This Land is Not Our Land
Confessions of a Parish Priest: An Autobiography
By Andrew Greeley
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 507 pages
Review Author: James G. Hanink
What does it mean to be a Catholic – especially, as we are taught to add, in these “modern times”? The question gets variously answered, depending on whether one stands within the Church, or along its shifting margins, or on the outside, either looking in or looking back.
Fr. Greeley, with wounded bellicosity, answers from the margins. Anthony Kenny, once a priest and now Master of Balliol College, Oxford, speaks as skeptic. John Cogley replies in the accents of one who, in retrospect, would have us love America too well. Each set of answers is at once skewed and illuminating.
To be sure, Greeley is instructive only if we get past the glitzy image of a celibate who writes sex novels whose jackets feature, say, a partly-clad woman chewing a crucifix. For Greeley’s own chosen image is that of a Don Quixote. As such, he became a sociologist whose Church remains indifferent to his findings and a writer of comedies of grace that please only his readers. He is also a theologian of symbol and sacrament, even if his Cardinal finds him an embarrassment.
How, then, does Greeley answer the question of what it is to be Catholic? He responds in terms of belonging to a community which appropriates the symbols of Christianity and expresses them through a distinct personality. Thus far there is no quarrel. Greeley as “applied ecclesiologist” is right to encourage us to think in communitarian terms.
Yet his counsels are overburdened with harangues against his critics, real and imagined. No matter how sympathetically one listens to his saga, the diatribes become self-defeating. Consider such gems as “After the birth control encyclical and the appointment of the post-Conciliar geek/bishops, the institutional Church became mostly irrelevant”; or, “What consolation is it to know that you may be the last witch to be burned in the last Vatican witch hunt?”
The fireworks help sell books but only obscure Greeley’s important strengths, one of which is his ability to avoid at least some of the follies of both the Left and the Right. In addition, he has a good sense of the richness of the Catholic heritage, so long as it is not pre-digested, and of how Catholic schools can make that heritage accessible. He remembers, too, Mary’s place in that tradition, though he strains to view it through a feminist lens.
If Greeley harangues the Church from its margins, Anthony Kenny assesses it from a far greater distance. His story begins with a bookish pre-World War II English childhood centered on a deep admiration for his priest uncle, Alec Jones, the editor of the Jerusalem Bible. The story leads through a doubt-disturbed but brilliant seminary career at the Gregorian and a desperate stretch of parish work in Liverpool. The chronicle concludes, well before Kenny reaches his current academic pinnacle, with loss of faith, laicization, and the embrace of polite agnosticism.
The tone of Kenny’s account is relentlessly civil. He is dispassionate, even bloodless. Sometimes he lapses into diary-like recitals of examinations taken, cathedrals visited, and cuisines sampled. But spliced together with these fussy digressions are sharp explorations of some central theological puzzles. Kenny writes of these problems as an outsider, but his material will be familiar to many believers.
Kenny’s gravest objection is to the chief among those propositions termed the “preambles of faith” – namely, that God exists. Kenny holds that faith is the acceptance of the Christian mysteries – for example, that God is Triune – on the authority of God’s Word. But such faith requires that one believe that God exists, and this belief needs an independent warrant. Indeed, Vatican I teaches that reason can give us that warrant. But Kenny cannot see how reason supports theistic belief, much less – as the oath against Modernism insisted – how reason proves that God exists. Such proofs as Aquinas constructed seem to Kenny to rest on a discredited cosmology.
Unfortunately, Kenny pursues none of the three most plausible solutions to his dilemma. The first is that if it is a proof that one wants, then recent versions of the ontological argument – a line of argument Aquinas dismissed – should at least discomfit the agnostic. The second is that construing a wide range of theistic arguments as probabilistic (as in recent work by Richard Swinburne) gives significant inductive support for God’s existence. Third, and most importantly, it is both orthodox and coherent to suppose that God can be present to a person in such a way that “God exists” is a properly basic belief for that person. Arguments, after all, must have starting points, else every supposedly rational belief leads only to infinite regress. It is arguably this same epistemic structure of “properly basic belief” that some simple believers have vaguely in mind when they speak of “faith.”
Kenny also finds that he can make no sense of Catholic eucharistic doctrine. How can bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood? Is not the concept of transubstantiation muddled? Accidents, according to Aristotle, must inhere in a substance. But the doctrine of transubstantiation has it that in the Eucharist the accidents of bread and wine inhere in no substance at all.
Might not here Kenny be paying Aristotle more reverence than is due? After all, it is an open question whether Aristotle would find coherent the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Yet that does not prevent Christian theology from reworking Aristotle’s concept of the soul – or Plato’s. That the doctrine of transubstantiation uses Aristotelian terms does not entail that it must honor Aristotle’s limitations. Concepts, like doctrines, develop.
As it turns out, Kenny finds the development of doctrine problematic. Development can be neither abandonment nor contradiction. To avoid this fate, one wants to distinguish between the essential and accidental; the latter can be relinquished but not the former. Yet how is one to ground the distinction?
We might say that what the Church proposes as essential (and even this still admits genuine development) is only that which is found in Scripture or tradition. But if we ask what is it that we find in Scripture or tradition, then we must answer: it is that which the Church teaches. Hence Kenny concludes that we are caught in a circle.
This circle, nonetheless, is vicious only if we forget, as Kenny seems to, that the Church is not a political entity that promulgates a law simply for the sake of promulgating a law. The Church, the Catholic affirms, is led by the Holy Spirit. For all its failings, it is no blind tyrant; for all its confusion, it is not imprisoned in a hermeneutical circle.
Despite Kenny’s agnosticism, the modest variety of one who still prays in the hope that there is a God, he obliquely testifies in favor of one of Catholicism’s most controverted commitments: the sanctity of innocent human life based upon a natural moral law. He comments that “it is a pathological feature of the intellectual climate of our time that so few people are consistent in their attitude to the killing of the innocent, and he remarks that “when I am with people who share my opposition to nuclear deterrence, I commonly find that I am alone in disapproving of abortion; if I want to find company which opposes abortion it is easiest to do so among those who are hawks on the arms race.”
Different as they are, Greeley and Kenny offer autobiographies. John Cogley’s distinguished career in journalism (Commonweal, New York Times, The Center Magazine), his “ghosting” of John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Houston Ministerial Association, and his conversion to the Episcopal Church could easily support a full autobiography. Instead, in Catholic America Cogley gives his version of the coming of age of Catholics in America, tracing their history from the Maryland Colony to the confused decade after Vatican II. Cogley’s original study (published in 1973) won kudos for its supposed evenhandedness. This expanded edition cannot expect such plaudits.
A first complaint is Rodger Van Allen’s updating. Van Allen wallows in the “Oedipal ugliness” he laments. For example, he tendentiously couples the Vietnam War with Humanae Vitae and reduces John Paul II’s papacy to a “restoration Catholicism” that uses “almost any means to achieve its goals.”
There is a far more significant objection, however: in the late 1980s it is clear how flawed Cogley’s own assimilationist thesis is. This thesis is twofold: (1) America is a fundamentally just society, and (2) accordingly, Catholics do well to embrace its progressive ethos and betray an insularity if they do not.
There have been moments when such a thesis was plausible. Cogley’s split from the Catholic Worker during World War II reminds us that for many the war years were a period when the national purpose merited Catholic endorsement. Yet how great a chasm opens between the 1940s and the 1980s! The entrenched materialism of American society, its insane policy of nuclear deterrence, and the silent holocaust of abortion have produced a cuture of death. It is not assimilation that Catholics should pursue but rather a policy of persistent, creative confrontation.
In 1960 John Courtney Murray, S.J., wrote that “the Catholic may not, as others do, merge his religious and patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other. He must reckon with his own tradition of thought, which is wider and deeper than any America has elaborated.” Ironically, Cogley chose this citation for the first page of Catholic America. Would that he had thought through its implications more fully.
No one in the 1980s, whether Catholic or Jew, holds a brief for a return to the ghetto. But a diaspora among the bourgeoisie? The land of Watergate and Contragate, yuppies and careerists, chrome and hype. Star Wars and “reproductive rights” – this land is not our land. Were Cogley still alive, he might offer a more critical analysis of the assimilationist thesis. For from our vantage point, the evidence increasingly suggests that the sociologist’s metaphor of the melting pot must give way, for Jew and Christian, to the biblical paradigm of Exodus.
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