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Clarifying Fr. Andrew Greeley

December 4, 2006

More times than not, I think Fr. Andrew Greeley is off. Like Fr. Richard McBrien, Greeley often perceives his greatest contribution to ministry as providing sound-bites that he thinks will shock or disturb the prototypical Baltimore Catechism Catholic. It is sad, I must say, when one’s intellectual creativity becomes so decrepit that one can no longer think with the Catholic tradition and the magisterium. In compensation, that one will simply speak against the tradition and magisterium–in the name of creativity, of course–composing nothing more than vacuous statements around which their tribes will dance and before which their constituents will bow. However, there are those rare times when Andrew Greeley is spot on.

Over at The Cafeteria is Closed blog, a bash-fest is going on over a statement Greeley made recently at a meeting held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion. Gerald Augustinus, the host of the blog, posted a short excerpt from a CWN Off the Record note by “Diogenes”. The crowd over at Cafeteria clearly demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the context and drive of Greeley’s statement, choosing to describe Greeley as “arrogant” and “condescending” for his remarks. This misunderstanding is not Gerald’s fault, however. He simply accepts without question or critical eye the misrepresentation of Diogenes and imports it to his blog. Here is the excerpt posted by Gerald, which he titled “Quite possibly the most arrogant statement ever”:

Off the Record reports on a recent Q&A with the infamous liberal Fr. Andrew Greeley

Then a middle-aged woman in the back of the room asked Father Greeley about the changing face of the Catholic Church. The greatest growth in the world-wide Catholic population, she noted, has been coming for some years from new believers in South America and Africa, and the trend shows no signs of abating. What effect would this have on the church?

“We will depend on them for vitality,” Father Greeley predicted. “But they will continue to depend on us for the ideas.”

Diogenes then launches into a polemic against Greeley that really lacks any substance or understanding of the orientation or drive of Greeley’s comments. Gerald, without critically considering the data, simply reproduced it on his blog and then posted a follow-up linking to the Wall Street Journal‘s Opinion Journal which supplied Diogenes with his quotes. Likewise, the majority of commentators at the Cafeteria misunderstood Greeley’s comment and launched their own caustic salvo against him, and instead of critically analyzing Greeley’s comment, they merely harped on his liberal tendencies. Notwithstanding what Greeley may or may not have said in the past on an array of Catholic issues, the comment made at the AAR setting must be thoughtfully considered instead of ignorantly bashed. Hate Greeley or not, logical reasoning does not permit ad hominem attacks and appeals to the crowd to negate the validly of a given point.

What Greeley is pointing out is a valid insight into the situation of global Catholicism. In fact, anyone who has recently picked up a book or read an article on the topic would understand the intent behind Greeley’s words (it is a shame that Catholic blogs can not be subjected to peer-review!). Greeley touches on a topic that has been discussed in intellectual circles of Catholicism for quite some time.

It is a fact that the fastest growing numbers of Catholics are in Africa and East Asia, and the Church’s population stronghold is, and likely will remain, South America. The faith of these Catholics is marked by diversity, blending together cultural heritage and customs with stalwart belief. What is not apparent in the burgeoning Catholicism of these continents is the over-intellectualization of Christianity that took place in Western Europe during the post-Reformation years and the Enlightenment. European Christianity, including Catholicism, got a rapid facelift as it dealt with hitherto unknown and unanticipated challenges: secularism; authority of the state over the Church; the advent of scientific method; state university systems; novel political theories; revolutions. European Catholicism, providentially, passed through the Enlightenment with an acquired intellectual vigor. It is no surprise then that the bulk of contemporary Catholic theology continues to stem from Europe and the United States despite the fact that the majority of Catholics are outside these regions. Indeed, the West has been, and continues to be, the supplier of ideas.

South America, Africa and East Asia did not pass through an enlightenment–a feature that was unique to the European and American landscape. The bulk of these Catholics are not educated in the fashion that Western Catholics are and have been for four centuries. Thus, we do not expect even a small number of Catholics from Africa, Asia and South America to be populating universities, exchanging ideas at scholarly conferences like the AAR, or even setting up their own blogs where they can masquerade as experts in all things Catholics. There are exceptions, of course, as there are for any general rule or trend. But Catholicism in these regions is not marked by intellectualism and academic speculation. What seems to be the case–and I speak from my own experience during a mission to Honduras and the countless other missionaries with whom I have discussed the issue–is that the poorest areas of the regions are, indeed, marked by a certain vitality, a certain life of faith that is hard to find in the West. There, the spirit of giving, the heart of the kerygma, the endurance of belief has always struck me as less about the head and far more about the heart (think of how many conversions to Catholicism take place in the West by means of intellectually convincing apologetics!). There is just something plain inspiring about it all.

Indeed, I do not think Fr. Greeley is far off when he speaks of these Catholics as supplying Western Catholicism with vitality, with an example of purer faith from which we can all benefit. And I do not think Greeley is off when he remarks that the West will continue to supply the others with ideas. The West has no shortage of ideas, informed and uninformed (just peruse through the most popular Catholic blogs!). The West is acclimated to thinking through everything, rationalizing every minute detail. And Christianity has been no exception. Just glance at the course Catholic theology took in manual form after the Council of Trent, not to mention the various branches of liberal Protestant theology.

This is what Greeley means by his comment. He is not issuing down some arrogant sentence upon the lowly Catholics of South America, Africa and East Asia. He is poignantly noting that the ranks of Western Catholicism can draw on and be vivified by the vibrancy, spirituality and simplicity of those regions. In the meantime, the West will continue to pontificate, as admittedly I am now doing, analyzing and pronouncing on everything that touches the periphery of faith.

How, then, is Greeley being arrogant? When did critical thinking and theologizing become a virtue that elevates Western Catholicism above the Catholicism of the rest of the world? How is describing the West as a supplier of ideas a way of declaring the superiority of West? God knows quite well that some of the worst ideas in history came from the West! If anything, it is the vibrant faith that requires no rationalization that is an example of the superior Catholicism. What Greeley points to is the marked feature of Western Catholicism that prompts Western Catholics to diagnose and comment on everything in the Church.

As you can see, it probably would have been best for the Cafeteria to leave poor Fr. Greeley alone. Whatever may be the Cafeteria’s hang-ups on Greeley, uninformed and witless criticism are never warranted.

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