statements like that. But I want you to know that you are right. I have a hard time sleeping at night because of the terrible harm that goddamn encyclical is causing in my archdiocese." Bernardin stands by his denial. Greeley hasn't lost faith in his memory of the discussion. But is it Greeley the priest, sociologist or the novelist who remembers?

Author Greeley personifies the very Catholic about whom the book is written. For the essence of Greeley's thesis is that Catholics imagine differently and that more than any of the other great religions, the "Catholic imagination" pictures God as present in all aspects of creation, revealed through objects, events, people and even statistics. While he does not contend that religion is fantasy, Greeley does believe that it had its origins in "that borderland of consciousness where metaphors and stories, images and symbols, daydreams and fantasies occur."

Greeley's connection of Catholicism and imagination was strongly influenced by a young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, whom he encounters at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. Geertz defined religion as "a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

It is this unique imagination of God as living and present, especially in other people, that keeps Catholics bound to their church and the communal tradition with which it is interwoven. Lovers of art do not abandon their attachment to aesthetic beauty just because the museum directors or curators may be inept, unenlightened or immoral. Likewise, Catholics remain devoted lovers of their heritage because it is rich in symbolism and has high imaginative fertility. Ineffective, inefficient or corrupt church leaders stand little chance of pushing people away. The Catholic "story," fantasy-driven, remains seductively attractive. Popes, cathedrals or eminent theologians pale in comparison. It is this pioneering sociological, and perhaps theological, perspective by Greeley that is the highlight of the book and that has the potential to give some new meaning to the word "Catholic."

The major message of Greeley's treatise, however, is an "apologia," that is, a defense of Catholicism in the face of widely perpetuated myths: that Catholics fear sex; are racist, sexist, and intolerant of lifestyles like homosexuality; and that the laity are leaving the church in droves.

Greeley dispels these misconceptions with the "hard data" of the sociologist, seasoned with the "soft data" of priestly love that he still holds for his church.

As much as he tries, Greeley the social scientist cannot excise Greeley the priest from his investigations and findings.

Ironically, it is the imaginative author-priest who saves the book from the insipid author-sociologist.

In the same way, the poetry and artistic symbolism of the church have rescued it from its cold hierarchical leaders.

Joseph Procaccini is a professor of education and management at Loyola College.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.