The Catholic Imagination

Andrew Greeley has been writing on the "Catholic imagination" since the 1970s, but this motif was also implicit in his earlier works on the value of Catholic schools, the centrality of parish life, and the persistence of ethnicity as a source of personal and communal identity. His sociological work, his novels, and his essays all feature a conviction that Catholic "difference" is rooted in a kind of "sacramentality of everyday life." As Greeley suggests in his latest book, The Catholic Imagination, "there is a propensity among Catholics to take the objects and events and persons of ordinary life as hints of what God is like, in which God somehow lurks, even if (as is perhaps often the case) they are not completely self-conscious about these perceptions of enchantment."
For a rather slender "extended essay," The Catholic Imagination provides a good introduction to Greeley’s unique modus operandi, blending stories, survey data, and a few memorable assertions guaranteed to provoke double and triple takes among those unfamiliar with the style of this priest, sociologist, and popular novelist. Working from two "representative samples" of married Americans, for example, Greeley is prepared to demonstrate not only that Catholics "enjoy" sex more than others; they sport "higher rates of sexual love because of the impact on them of the story of human passion as a hint of divine passion." In general, however, The Catholic Imagination is gentler in tone, the claims less extravagant than in some of Greeley’s earlier works on related topics, notably The Catholic Myth (1990), an eminently "teachable" work that has sparked wonderful debates (and enraged some Protestant students) on campuses across the country.

Greeley is less concerned here with contrasting the sacramental (or "analogical") imagination of Catholics with the "dialectical" world-view he and others have ascribed to Protestants, who purportedly imagine a distant God-as-sovereign and stress the "unlikeness" of human love and divine love. He proposes instead to relate the Catholic "sensibility" inhering in selected works of high culture (painting, films, cathedrals) with the behavior of "ordinary" Catholics as tested against empirical data. He begins with a graceful story of the Köln (Cologne) cathedral, situating this "gray Gothic pile" (building began in 1248) at the center of the city’s "dense" religious history. For Greeley, the great cathedrals are "treasure houses of stories located inside of storied cities." The most representative Catholic churches are not "quiet, prayerful places" but have "always been crowded with people, tombs, chapels, altarpieces, paintings, tapestry, votive candles, and stained glass," all crucial elements of a narrative perpetually renewed in the attentive presence of the faithful.

At the Hispano-Moorish mission church of San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Greeley discerns "the same stories of a God who is deeply involved with his creation." The interior of this "White Dove of the Desert" features 150 carefully arranged images of Jesus and Mary, angels and saints, the latter depicted as "real people-full-bodied and full-blooded." San Xavier del Bac is not far from the campus of the University of Arizona, where Greeley spends part of each year teaching sociology. His knowledge of Köln is presumably the result of his affiliation with a social science research center located in that city. But wherever Greeley travels, Chicago remains the ground of his own analogical imagination. Köln "is not exactly Chicago as seen from the Shedd Aquarium (what is?)," he writes, "but it is still striking." Like James Joyce’s Dublin, site of stories both "fantastic and structured," Greeley’s Chicago-with its densely Catholic network of parish neighborhoods-is the kind of "real" place without which "there can be no meaning" for those possessed of "a certain kind of Catholic sensibility."

Greeley’s forays into Catholic visual art are unsupported by this same solid foundation that serves him so well in other contexts. He suggests that such erotically charged works as Gianni Dagli Orti’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and Carlo Cignani’s Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar show that "human arousal is a hint of divine arousal." While not claiming an explicit link between "high art" and "popular" Catholic practice, Greeley does maintain that both traditions reject the negative "Augustinian" perspective on human sexuality that figures so prominently in church teachings. The "popular tradition" has been "reinforced by the enchanted imagination of Catholicism, which senses intuitively that the body of the beloved is grace." Taken separately, these are plausible arguments though Greeley’s attempt to connect them with empirical data feels a bit like being rushed into a sociology course before the lecture on art history is completed. Readers may look elsewhere in his massive corpus for more detailed statistical analyses of Catholic attitudes on a wide range of topics.

Greeley moves safely back to the "old neighborhood" for a look at films and fiction (especially that of James T. Farrell) that treat issues of "community" from a Catholic perspective. His brief treatment of Italian American filmmakers Nancy Savoca (Household Saints) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) is fascinating and showcases his novelist’s feel for narrative structure. He overlooks, however, the deep indebtedness of these artists to esthetic and spiritual traditions outside of their own. Filmmaking is no more collaborative an art form than cathedral building, but the architects of the Köln cathedral, unlike Martin Scorsese, probably did not commune with artists of radically divergent sensibilities. Two of Scorsese’s greatest films, for example, were products of the director’s partnership with writer Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver and devised the original treatment for Raging Bull. The tension between Schrader’s Calvinist world-view (the product of a fundamentalist Protestant family, he viewed his first film at the age of seventeen) and Scorsese’s Catholic visual esthetic was, by the director’s own admission, the source of Taxi Driver’s creative power. The broader issue here concerns Protestantism’s highly collaborative and dynamic relationship with American Catholic culture, a theme Greeley ignores in staking boundaries around the "unchanged and probably unchanging Catholic imagination."

Greeley has been criticized for downplaying generational differences among American Catholics (see sociologist James Davidson’s letter in Commonweal, January 28). Yet even if we were to grant that the "Catholic imagination" remains constant across generations, no one can deny that American Catholics’ knowledge and awareness of other traditions has altered dramatically over time. My parents, who were born in the same year as Greeley, did not really know any Protestants until they entered the work force. My Catholic students, with rare exceptions, display an unselfconscious familiarity with the idioms of both evangelical piety and the gospel of personal fulfillment. At the same time, many conservative evangelicals are currently generating a "liturgical turn" within their own tradition, reshaping a legacy of hostility toward Catholic ritual. The central role of converts in shaping American Catholicism must also be considered in any discussion of the "Catholic imagination." Although Greeley acknowledges that some people are "attracted to Catholicism as adults by virtue of its enchanting aspects," converts do not simply trade one whole identity for another but bring significant elements of their prior identity to the new community of faith.

In a preemptive rebuttal at the conclusion of his book, Greeley asserts that critics "miss the point entirely" if they suggest, among other things, that there is more than one version of the Catholic imagination. He has "attempted little more than to raise the question" of a possible link between artistic and popular sensibilities. He has done considerably more than that, here as in the past. Greeley has made the seminal insights of theologian David Tracy on the "analogical imagination" accessible to a wide audience and has validated by his considerable prestige inquiries into the sources of Catholic cultural identity. Without the "questions" he has raised in the past, the field of American Catholic studies would be much the poorer, if it existed at all. Though his habit of isolating the Catholic imagination runs counter to the comparativist impulse of much recent scholarship, given his track record I would not bet against him with your money, much less my own.

The irony is that Greeley’s highly contentious standing in a fragmented church works much more "dialectically" than "analogically." His persona as a controversial yet popular celebrity author at war with Catholic "elites" evokes the British scholar Paul Giles’s characterization of those quintessentially Protestant artists Emerson and Whitman, "privileged seers prophetically empowered to perceive invisible resemblances" (American Catholic Arts and Fictions, 1992). Greeley draws on the cultural products of the universal church for inspiration, but his own fabled career could only happen in America: to invent him anew one would need to blend the gifts of a James T. Farrell with those of a Herman Melville.

Published in the 2000-05-05 issue: 
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