Book review: The Catholic Imagination

The Catholic Imagination
by Andrew Greeley (2000)

Having mentioned Father Greeley’s book, I might as well review it.  Greeley suggests that Catholics have a particular (compared to Protestants) style of religious imagination, one that stresses God’s immanence over His transcendence, that prefers the dangers of superstition and idolatry to those of disenchantment and cynicism.  Crucially, Greeley does not wish to describe an ideal, but what he asserts to be qualities of actual Catholics, a distinctively sacramental imagination that manifests itself both in the art of those who were or were raised Catholic and in the attitudes of ordinary believers.  This is to be welcomed.  For too long, apologists have given all their devotion to God, doctrine, sacraments, and exceptionally rare saints while having nothing but scorn for their actual co-religionists, and so they do nothing to counter Catholic self-hatred.  Unfortunately, Greeley isn’t satisfied with humbug but wants to present a falsifiable sociological case.  And so he has gathered information, mostly from the GSS, comparing the attitudes of Catholic Americans to those of others.  The differences he finds are probably real, but in a footnote he acknowledges that liberal Protestant attitudes are more similar to Catholics’, so what’s really distinctive is the conservative Protestant imagination, the only one that takes Original Sin seriously.  In fact, the Catholic/other split is probably mostly just the liberal/conservative, urban/rural split.  So, for example, small-town conservative girls think they should lie on polls and say they don’t enjoy sex, while big-city progressive girls think they should lie on polls and say they do enjoy it.  Catholics’ “imagination” leads them to take their marching orders from the Democratic Party and the New York Times.

That being said, I expect that the core insight on the Catholic difference is valid.  It seems quite clear that Catholic religious sensibilities are less worried about idolatry, more concerned to give every manifestation of God its due.  They happily carry on pagan customs.  Catholics are more communal and less individualistic.  They are more appreciative of the need for social structure and less suspicious of authority.  They stress God’s mercy more than His justice.  They learn these attitudes mostly from their families, so Greeley is confident they will prove resilient in the face of conciliar disruptions.

I would point out that many of these things can be better understood in terms of my distinction between the priestly and prophetic religious types.  Catholics are more priestly; Protestants (and also Jews and Muslims) are more prophetic.

3 Responses

  1. “So, for example, small-town conservative girls think they should lie on polls and say they don’t enjoy sex, while big-city progressive girls think they should lie on polls and say they do enjoy it.”

    It’s one of your minor points, but I think you really captured a paradox here.

  2. This is not particularly germane to this post but I tried to share a post of your blog in private message on Facebook and apparently your blog cannot be shared! It is on a blocklist of some kind. If you’ve been holding out for persecution, it might be your lucky day.

  3. Well, it’s about time someone appreciated my subversive brilliance.

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