Andrew Greeley: Prophet of the Body

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For we are members of His body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:30-32

Andrew Greeley, an American Catholic priest, scholar, and novelist, died four years ago this coming May. I was thinking about him last night, and decided to do a post. A far more erudite memorial can be found here. These comments are of course those of a layperson, and someone who had only the most fleeting encounter with him. So he is free to bonk me on the head for my misunderstandings and inaccuracies if we ever meet in Heaven.

Father Greeley drove up to my college campus outside Chicago one night in the early 1990s to give a talk. The subject was the portrayal of God in the movies. I had read a few of his novels, so I was excited by a rare opportunity to see a famous author. We gathered in the church at the campus Catholic center, and listened to him for about an hour. I can’t remember all the movies he discussed, but the one that stuck with me was Bob Fossie’s 1979 film, All That Jazz.  The movie was a thinly disguised self-portrayal of the famous dancer and director, and apparently inspired by Fossie’s own near death experience or dream when he had heart troubles a few years earlier.

At the end of the film, the protagonist dies. Greeley’s view was that the portrayal of the encounter of the soul with the character of Angelique, an angel of death, and a sign of God, was entirely in accord with Christianity. The Beatific Vision is the “wedding bed” he said, that great consummation of love we are all looking for, whether we know it or not.  I remember him saying that “God will be far sexier than Jessica Lange”, or words to that effect. A bit shocking to my relatively young ears, you might imagine. (Young man that I was, I watched it at first opportunity).

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Angelique, from All That Jazz

When we went to Q&A, I asked him about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which had been released a few years earlier.  He advised watching it with the volume turned off. He loved the visuals, but hated the script. Scorsese (who dropped out of a Catholic seminary) was a disappointment to him, and overly influenced by “Neo-Platonism” if I am remembering Greeley’s words correctly. Don’t ask me to explain that one, I am no philosopher.

Over the next decade or so I dipped into and out of his fiction and non-fiction. He was an incredibly prolific writer, and I wonder if there is anyone who read everything he published. He had a Ph.D. in Sociology, and wrote many scholarly works about the Catholic Church and religion generally from the 1960s onwards.  They often involved broad surveys of American Catholic experience and opinions, and with a focus on current problems within the Church.

Among lay people, Greeley is far more famous for his works of fiction than his scholarly career or Church criticism. In the late 1970s, he decided to become a storyteller, and eventually wrote about sixty novels. His fiction can  be grouped into four broad categories:   There were about half a dozen stand alone science fiction and fantasy works.  The next group were the most controversial, probably twenty or so books set in contemporary America involving the lives of Catholics and their struggles. There was the long semi-humorous series about Father “Blackie” Ryan, a Father Brown like priest who solves mysteries. The last series, which all had the word “Irish” in their titles, and still ongoing at his death, followed the lives of an American Catholic couple from courtship through early middle age.

Father Greeley’s prose was very readable and he had a gift for characterization. I don’t believe he won any big awards, but he sold a lot of books that spoke to the hopes and fears of many Catholics, especially a certain subset who still went to Mass but otherwise felt alienated from the Church.

He was also a man of strong opinions and no small temper. He was a Democrat with a capital D, and not shy about his criticisms of those who had different points of view on political issues. He was also an unstinting critic of what he saw as the flaws of the leaders of the Church and how they led it. Many of his novels portrayed priests and high ranking members of the Church in a negative light. He likely paid a certain price for this professionally, and there were perhaps many who did not like him personally.

In many ways, I think his life encapsulates the stillborn “Catholic Moment” in America. If the last few centuries of the Church in France is like a long Indian summer that never ended (my next post I think), the experience of the Church in America is like a Spring that never ripened into Summer. The election of JFK was the high water mark of sorts, and things have kind of gone sideways since the 1960s. The reason for this, and the topic he had the most to say on, was human sexuality.

As the linked piece by Weigel discussed, the watershed moment for Greeley and the Church in America was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical condemned artificial birth control as sinful, and it was perhaps the most negatively received encyclical in the modern period. Many Catholics, including theologians, disagreed with it, and later left the Church, in part, over this.  Greeley disagreed, but he stayed. He did let his fictional characters voice his opinion though, and I remember one of them referring to it as “that damned Encyclical” if memory serves.

This failure of many to trust the Pope, and it was a failure in my view, perhaps derived from an insecure Catholicism still looking to fit in with the modern world and America. A Catholic Church that couldn’t get with the times on sexuality would never be taken seriously by the news media, the universities, or the entertainment industry. Anti-Catholic prejudice was a stronger force back then, and we cannot completely dismiss that pressure to conform as a factor in this rupture.

But Greeley and other dissenter’s instincts were perhaps not completely off base.  Pope Benedict the XVI, in a recent book, Last Testament: In His Own Words, acknowledged that while he agreed with Pope Paul VI’s conclusions, he felt that the analysis in Humanae Vitae was lacking. Not enough of a theological foundation had been laid to support it.  This heavy lifting was later done by Pope John Paul II in what has come to be known as “The Theology of the Body.” This Pope expressly affirmed that the body was good, that human sexuality was good, and that human marriage was a great symbol of God’s love for the Church and its people. It affirmed traditional teaching but without any of the negative or suspicious treatment of sexuality that often clouded how Catholics were taught about sex.  Over time, many think that this will be Saint JPII’s most enduring legacy.

Greeley had great respect and admiration for Pope John Paul II, but for the rest of his life either disagreed with or was skeptical of traditional Church doctrine on subjects like artificial contraception, the ordination of married men, and a few related topics. It was unfortunate, because I don’t believe they were that far apart in many ways. He was otherwise very loyal to and protective of the Church, and was not shy about taking to task those he thought were unfairly critical of her.

The recurring theme in Greeley’s fiction was that human romantic love, or eros, was good, and a sign of God’s love for us. Usually the protagonists are a man and woman who find their way through various adventures and hardships to love each other. Love made the suffering of life bearable. Like an Old Testament prophet, he hammered away at this theme again and again in his fiction.  I think that Greeley had a genuine call from God to speak and write on this issue, and its unfortunate that (in my amateur opinion), his mission and that of many others in the Church was diverted, in part at least, by their disagreement with Humanae Vitae.

Greeley will probably never be promoted for Sainthood, but if he is, perhaps the Cubs finally winning the World Series a few years after his death can be chalked up as one of his miracles. Sláinte, Father Greeley!

P.S. One of the recurring irritations I have experienced in trying to learn more about my faith is that so much that has been written by famous and well respected Catholic writers and scholars is out of print.  Greeley is no exception, particularly when it comes to his non-fiction (another 50 books or so) and early fiction. If anyone from his estate were to ever read this, it would be great if more of his bibliography could be digitized and made available in ebook form. I recognize that the rights to his works may be held by many different interests, and perhaps it is much more expensive to do this than I realize. But it would be a shame to lose so much of it to time as all the university library copies eventually fall apart and are discarded.

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