Lawrence S. Cunningham

Invariably, reviewers of writings by the Rev. Andrew Greeley feel obliged to mention how much he writes, which is a lot. Few bother to note how certain basic themes run like threads through his work, particularly when Greeley reflects on the mountain of data he has produced over a very long career as a sociologist of religion. This present work, drawn from that research, has a fundamental thesis that runs something like this: when the Second Vatican Council convened, the world’s bishops, inspired by some key Europeans, resisted Curial obstructionism, and reacting against drafts of documents generated in house, produced some minor changes in the life of the church in an unaccustomed spirit of communal euphoria. Those reforms generated expectations for more reform. The changes, both those implemented and those hoped for, however, failed to sit comfortably in the traditional ecclesiastical structures and burst the old wineskins.

The reaction to all this turmoil was, in effect, an attempt by church authority to go back to a life of discipline like that before the council. The final consequence of that reaction, in turn, is a rift between church leadership who feared change and many religious and laity who desired it. What the conciliar fathers had not realized, in Greeley’s words, was how long overdue the change was and how destabilizing the effects would be on the structures of the church in which they had been raised. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the narrow criteria for naming bishops, the Roman centralization of liturgical change and other phenomena are all attempts, according to Greeley, to put the genie back in the bottle.

The disaffection Greeley describes does not, in fact, require in-depth social analysis, but social analysis does strengthen what any perceptive observer of the res catholica knows. The conspicuous non-reception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae by the vast majority of lay people and a notable number of confessors is a case in point. Indeed, Greeley has argued for some time that the aftermath of that encyclical may be the axial point that created the crisis of authority in the church after the council. The articulation of the ban on artificial forms of contraception, as we know from the subsequent publication of the discussions of those who advised Pope Paul VI, was based more on shoring up a certain understanding of the authority of magisterial pronouncements and a kind of classical ecclesiology than on any cogent explanation of the reasons for the prohibition of such usages in itself. The current argument about the baleful consequences deriving from resisting the traditional prohibition (sexual promiscuity, failures of marital fidelity, toleration of homosexual relations and so on) strikes many as classical instances of the fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

If things are in such a mess in the postconciliar period, why do people not only remain in the church but also convert to it in appreciable numbers? Greeley makes an interesting point. Roughly 34 percent of Americans are born and raised Catholic, but only about 25 percent remain so. That 9 percent differential can be divided into two groups. First are those unmarried young people who simply drift away from practice (but return in some number if they marry); a third of the number are from the mountain West where, Greeley guesses, Catholic schools are few. The others divorce and remarry or join the spouse, if that spouse is more committed to another church. Those who remain Catholic do so for a simple reason: they like being Catholic, even if they dissent from this or that particular moral teaching of the church. These Catholics affirm the core of the faith, thirst for a life of prayer and are generous in their commitment to issues of social justice; but they find themselves dissidents, mainly but not exclusively, on issues concerning or closely related to sexual morality.

Greeley further urges the argument that many of the things that most Catholics find attractive about the church are the very things that some (ill-educated) reformers on the left have jettisoned in the name of aggiornamento. They have turned churches into sterile auditoriums, eliminated sacred art, denigrated devotion to Our Lady, applauded word at the expense of gesture and so on. Greeley is most emphatically not hankering for baroque froufrou, but he is most decidedly urgingand here he acknowledges his debt to the Rev. David Tracya recovery of the analogical imagination that is the hallmark of the essential sacramentality of Catholicism.

He is on to something here. Speaking recently with one of our doctoral students at Notre Dame who is a convert, I asked him why he was so attracted to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, he responded in his Southern drawl, has so much good stuff. Some of that stuff will attract some and not others, but therein rests the genius of Catholicism: it allows many ways of following the one who says I am the Way.

Greeley makes his argument as a social scientist and, from that vantage point, makes a coherent case. There are other factors that also contribute to the crisis of postconciliar Catholicism. The late Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan took note of the intellectual upheaval that occurred as theological thought shifted from classical to historical modes of consciousness. Forms of liberation had an enormous impact on the culture of Catholicism, and the church has had to take account of, among other things, a new consciousness among women, the sheer volume of information coming from the electronic media, a worldwide thirst for participatory democracy, the globalization of economics, the emergence of what the late Karl Rahner calls the world church (Weltkirche), the more recent sea change in the culture of theology (increasingly lay), the anemic state of the European church and the rising presence of Muslims (and others) in Europe.

As I read Greeley’s book I could not but think of Peter Steinfels’ recent book, A People Adrift, in which Steinfels argues that the American church is at a crucial moment in its history, a moment in which it will either find a new way of leadership and reinvigorate itself or drift, rudderless, into complacent irrelevancy. The merit of Greeley’s work is that it indicates where the problems are and contributes to the discussion of what is to be done to address the problems that are there for all to see.

Lawrence S. Cunningham teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Saint Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life (Eerdmans, 2004).