In the first paragraph of the introduction to The Catholic Imagination, Andrew Greeley writes, “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” It is not news that the Catholic worldview over hundreds of years has influenced artists, authors, and, in modern times, filmmakers. In fact, Greeley has explored this same topic in many of his other writings. What is new is that Greeley has pulled all of his ideas together in one articulate essay.
Some of the views expressed in The Catholic Imagination are controversial and could be construed as offensive to the Catholic hierarchy, as well as to the Protestant vanguard. Greeley is no stranger to controversy, however. Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1954 and later a novelist, theologian, and sociologist, Greeley has been at odds with Catholic leaders for much of his career, referring to his superiors in the Church as “mitred pinheads” and “morally, intellectually, and religiously bankrupt.” He advocates ordination of women, liberalization of birth control and divorce policies, and democratization of the process for selecting popes, cardinals, and bishops. Yet he agrees with his fellow clerics on the Church’s stance concerning celibacy and abortion. Greeley’s contentious views, as well as his penchant for writing what some critics within the Church see as steamy novels, have relegated him to the margins of Church society. Consequently, Greeley was refused a parish in the diocese of his native Chicago. He now serves as a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. His outsider/insider status has provided him with a unique platform from which to comment on the way the Catholic hierarchy views artists who are sons and daughters of the Church, and also on how art influences the faith and everyday lives of rank-and-file Church members.
What is the “Catholic imagination”? Greeley draws on his theological knowledge, sociological training, and literary background in order to define the term. He explores the theme from various angles—sacrament, salvation, community, festival, hierarchy, erotic desire, and mother love—seeking to unify all facets of Catholic experience into one gem he calls “the Catholic imagination.” Greeley’s analysis is based on the distinctions David Tracy makes in his Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (1981) between the Catholic and Protestant cultural and religious worldviews. Tracy claims that works of Catholic theologians and artists emphasize the presence of God in creation, while Protestant theologians emphasize God’s absence. Tracy’s argument resonates throughout Greeley’s essay and strongly influences his conclusions.
Greeley opens his discussion by asserting that the Catholic imagination accentuates the “metaphorical nature” of creation. Creation discloses many things about God, but does not reveal God directly in all God’s naked glory. The universe, from tiny subatomic particles to gigantic whirling galaxies, is haunted by God’s presence. Greeley uses a biblical metaphor to illustrate his point: “Like the beloved in the Song of Songs, God leaves all kinds of hints of Her presence, but slips away just at the moment we think we might have caught a glimpse of Her.”
Greeley realizes that Protestant readers may object to viewing faith metaphorically because metaphor opens the door to mystery, which, in turn, can invite superstition and idolatry. Therefore, he is careful to explain that Mary, for example, is not worshiped by Catholics. Instead, she represents the mother love of God, God’s tender, gentle, nurturing side. “In other words,” Greeley comments, “God loves like a mommy as well as like a daddy.” The fact that Mary has served as inspiration and muse to countless Catholic artists, poets, and authors for centuries testifies to the power the divine feminine holds over the human spirit. Indeed, other belief systems that existed before Christianity included goddesses in their pantheons. For Greeley, though, Mary is not a goddess, she is a sacrament, linking the motherhood experience to God’s role as divine parent. Greeley also contends that studies have shown that belief in Mary correlates not only with a deeper spiritual life, but also with a positive relationship between parent and child. Moreover, because a positive relationship with parents often leads to a loving relationship with a spouse, belief in Mary can also lead to a strong marriage.
Greeley’s argument concerning the positive influence Mary apparently has on Catholic couples, whether they are churched or unchurched, requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader. Greeley cites a study that indicates that Mary’s...
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