The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council
The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Andrew Greeley, "The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council"

Jun 1, 2004

It used to be that I would sit up and take notice when I ran across the name of Andrew Greeley in a journal or a book. A priest, a sociologist affiliated with the University of Chicago, he gave interesting perspectives to discussions of religion in the United States -- particularly, the Catholic religion. After a while, however, he seemed a bit too much interested in ethnic Catholicism for my taste, so I have not kept up with him. However, a look at the bibliography at the end of his new book, The Catholic Revolution, shows that he has been hard at work: Priests Now (1994), Religion as Poetry (1995), The Catholic Imagination (2000), Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium: A Sociological Profile (2003). The bibliography also lists two of his earlier works on Catholic education: The Education of Catholic Americans (1966) and Catholic Schools in a Declining Church (1976). Somewhere along the line he ventured into writing fiction, a rather Gallic thing to do -- check out the latest roman from the pen of l'Abbé Greeley. Friends discouraged me from following him there.

He reappears now at a moment when I, and I suspect others, really need him, addressing a question that has been bothering me for some time. Just what became of the Second Vatican Council, anyway? As far as I can tell, Rome has effectively repealed it. Nevertheless, it takes little acquaintance with the Catholic church on the ground to realize that it (we) seems to have changed, changed utterly. What, then, became of the Council? What has changed and what has not? Was the Council responsible for these changes, or were other forces at work? And what role can we expect the Catholic Church to play in the world today? This last question Greeley doesn't address directly, but the answers to the other questions make it possible to imagine an answer.

The Catholic Revolution breaks cleanly into two parts: "Old Wineskins" and "The Search for New Wineskins." "Old Wineskins" explains the rule-bound rigidity of the pre-conciliar church. It was a defense against attacks from Enlightenment anti-clericals and revolutionary liberals. Most Catholics, no doubt, were unaware of this threat, but they remained faithful and obedient because of more attractive aspects of their faith, consisting of "sacrament, celebration, and community." Their quiet submission to the catechism, however, became more precarious as American Catholics moved into the educated professional classes. To this emerging reality, however, the clerical guardians of orthodoxy paid little attention.

Then came Humanae Vitae, the encyclical against birth control. The wineskins burst. Parish priests counseled lay men and women to follow their own consciences. And the laity, tasting freedom, began to shrug off attempts of the hierarchy to regulate their sexual behavior. Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, they increased their attendance at Mass and Communion. In some obscure way the Council was behind this new sense of moral freedom. All the while, the Church leadership remained in denial.

So what had happened? The actual documents of the Council, Greeley points out, are not in themselves responsible for the immense changes that followed. Nor were the Council's reforms the first in recent history. Pius XII had already "approved major changes in the liturgy of Holy Week, the modern critical study of the Bible, and, in effect, birth control, by accepting the rhythm method." Catholic theology had been enriched by a new-found emphasis on the Mystical Body of Christ, which made the laity integral to the Church. Research into the history of the Church had begun to reveal a highly "variegated Catholicism" as it moved through time and spread through space. Though priests were restless with "the insensitivity of the Church to problems of the laity," the whole pre-Council situation hardly seemed pre-revolutionary.

Then Cardinals Joseph Frings of Cologne and Achille Lienart of Lille "demanded at the first meeting of the Council... that the Council fathers be given the opportunity to select the men who would serve on the various commissions." The pope agreed, and all of a sudden the bishops discovered their power. They began to make crucial changes in the liturgy and ecumenism, among other things. The discipline of the church began to change. Priests and nuns were allowed to resign and marry within the Church. An effervescence (Greeley's term), not a revolution, took possession of the Catholic world. The revolution came after the death of John XXIII.

Because Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII, did not trust the fathers of the Council to deal with birth control, he appointed a commission to handle the matter. His commission "recommended change almost unanimously." He rejected their recommendation and published Humanae Vitae. At that point, writes Greeley, both "laity and clergy embraced the principle of following one's own conscience."

The Council over, the bishops went home concerned that a "simple" laity would be hostile to changes they had made. They reassured their flocks that nothing much had changed. But their apprehensions were misplaced. There was no hostility; on the contrary, a sense of euphoric liberation had taken over both the parish clergy and the laity. This basic division between the hierarchy and its clergy as well as lay Catholics remains to this day. The situation, says Greeley, is chaotic:

The leadership continues its authoritarian rule making. The majority of the laity and the lower clergy do not obey. The leadership cannot and will not accept that making rules is no longer effective; the laity and the lower clergy will not accept the dicta of a leadership that does not listen.

Meanwhile the large majority of Catholics remain true to the Sacraments and to their belief in the core doctrines of their faith. But then how do they justify staying Catholic in the light of their dissent?

Quite simply, some Catholics who dissent are able to attend church regularly because the intensity of their religious ... experience and imagery cancels out the negative impact of their ethical dissent, and one need not search any further for an explanation.

In the second part of the book, Greeley's argument becomes more personal. "The Search for New Wineskins" focuses on the role of the imagination in faith. He invokes the theology of David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination (1981) along with his own empirical research to assert that "religion is experience, image, and story before it is anything else and after it is everything else." It has been this way for most of history.

Catholicism has great stories because at the center of its heritage is "sacramentalism," the conviction that God discloses Himself in the objects and events and persons of ordinary life. . . . Moreover, the Catholic heritage also has the elaborate ceremonial rituals that mark the passing of the year -- Midnight mass, the Easter vigil, First Communion, May Crowning, Lent, Advent, grammar school graduation, and the festivals of the saints.

This, says Greeley, is why Catholics stay. They like being Catholics, in spite of the last thirty years when "the hierarchy and the clergy have done just about everything they could to drive the laity out of the Church."

The religious imagination, fundamental as it is, is not devoid of either rules or intellectual reflection:

Because we are reflective creatures, we must also reflect on our religious experiences and stories; it is in the (lifelong) interlude of reflection that propositional religion and religious authority become important, indeed indispensable. But then the religiously mature person returns to the imagery, having criticized it, analyzed it, questioned it, to commit the self once more in sophisticated and reflective maturity to the story.

We have reached the heart of Greeley's argument. It is imagination that grounds faith ultimately. The Platonic and Aristotelian-inspired argumentation that informed the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the training of generations of Catholic seminarians plays only a secondary, reflective role.

I've left out Greeley's somewhat cranky argument with post-conciliar liturgists, catechists, and feminists who have tried to "take control of the direction of change . . . usually without consulting the memberships." They have, he says, "subverted much of the richness of the Catholic imaginative and communal tradition in the name of being 'correct' and 'postconciliar.'" But this is a more parochial concern.

What is the importance of all of this in a global perspective? One wonders. The great European cathedrals are, to the world at large, more cultural monuments than sacred places. Similarly, the Vatican Library is a repository of cultural treasures. And the Catholic hierarchy? It is hard to think of it in terms of the sacred, especially in light of its monstrous failure in the face of clerical pedophilia. The Catholic Church is, in fact, not at all what it wants to be, a symbol of sacred truth and integrity.

Yet the Church remains, in spite of itself, some kind of world symbol. One thinks of John XXIII, who bridged gaps between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Christians and the Orthodox east. His council brought the Roman Church out of the prison of the Vatican state and into the wider world. His successor, the present Pope -- however hard he has tried to put the spirit of liberty back into the old wineskins of church law -- has at the same time traveled the world, kissing the ground in each country he has visited as he disembarks from his plane, calling us all to something we feel a deep need for. People flock to see him. They may not follow his rules, but they respond to him. It is hard to define what it is that they are responding to.

A global perspective has forcibly changed the way Catholics view their church. Through the eyes of a no longer parochial world we are forced to see the profound negatives of the church's long history: the crusades, the exploitation of natives by missionaries, the moral corruption of the papacy over so many centuries and the narrowness and rigidity of its more recent history. We have lived and continue to live through terrible times. Human beings are terrible to one another, "unteachably after evil," as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland." Can the church, in spite of that history, be an image of God's concern for the human family? Can it become what it has so rarely been, a symbol of respect for universal human dignity? That is the question that Greeley asks and cannot quite answer.

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