Greeley's Book on Vatican II Mixes Revolution, Blarney

By Dennis M. Doyle
National Catholic Reporter
April 2, 2004

The omniprolific Andrew Greeley argues in his latest work that Vatican II really did constitute a 'revolution.' He used to distrust this metaphor, but in reconsidering sociological data concerning the attitude of 'lower clergy' and laity toward sex, authority and personal responsibility, he now finds the metaphor apt. He traces out parallels between the French Revolution and the council. The bishops who insisted on voting for the membership of the committees drafting the conciliar documents signaled a resounding shift manifested today in a loyal Catholic laity who love their heritage and who decide for themselves what to believe concerning matters of sexual morality. The new wine of the revolution has been poured into the old wineskins of church structures unable to hold it.

Greeley uses this framework to repackage his familiar themes regarding sacramentality, story and the imagination. He divides the present Catholic world into three groups: those who resist change (the upper clergy); those intellectual elite such as liturgists, catechists and theologians who promote change in ways that diminish the place of the church's stories and sacramentality (the false prophets); and those who embrace change while privileging the church's stories and sacramentality (the lower clergy and the laity). He shadowboxes ferociously on the side of the story-lovers against the wicked leaders of the two evil groups.

Much of the book is thus old wine poured into a new wineskin. The old wine of story and imagination is sparkling and delightful. The new wineskin of Greeley's recent recognition of Vatican II as a 'revolution' is less sparkling. I love Greeley and many of his insights, but I think my hero got it mostly wrong about Vatican II. He did better in the past to avoid using the metaphor of 'revolution' in such an all-embracing manner. There are, of course, some obvious ways in which the term can legitimately be applied to aspects of the council and its aftermath. It can appear to be the best of comparisons, but it turns out to be the worst of comparisons. It is one of those analogies in which, no matter how compelling the connections, the relevant differences far outweigh any similarities.

What Greeley misses is that there was more than one agenda for change going into the council, and that there is today more than one vision of how those changes should be prioritized. His data supports the claim that a lot of change has taken place, but not his interpretation that pits the change-accepters against the change-resisters. He mistakenly identifies those who prefer one set of priorities over another as those who have turned their back on any change whatsoever. Those whom he sees as resisters of change are, ironically, also those who have been most closely associated with a theological approach that, like Greeley himself, emphasizes aesthetics. Greeley attributes one if his own most central points, the priority of Beauty in relation to Goodness and Truth, to Hans Urs von Balthasar, a theologian who focused on the dramatic power of the Christian story. Figures closely associated with Balthasar, such as the late Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger and John Paul II, see themselves as promoting a shift from an overly juridical church to an emphasis on loving communion with God and with each other, not as change-resisters. Greeley's generalized bitterness about the failure of church leadership and his potshots at figures such as de Lubac serve to perpetuate rather than to accurately describe the polarization that still haunts segments of the Catholic church today.

I am tempted to think of this book as sociology laced with blarney. Given that I happened to read large segments of the book on St. Patrick's Day, however, I have been granted the insight that it is really blarney laced with sociology. Greeley complains frequently about those in the church who forget that 'story' is most basic and who elevate doctrine to a status that cannot be supported. Greeley himself, though, is most basically a storyteller. In this book, his forays into empirical science, while substantive and fascinating, clearly play a supporting role to a vision based more on eloquence and opinionated rumination than on any careful analysis of data.

I did not enter a bar on St. Patrick's Day, and so I especially enjoyed watching Greeley throw some wild punches at his intellectual enemies, including a couple of haymakers directed toward Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. Don't worry. From where I was standing, none of his punches seemed to land. His attacks on Johnson as a 'hard feminist' miss her own creative brilliance as a storyteller and visionary. They also suggest that Greeley has been too busy writing to have spent much time reading a wide range of feminist literature, let alone having time to work on anger management. If Johnson is 'hard,' what labels are left for more radical writers' Enough said.

Some contemporary analysts, such as William Portier, see the most significant changes in U.S. Catholicism stemming not from the council but from the collapse of the subculture that Catholicism formed in the face of an often-hostile dominant culture. The changes reflect more what has happened as U.S. Catholics have become mainstreamed than any 'before and after' story of Vatican II. The new situation demands that Catholic identity be cultivated intentionally and carefully without the subculture there to support it. Greeley finds evidence that a Catholic subculture continues, as well as a dominant culture still hostile to Catholicism. Portier means by 'subculture' actual enclaves of communities with common practices. Greeley uses the term to label continuing, measurable differences in religious attitudes. Much remains to be sorted out in understanding Catholic changes in regard to these two legitimate meanings of 'subculture.'

Those who love Greeley will love this book despite what I see as its flaws. Those who know little of Greeley will find this book to be a fine introduction to the work of this phenomenal person. I should leave it to the reader to decide whether this new wineskin can hold the old wine without bursting. I might recommend, though, not wearing your favorite shirt as you read.

Dennis M. Doyle teaches theology at the University of Dayton and is the author of The Church Emerging from Vatican II.


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