We take creation seriously, not as an immense thing but as an enthralling activity that speaks of the sacred. God spoke and saw that what was thereby done was good, and the Speech too was divine. What the speaking made was in part its audience. God is not a hermit deity, but a Lover who makes a divine singularity plural and social and the divine society a Union. Such would have humans as company. Like the sun sending forth rays upon the earth to warm and give life, the divine Lover sends forth the Beloved, even as an authentic member of the human audience, and leaves a divine Inspiration in the people as the collective Soul of those called out to help communicate the divine Love. So creation is not a neutral event. It is a sacrament endowed with providence, inspiration, divine Presence, and reason for hope. Those who take it seriously and affiliate themselves with the Beloved find manifold ways of detecting Ultimacy in immediacy and symbolizing both. These are Catholics, some of them Roman Catholics, who hear a call to transcend any narrow ethnos and to embrace the whole of humanity in an extra-national catholic society.
The foregoing are my words, not Andrew Greeley's. His words are no doubt more eloquent, but I have sought to put his basic theological insight into my own idiom. The two of us are both sociologists, drawn into our work by a suggestion that the natural religion that the Catholic experience allows to flourish is essentially anthropological and social, that grace builds on social nature. So the specifically worshipful action of Catholics should be sacramental, beautiful, alluring. "Beauty is the strongest asset of Catholicism," says Greeley. Catholics stay Catholic because of their sacramental religiosity, despite the doings of hierarchs.
Becoming too intentional about what comes naturally oppresses the spirit. Such occurred in Roman Catholicism when political powers corrupted it, exploited it, and persecuted it. From 1815 to 1915 the organized Church separated itself from the powers of this world, only to become a power onto itself; it hardened and generated a sin-psychology that clearly distinguished insiders from outsiders. A down-trodden people lacking the learnedness of the modern world, Catholics enjoyed a clergy that was at least learned in a manualist sketch of received wisdom. Attempts to return to a more natural state were forestalled by anticlericalism, social chaos, and war—as well as by the Church's own clerical establishment. Insularity from the wider culture became a new virtue. Limiting thought to the formulae of the seminary manuals was deemed loyal.
Greeley tells this institutional story only in the most summary way; he assumes his readers know much of it first-hand. He brings his sociological imagination to bear in empirical tests of claims the Roman curialists make about American Catholics. No, American Catholics are no more sex-obsessed than the societies from which the curialists come. Yes, American Catholics are faithful Catholics who find the presence of God in sacraments, who value charitable efforts to help the poor, who treasure the presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist, and who are devoted to the mercy symbolized in Mary. They resist, however, the rule mania of the curialists, who try to perpetuate norms about sex and marriage that have more to do with bureaucratic authority than divine love. Greeley does not take sides on the several controversies; his focus is on sociological description and the more fundamental, sacramental theology of the Catholic tradition.
The Second Vatican Council was an event, in his view, that shook off the grip of a century and a half of curial control. Once the bishops assembled and experienced a collective effervescence, all it took was a motion by two elderly cardinals (Lienart and Frings), approved by an elderly Pope John XXIII, for reform to occur for a few years. As social movement theory would suggest, the enthusiasm for reform spread beyond the episcopal ranks to lay activists and lower clergy, where it would not be temporary. Excesses in the lower ranks arose, but the sacramental religiosity welling up from below survived that, with little attention being accorded the angry princes and pontiff in the Vatican.
Greeley has said much of this before, but in this volume he integrates his insights into a more complete account and makes some of his arguments more cogently than in the past. The book is a good read, and I highly recommend it.
The book stimulated further thinking on my part, which a good book should do for any reader. I wondered whether social differentiation was not separating matters of sexual and marital ethos from organizational religion and whether the stridency of Vatican (and other religions') strictures on sexual activity and marriage should be compared to the frantic efforts in the past to prevent the separation of church and state. I wondered whether the stance of most lower clergy will stay lay-friendly, if for no other reason than the laity votes with its feet and treasure, while Vatican officials seek to exert increasing levels of power over those parts of the Church that have little direct contact with the laity-bishops and seminaries. I marveled that Catholic idealism and fervor now animate lay ministries rather than religious orders.
One feature of Greeley's book that really struck me is how critical he is the doings of lay ministers—especially those in music, liturgical, and religious education ministries. Like Greeley, I frequently long for more substance and less "touchy freely" process in what goes on in parishes, but I do not see the ministries as entirely ineffectual. Maybe his sample differs from mine; the subject merits a decent study with a representative sample. In my personal sample, I know many people converted to Catholicism by the sacramental life in the local parish, and a few more who would be Catholics were it not for the restorationist pope. I volunteer as a R.C.I.A. catechist and, much to the appreciation of the candidates and catechumens, sneak in a little more intellectual substance than the D.R.E. would prescribe. And I can testify that at least one twenty-something newly baptized, running out of a side door of the church sanctuary and down a school-wing corridor in a sopping gray garment to a classroom in order to change into a white garment, leapt and kicked his bare heels before dashing through the classroom door for the change. The magic is still there, notwithstanding Weber's Entzauberung.