Catholic priest, sociologist, and prolific author Fr. Andrew Greeley died last night at the age of eighty-five. He had been mentioned in our pages no small number of times , sometimes in critical terms. Here’s an excerpt from what Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said about his book The Catholic Imagination  (and about his career more generally) in our April 2001 issue:

From time to time I have had occasion to refer to Father Andrew Greeley, more often than not in raising a question about something he has said about matters internal to the Catholic Church. I have perhaps failed to convey my critical appreciation of aspects of Fr. Greeley’s project as a sociologist of religion . . . .

I do not know, and perhaps he is not quite sure, how many books he has published. Some are severe (others would say strident) indictments of the leadership of the Catholic Church, maintaining his reputation as, in his own words, “a loud-mouthed Irish priest.” Others are astringently academic analyses of survey research data accumulated by the National Opinion Research Center, with which he has been connected for decades. Yet others are devotional-theological reflections on dimensions of Catholic faith, such as the role of the Virgin Mary and the place of the feminine in human existence.

Now Professor of Sociology at both the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona, Greeley repeatedly asserts his dual identity as both priest and sociologist, and in the latter capacity he adamantly insists that he is a “scientist,” usually defining that term in an old-fashioned positivist manner. In fact, Andrew Greeley is a man of many parts. The parts and the resulting books do not easily fit familiar categories, as is once again evident in  The Catholic Imagination . . . .

Being a Catholic, says Greeley, is a matter of what one believes, in the sense of doctrines affirmed. But it is more importantly a matter of the sacred stories told in community. “None of the doctrines is less true than the stories. Indeed, they have the merit of being more precise, more carefully thought out, more ready for defense and explanation. But they are not where religion or religious faith starts, nor in truth where it ends.” The experienced Catholic reality is communal stories, rituals, and cultivated sensibilities that engage ultimate truths. This is the gist of  The Analogical  Imagination , a 1982 book by University of Chicago theologian David Tracy. Greeley dedicates the present book to Tracy, offering it as sociological support for Tracy’s argument.

By way of contrast, Greeley contends, Protestantism and a culture formed by Protestantism tend toward a “dialectical imagination.” The dialectical imagination is analytical and distrustful of analogy, metaphor, and poetry. Between the natural and supernatural, the ultimate and the penultimate, the heavenly and earthly, Protestantism accents dissimilarities and “otherness,” while Catholicism generously, even promiscuously, embraces the similarities. “Catholicism is a verdant rainforest of metaphors. The Protestant imagination distrusts metaphors; it tends to be a desert of metaphors. Catholicism stresses the ‘like’ of any comparison (human passion is like divine passion), while Protestantism, when it is willing to use metaphors (and it must if it is to talk about God at all), stresses the unlike.”

Greeley knows that these are very broad strokes, and at several points he courteously says that he is not claiming that Catholicism is better than Protestantism; it is just different. But he obviously does not mean that. Toward the end, he writes, “Well, yes. I’m a Catholic. I like being a Catholic.” That is a notable understatement. Andrew Greeley is exuberantly a Catholic. Lest his Catholic exuberance be off-putting to some readers, he underscores that he has also written books critical of Catholicism “in its present institutional manifestations.” That, too, is a notable understatement.


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Articles by Anna Sutherland

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