The Catholic Imagination

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: October 1, 2001
Number of Pages: 213
Print Price: $22.45
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Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination explores this important facet of Catholic art – the imagination that is fostered through the Catholic faith –  in a mere 188 pages. If the book were entirely successful covering all the important facets of Catholic imagination – from the formulation of original ideas based on the spiritual, the unknown, and the unproven, as well as the many diverse themes found in Catholic art, then the publication would have resulted in volumes rather than a compendium. Regardless, it is a compelling read, a characteristic not often attributed to academic writing.

The reader can move through it fairly easily while at the same time having the door of the mind set ajar for the influx of newly inspired ideas and understanding. The reader may be familiar with the late Father Greeley, a renowned theologian, sociologist, university professor, outspoken Roman Catholic priest, and seasoned fiction writer whose novels are known for being sexually explicit. If you like a touch of spice with your academic findings, you’ll savor this non-fiction piece.

Driven by original thinking and academic research the book delivers convincing ideas about the unique ability of Catholics to suspend disbelief and embrace fantasy. Father Greeley tends to stray into other sensitive subjects such as the sexual nature of Jesus, and women in the priesthood when he could have more usefully explicated the process of imagination, perhaps in the way that a sacred contemplation of the Mysteries of Rosary can expand imaginative thinking.

Nevertheless, this work is beautifully inventive as it examines the Catholic imagination, which Father Greeley defines as a highly developed giftedness inherited through millennia of Christian culture. Centuries of astonishing and enduring religious architecture, sculpture, paintings, music, and stories, according to Father Greeley, form the Catholic “sensibility,” further expanding the Catholic capacity for embracing the fabulous.

The fertile Catholic mindset and openness to the seemingly unrealistic but magnificent possibilities of God’s realm may be a kind of collective consciousness. Father Greeley attributes this imaginative ability to the beneficence of Gregory the Great, who incorporated pagan traditions into Christianity as it spread across Europe.

Perhaps to vivify the extreme joy of Jesus’ resurrection, Church hierarchy and missionaries, Greely says, “followed Gregory’s model even to the extent of using the name of [the pagan people’s] spring festival for the Christian Passover festival. ‘Easter’ comes from ‘Eastre’…, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn…and of spring and new life (the cognate of Venus, Aphrodite and Bridgid). Three symbols which represented her fertility were lilies, rabbits, and eggs. It took a lot of religious courage to risk such adulteration of religion.”

That is Greely showing the mastery of the ancient Church engaged in the art of gentle persuasion and conversion. Moreover in that passage, he depicts the imaginative risk that the Church hierarchy took when it incorporated worldly things into the very life of the Church. By engaging their imaginations and weaving together two disparate belief systems, early Church leaders risked the wrath of God and perhaps even their own excommunications.

Obviously by having strong faith in their endeavors, these Church leaders and missionaries overcame fear, implemented new ideas and, true to its mission, won converts. Interestingly, the Church leaders appear to have worked with the existing beliefs and needs of the pagans, thereby expanding Christianity to one of the greatest, most populous religions in the world.

Fearlessness, Greeley suggests, is the key to imagination. This idea is indirectly related to Father Greeley’s sociological research on married Catholics and sexual intercourse. If the early Church leaders themselves advocated the use of the imagination to enrich the soul and psyche, Greeley explains, then certainly this vibrant mental energy can be induced to inspire healthy sexual relationships and behaviors and at the same time liberate Catholics from the perception that the demands of Catholicism engender sexual guilt and fearfulness.

However, according to Father Greeley the Church in accordance with St. Augustine’s perspective can be invasive and inhibiting. Paraphrasing his understanding of St. Augustine, Father Greeley says that  “even marital sex directed toward procreation [constitutes]…at least a small sin because of the loss of self-control.” While Father Greeley’s modern reading of St. Augustine is among those interpretations of sexual condemnation, it is important to know that St. Augustine’s writings are far more complex than that single statement.

Yet, despite the apparent intrusion of the Church into the sanctity of the marital bed room, Greeley says, Catholics are not impeded from enjoying sexual pleasure. On the contrary, Father Greeley’s  sociological research shows that the imaginative Catholic couple lives otherwise. Of thousands of married couples, both Catholic and non-catholic, whom Father Greeley studied, it was revealed that “Catholics have sex more often, … [and] enjoy sex more.”

Apparently, the couples in the empirical study were unafraid of the warnings about the “small sin” involved in the act of sexual loss of control. And, as the author implies, married couples should naturally abandon themselves to a union of grace in an “enchanted” world, one which is inspired by centuries of sexually charged religious imagery.

Consider the long history of Catholic exposure to great art, rich with metaphors and depictions of spiritual ecstasy, nudity, and voluptuously carved bodies, all created in the name of illustrating and communing with the Divine. Religious art works of this sensual ilk depict the human capacity for desire, exhilaration, hope, and an appreciation for our God-given physical beauty. In keeping with Father Greeley’s point, these paintings and sculptures deliver an imaginary environment where Catholics discover and rediscover themselves, where they are bequeathed with the key to imagine and envision.

Had Father Greeley’s book explored other magnificent Catholic art like The Pieta and The Last Supper, it might have been equally fruitful to have discussed themes of imagination as it relates to the acceptance of and surrender to God’s will rather in addition to the relationship of the imagination to sex.

As it stands though, this book focuses on an important facet of artistic influence on Catholic inner vision and it’s parallel with sexual desire. Even this book cover is an example, graced with Bernini’s St. Theresa as she is pierced by the “arrow of divine love.” Could a lifetime steeped in iconography where holy women and men are portrayed in rapturous surrender affect one’s imagination while at the same time stirring the sexual appetite?

Father Greeley seems to think so: “[t]his instinct, [the linking of Bernini and the Eucharist] to the contemporary Catholic spouse [who] places an order from the Victoria Secret catalog…could only exist in an enchanted world.” The Catholic spouse who seeks sexual pleasure and playfulness cannot be wholly disaffected by the inspired imagery of her religious history, and the “enchanted world” Father Greeley refers to is certainly the world of the imagination on which inspired people act.

In The Catholic Imagination Father Greely makes a profound case while inspiring Catholics to more clearly understand the value of religious history and the importance of freeing their imaginations to soar.

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Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0520232044
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.6 x 0.6 inches


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Elizabeth Madden-Zibman explores the imagination to create compassionate literary fiction and magical tales with themes of hope and renewal. Her short stories, poetry and novel chapters are published in Shaking Lit: Best Prose 2007-2010; Painted Bride Quarterly, Transfer 37, The Kelsey Review, The Kennesaw Review, Open Mouth Poetry Anthology, and the U.S. 1 Newspaper Summer Fiction Issue. Currently, she teaches research writing in the Humanities at Rutgers University and is a creative writing mentor for teenagers. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a Bachelor’s degree in English/Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. You can reach her at: ezibman@gmail.com

1 Comment

Feb 18, 2015 Roseanne T. Sullivan

Andrew Greeley's works are beneath contempt. His sexualization of everything is a perversion. This review has motivated me, not to read his smutty speculations, but to cancel my subscription to this newsletter.

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