Roman Catholic Imagination According to Andrew M. Greeley

by Runar Eldebo

In the world of author, theologian, and sociologist Andrew M. Greeley, imagination combines the fabrics of life. Imagination is the glue that holds the fragments together. Imagination is primary for humans and it generates words, truths, doctrines, and systems of faith. Imagination gives women and men trust. Both in his novels and in his sociology of religion Greeley sees Catholic imagination as the tool which helps men and women to trust. The men and women of his novels struggle to be both modern and Catholic. This wrestling between modernity and confessing Catholic faith is the intriguing heart of his writing. According to Greeley, expressing imagination turns people around to trust—trust in themselves, trust in life, and trust in the mysteries of Roman Catholic faith is what the Catholic Church is about. Above all is faith in Jesus and also in Mary, the saints, the Eucharist, and the church through all centuries.

Imagination for Greeley is a concept appropriate for use in the academy. As a sociologist of religion, Greeley gives several answers to the question: Why do people remain Catholics? He recognizes that it is difficult to remain Catholic when priests and nuns leave the church, when scandals around pedophilia appear, when the pope does not read modern times well, and when church hierarchy is stiff and awkward. In the article “Why Do Catholics Stay in Church?” (New York Times, July 10, 1994), Greeley wrote that in the end it comes down to this: Catholics stay in church because Catholics like to be Catholics. It is this more than anything else—Catholics feel good about being Catholics. They depend upon the imagination that gives trust, opens their hearts for love, and warms their lives in times that are cold and bitter.

Greeley is a theologian who is a sociologist of religion. In his academic work, The Jesus Myth (1971), Greeley wrote that religion communicates via experiences to imagination and from imagination via stories to community. He identifies faith experiences in which the propositional words and the doctrines are, if not absent, far away from the center. Faith is experience, imagination, stories, and the community that is built out of them. This, Greeley argues, is the way faith works locally in parishes, churches, and the homes of people. In The Jesus Myth he wrote that the life of Jesus is the very story of who God really is and how God lives. Therefore, Greeley continues, truth according to faith, is not facts but stories out of which experiences and imagination shape communities. In 1971, under the impact of this insight, he started to write stories—novels—to help people understand.

Andrew Greeley is, of course, Roman Catholic. He makes a clear distinction between Catholic imagination and Protestant imagination. Protestant imagination is dialectic and makes people pilgrims. It is deep in conflict and antagonistic to the ingredients of a common, human life. Catholic imagination is analogical. It is founded in creation itself and views creation as God in disguise. According to Catholic imagination, God lurks everywhere. According to Protestant imagination, Karl Barth for example, God is hidden everywhere but found only in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, according to Greeley, Protestants are never at home on earth, they are pilgrims on their way. Catholics, meanwhile, like to dwell on earth. They enjoy life and are not in a hurry to get to heaven because God lurks everywhere, especially where you do not expect her to be. Protestants have warned people about the hazards of the world and asked people to hide in church. Catholics know that God loves the world and, most of all, his church.

For Greeley, God is primarily feminine. She is present everywhere. She is the mother of all, the hug we never got, the knee we were not invited to or allowed to sit on. God is the dancing queen and we are on earth to be invited to this dance. God is more caring, more tender, and more human than most men appear to be. This does not mean that Greeley is a feminist, in many ways he is not, but he understands psychology and how human beings are raised and are coming into being. As psychologist D.W. Winnicott teaches, we all need a good-enough mother. If there is no good-enough mother for a person, another adult has to show up and stand in and if that does not happen also, the mother of all is there. She shows up and so no person has to be a failure. This is Greeley’s way of thinking about these matters.

When Greeley became a parish priest in a suburb of Chicago, he immediately confronted the hierarchy of the parish. He preferred to dwell among the parish people and youngsters than to be among the other priests. He still confronts the hierarchy and he stills dwells among his parish people. He criticizes the church hierarchy of Chicago for failure to care for the poor of the downtown. When the power elite does not act, he does so himself. He uses part of the money from his best selling books to create homes for poor boys and he contributes to the welfare of downtown Chicago. The hierarchy does not thank him—to the contrary, but the poor do.

Greeley considers the readers and the many people who respond by writing back and talking to him to be his parish. He has a mailbox on the Internet and each day he responds to readers and writers about his books, about faith and life, and about struggling to be a modern Catholic. He is a priest who contends that what threatens faith today is not so much what’s going on out there in modern society but what is going on inside the church. Stubborn priests do not help people keep up with God.

So, Greeley tells stories. One purpose is to create characters of faith and role-models for priests and nuns. His character, Father Blackie Ryan, reminds us of Chesterton’s Father Brown. He is the priest we all have wanted to be there for us, Catholic or not—the priest with compassion, the priest with an articulate intellect who gives us words to dance to and through them opens the gate to faith. Though he is an intellectual, he is first and foremost a human being. He is known for his suspicions of the hierarchy and his opposition to their abuse. He is skillful enough to navigate in the power games of both church and society.

The complexity of American society makes the art of Greeley both possible and successful. He has the knowledge and skill to create characters who capture our imaginations so that we turn his pages over and over again—characters who dwell in the midst of civil religion, churchgoing, and ambiguity in moral standards. Greeley writes about what we know and about what we do not want to know.

He portrays a woman in a Chicago suburb whose husband has run away with a much younger woman. She goes to her parish priest to confess her situation. The priest asks her to stay single if she wants to remain a Catholic. She treasures her Catholicism highly and begins to build a single life to stay Catholic. After a while, the same priest runs away to Hawaii with the nun in the church. These are the circumstances Greeley’s heroines struggle with. His criticism of the church is applauded by the liberals of the church and society. Conservatives of both church and society embrace his moral standards. He never seems to be really politically correct; he is the kind of man who has friends everywhere but has no place to rest his head. Father Greeley contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun Times and his homilies and articles can be read with daily updates on www.agreeley.com. Currently Greeley divides his time between serving as a professor of sociology of religion at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as a fellow at Opinion Research Center, and as a professor of Social Science at the University of Chicago. He focuses his research on issues such as the question of celibacy among Catholic priests and nuns, the question of female ordination, Catholic imagination, and changes in moral behavior among Catholic laity.

His first novel appeared in 1981. The Cardinal Sins is a story in the tradition of giants such as Paul Claudel and Graham Greene. The book portrays human love as a sacrament and as an instrument for divine love among people. The book intrigues the reader with the lifelong tension and friendship between Kevin Brennan and Patrick Donahue, childhood friends who have parallel careers as priests in the Catholic Church. Both wrestle with sex, money, and power. In this first novel Greeley captures the themes that pervade all his writing. He struggles, like all his heroines, to capture faith in God in the middle of the struggles of sex, money, and power. While commenting on his writing Greeley said: “Do I regret I never married? Do I miss children and grandchildren? Is there anything missing in my life because I never had a relation with a woman including a sexual passion?” The answer to all these questions is “Yes!”

After this best selling sensation he continued to write novels like Thy Brother’s Wife, Ascent into Hell, Lord of Dance, Virgin and Mary, Angels of September, Patience of a Saint, and Rite of Spring. They all have spectacular covers and have sold well at news stands, book stores, and airports. Greeley makes a distinction in these books between priests and clergy. The former are the Blackie characters who love and work for the best for their parish people. The latter are those who are lost in the hierarchy and have lost their passion and compassion in the process.

His autobiography Confessions of a Parish Priest (1986) was followed by a second part: Furthermore! Memories of a Parish Priest (1999). In it, he traces his pilgrimage from his parents, youth, and soul making moments. It is a really wonderful story of how a priest is born. It’s the story of a complex and lonesome character. He is in love with the local church and with the people there who are struggling to belong. At the same time he participates in the power game, is a very successful businessman and academic, and strives for his own image and star to shine. He is amazingly successful both in criticizing the hierarchy and also in winning their utmost acceptance.

Andrew Greeley continues to be a voice of the Catholic Church in the US even though he views himself as an outsider as does much of the Church. There, in between, he colors a world of beauty and faith closer to ordinary people than to the clergy but with respect for all priests who still love the Lord and show it in their respect for ordinary parish people.

Runar Eldebo is a Pietisten correspondent from the Mother land--Sweden--who teaches in the Swedish Seminary.

See all articles by Runar Eldebo