Though priest, sociologist, and novelist Andrew M. Greeley lived most of his life in the 20th century, he was ahead of his time in his vision of what the Roman Catholic Church is and what it could be, especially in the United States.
As a “renegade” Protestant, I valued his protests against hierarchy, elitism, corruption, and cover-ups, such as the one surrounding pedophile priests. I’m not aware of an equally prominent Protestant figure who parallels his brutal directness and public airing of dirty clerical laundry.
I did not always agree with him (who did?), but I often agreed with him, and I greatly appreciated the audacity with which he brought scientific study to religion as well as matters of faith to both academia and popular literature.
Peter Steinfels’ obituary in The New York Times and its subsequent editorial does him justice, but only Greeley’s own writings can offer a full explanation of his life and times. Steinfels correctly summarizes his work:
If there was anything tying Father Greeley’s torrent of printed words together, it was a respect for what he considered the practical wisdom and religious experience of ordinary believers and an exasperation with elites, whether popes, bishops, church reformers, political radicals, secular academics or literary critics.
Before religion became creed or catechism, he said, it was poetry: images and stories that defy death with glimpses of hope, and with moments of life-renewing experience that were shared and enacted in community rituals.
For me, too, it all begins with poetry, images, and stories…
“The theological voice wants doctrines, creeds and moral obligations,” Father Greeley wrote. “I reject none of these, I merely insist that experiences which renew hope are prior to and richer than propositional and ethical religion and provide the raw power for them.”
Preach it, brother! This is not far from my Baptist upbringing that taught me that personal experience is crucial to one’s faith. In my own struggle with the Presbyterian (and broader) church, it was such experience that prompted many Christians to question the church’s attitudes toward LGBT people, while opponents decried and denied personal experience as having moral or spiritual authority. And experience collected, organized, and evaluated, as a sociologist like Greeley did, is science.
Given our own “renegade” status as progressive Christians, our spiritual grounding is strengthened by poetry, images, stories, and experience—the stuff of reflection and contemplation.
Rev. Greeley was careful not to say or do anything that might prompt his silencing by authorities. If he were really free to speak, I wonder what else he might have said.
Posts from this blog that reference Father Greeley:
Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.
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