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Paul WilkesApril 08, 2000
The Catholic Imaginationby Andrew GreeleyUniv. of California Press. 231p $24.95

We Catholics are quite a strange lot, actually. We make the nastiest bigots and the most wonderful saints. Of course, such a potpourri of human experience could never be stirred by such clumsy tools as doctrine and church discipline. No, there’s far more to it than that.

In the hands and through the deliriously capacious mind of the Rev. Andrew Greeley—sociologist, novelist, critic, observer—the Catholic imagination is the reason we come up so wacky and wonderful, fueled as we are on a rich brew composed of perhaps the greatest treasure trove of art and music and architecture throughout recorded human existence. It is this Catholic imagination that then continues to infuse everything we do, from writing fiction and making movies to running high schools. To say nothing of our daily actions and our politics.

"In an enchanted world," Greeley writes, "the beloved is both enchanted and frustrating." What better synopsis do we need for why we Catholics stalk and avoid, worship and defy our God? We yearn not so much to understand the reason for this overpowering attraction, but rather to somehow play it out in our lives. To interact with this God and not hold the deity at a comfortable distance. And, as with any passionate love affair, utter frustration mixes with towering transcendence. But what else fueled Michelangelo and Mozart and Flannery O’Connor and Martin Scorsese?

Greeley’s wide-ranging essay—a term he uses to describe this adventure into Catholic consciousness—continually underscores the belief, which now runs through our Vatican II church, of "God lurking everywhere in creation." Because of this belief we are heirs to "...an enchantment that permeates the Catholic community, a haunting that hints powerfully at a salvation guaranteed by pervasive grace."

If only we could remember this when our church, our priests, our bishops disappoint us. It is not a church we worship, but God; not a Vatican-forged template, but one gently crafted through the God made man who walked and breathed among us. Although churches may hold these magnificent pieces of art, and the church may lay claim to being the inspiration for these paeans to the almighty, we must never confuse the skin with the fruit within.

The Catholic mind, the Catholic ethos is more powerful than such accidentals, Greeley would maintain. In a particularly interesting section, he notes that Catholic liberalism—currently under major assault by an increasingly educated, wealthy and vested Catholic laity—is not so much a set of political beliefs, but a very Catholic approach to life. It is a "sympathetic pragmatism," a toleration of diversity (after all, who is more diverse than we are?) and the nagging fear that no one be excluded lest the human community oppress and malign those considered outside our purview.

We see this Catholic imagination in the aching face of the Pietà, but also in the woman in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In the lives of the saints or the lives of those who touch the cheeks fevered with AIDS. Each is strangely, undeniably Catholic. Each infuses our days on this planet with that "habit of being" Flannery O’Connor talked about.

Sacraments all, each life, each face, each touch.

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