Monday, March 11, 2013

The Catholic Imagination: A Review

"Catholics live in an enchanted world."

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini
This sentence is repeated many times in The Catholic Imagination by Andrew Greeley. Overall, I would say he's entirely right. Reading this book helped me to understand my fallen away brethren better as I saw how the "Catholic" worldview is so pervasive, they still have it no matter what their relationship is with the Church.

Catholics (and perhaps some of the more mainstream Protestants) have a sacramental worldview. The Sacraments, as the good ole Baltimore Catechism tells us, is an "outward sign of an inward grace." It is a real, physical sign of God's love and care for His people. I know for me, I cannot help but expand this understanding of life out the church doors. Seeing the "magic" (very poor word choice, but bear with me) at the altar, I cannot help but see the "magic" in my every day life.

Source, although I would not recommend the site.

And I see this overall view still in my friends who were raised Catholic and no longer identify themselves as Catholic. They may no longer participate in the sacraments, but they do have a sense of God's presence among them. They still have a passion for social justice.

Another major point that Greeley wanted to make that I agreed with is the Catholic sense of community although I would disagree vehemently with his argument that the Church has not lost it's sense of community. I do see among my Catholic and ex-Catholic friends a hunger for community. I think we are all hungering for community in this individualistic world, but I see that hunger more readily in the Catholics I know. But, even the Church, at least all of the parishes I've belonged to, has lost that sense of community entirely. Like everything else in the world, the Church in the United States has been victimized by the post-modern sense of individuality. No one is a "joiner" anymore and those who do join tend not to show up because we all have something better to do.

Aside from the lack of community, the only other thing I would argue with him about is his conclusions in regards to sexual ethics and gay rights. In some parts of the book, he does differentiate between the nominally Catholic and the active Catholic. I do not feel that he does that nearly enough. The Catholic Church, as an institution that many are born into, houses a whole variety of people. With this variety, you will meet people who agree with the teachings of the Church, people who reject practically everything that the Church says, and every thing in-between.

The Catholic imagination in literature

In this book, Greeley argues that a pro-birth control, pro-gay marriage worldview dovetails well with the overall "Catholic imagination" that he describes. In a sense, he argues that being pro-birth control and pro-gay marriage is more "Catholic" than the opposite views. He says that the "Catholic imagination" propels Catholics to see the world holistically and to value the dignity of all people above all other factors. So, it would stand to reason, that the "Catholic imagination" would lead one to be against discrimination against gays and for anything that helps the poor and disenfranchised.

In this argument he clearly does not understand the Catholic Church's teachings on gay marriage and birth control. On the topic of gay marriage, the Church is not against it because we want to discriminate against gays. The Church is against it because we want to defend marriage as an institution and the family as the fundamental unit of society. So, as marriage is for the creation of a family and children, the Church is against marriage being used for anything else. It is a similar issue with birth control. The Church is not against birth control because we want to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. The Church is against birth control because we are for the dignity of the human person, including the woman in question. So it does not go against the "Catholic imagination" to be anti-birth control or gay marriage.

Stay tuned for my feminist rant against birth control. No, that wasn't a typo.

That said, however, I think he's on to something with the general idea of the "Catholic imagination." It reminds me of a chaplaincy visit I had a year ago. The patient had been raised in a devout Catholic household, but he had fallen away after being confused by Vatican II. He had dedicated his life to helping the mentally handicapped live normal lives. His work with them was all he wanted to talk about during our visit. In a sense, "helping the mentally handicapped" was his "religion." And I could hardly think of a more "Catholic" alternative religion, to recognize the dignity and empower those who society deems powerless.

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the Catholic worldview as Greeley makes a number of very good observations. BUT, please, do take some things with a grain of salt, especially when he talks about sexuality.  

Greeley argues that Springsteen uses his Catholic imagination

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