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Confessions of a Parish Priest: ANDREW M. GREELEY (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 438 pp.)

September 14, 1986| John Denvir | Denvir, formerly a parishioner of Father Greeley's in Chicago, teaches constitutional law at the University of San Francisco. and

About halfway through this lengthy memoir, Andrew M. Greeley quotes a friend's quip that "there are a lot of ironies in the fire." For me, that comment pretty well summarizes both this book and Father Greeley's life.

Some of the ironies are easy to see. Greeley is well-known as the professional celibate with a fascination about sex, the sociologist steeped in the rigor of survey research methodology who emphasizes the mythical, imaginative side of human existence. Other paradoxes appear in this book. Greeley in late middle age has found solace in a "feminine" God of love, innocence and forgiveness; yet, in reply to his critics, he comes on more like Billy Martin than Mother Theresa. Greeley has taken more than his share of bum raps in the Catholic press, and he has used this "confession" to give his side of the story. Many of the criticisms are, as he points out, simply uninformed and/or malicious. For instance, no one who knows him could think him much interested in money, and the fact that he has produced many books is clearly not a valid criticism of any one of them. Unfortunately, Greeley tries to categorize his critics as envious, fearful or stupid. He flails away at pastors and cardinals, professors and book reviewers. "Betrayal of friendship" is a phrase that appears time and again, "good faith misunderstanding" almost never.

This lack of charity leads to another irony. Greeley, the talented wordsmith, makes a curiously ineffective advocate for his views. His penchant for the verbal low blow wins sympathy for his adversaries. For instance, to refer to the priests urging fundamental social change in Latin America as "Maryknoll Marxists" strikes the reader as no more illuminating than dismissals of Greeley as a "sexually hung-up priest." And to blame the anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention for Nixon's election only reminds the reader that it was the Mayor Daley's police who attacked the protesters, not vice versa.

The final irony is that, over time, Greeley's cranky behavior somehow wins the reader's sympathy. His very lack of charm works a charm. I think the "fire" aspect of the borrowed quote accounts for this reaction. For Greeley is not now, and never has been, an especially likable person. He is too restless and assimilationist for my parents' generation, too parochial and unhip for their children's, and as an "Irish wit," he ranks right up there with George Bush. Yet he is an admirable man, and in a curmudgeonly sort of way, even a lovable one just because of his pugnacious collision with life.

For 40 years now, he has been feverishly confronting his own personal demons, demons that are often nightmarish projections of our own, and in that time, no one has ever accused him of giving up or not caring. It's typical that when his publisher was negative about the first draft of "The Cardinal Sins," Greeley's reply was, "Don't tell me no, tell me how to make it better." Greeley now seems sad about the passing of old friendships, but he has not lost so many friends as just worn them out.

There is a downside consequence to Greeley's iconoclastic personality; too often, at least in Catholic circles, reaction to the man has overshadowed fair consideration of his ideas, and they are excellent ideas. Greeley's natural intellectual position within the American church should have been that of intelligent conservative, pressing the tradition for necessary reform and warning of the dangers of jettisoning the tradition altogether. But, instead of being a mediator between the new and the old within the church and outside it, he has become a target for both reactionary and radical, facilely dismissed by each.

Of course, it is just as silly to bemoan Greeley's lack of moderation as to criticize his prodigious output. In the end, he writes not to convince us but to work out his own salvation. We should be grateful that his mildly exhibitionist personality permits us to witness that fascinating spectacle.

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