The Catholic Imaginationby Andrew Greeley
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Catholics live in an enchanted world: a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are merely hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. The world of the Catholic is haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of Grace. In this fascinating discussion of what is unique about the Catholic worldview and culture and what distinguishes it from Protestantism, Andrew Greeley--one of the most popular and prolific authors writing today--examines the religious imagination that shapes Catholics' lives.
In a lively and engaging narrative, Greeley discusses the central themes of Catholic culture: Sacrament, Salvation, Community, Festival, Structure, Erotic Desire, and the Mother Love of God. Ranging widely from Bernini to Scorsese, Greeley distills these themes from the high arts of Catholic culture and asks: Do these values really influence people's lives? Using international survey data, he shows the counterintuitive ways in which Catholics are defined. He goes on to root these behaviors in the Catholic imagination.
As he identifies and explores the fertile terrain of Catholic culture, Greeley illustrates the enduring power of particular stories, images, and orientations in shaping Catholics' lived experience. He challenges a host of assumptions about who Catholics are and makes a strong case for the vitality of the culture today. The Catholic imagination is sustained and passed on in relationships, the home, and the community, Greeley shows. Absorbing, compassionate, and deeply informed, this book provides an entirely new perspective on the nature and role of religion in daily life for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
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Sacred Place, Sacred Time
The autobahn from the Köln-Bonn airport approaches Köln from the East Bank of the Rhine. As one drives over the bridge one sees the skyline on the West Bank. It is not exactly Chicago as seen from the Shedd Aquarium (what is?), but it is still striking: the great spired Dom which dominates the city is surrounded, as by faithful servants, by seven Romanesque churches, each one representing a phase in the city's long history. Along the riverbank, picturesque multicolored buildings hint at a late medieval city. Gaily painted excursion boats and big barges with the flags of many countries move majestically in either direction. On the nearby railroad bridge, trains roar by at the rate of two per minute. If one has lived long enough, one remembers pictures of the devastated city immediately after the War in which the Dom, the victim of seventeen direct bomb hits, was a hollow shell surrounded by rubble. Once again, this historic city where the river meets the road has managed to survive, the Dom's pinnacles somehow invoking heaven's protection over the busy river traffic, the loud trains, the reconstructed waterfront, and the shops, office buildings, and hotels clustered along the bank of the Rhine. It had not protected the city or even itself from allied bombers, but it had presided over the post-war economic miracle. Its bells triumphantly celebrate its continued existence.
I shall discuss at some length Köln and its Dom because together they illustrate the key component of Catholic imaginationsacramentality,the presence of God in all creation. One cannot isolate the Dom from the history of the city. Köln is called "the holy city" not because its people are particularly virtuous but because it witnesses the presence of God lurking everywhere in creation.
I will then turn to a very different church which also tells of the presence of God in the world, but in a very different time and placethe mission of San Xavier del Bac in the Arizona desert south of Tucson.
In A.D. 48 the Emperor Claudius married Julia Agrippina, daughter of General Germanicus, who had been born in a town of the Ubii. She made the town a Roman city called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, whence the name Cologne. It was not a bad place to live; an eighteen-kilometer aqueduct brought fresh drinking water into the city, and there was an underground drainage and sewage system. For four hundred years the city was the northeast cornerstone of the Roman Empire. When the German barbarians, by then Christian, drove the Romans away from the Rhine and occupied Köln, they built many churches and appointed an archbishop who became one of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, along with the archbishops of Mainz and Trier, the count palatine of the Rhine, the king of Bohemia, the elector of Brandenburg, and the elector of Saxony.
The Franks chose to make their capital at Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle, as it is also called. Then in A.D. 975 a Schottencloister was established, an Irish monastery, doubtless a major contribution to civilization, culture, and religion. One of the Romanesque churches near the Dom, Great St. Martin, may have been named after its first abbot.
For a couple of hundred years Köln was in eclipse. Then, when relative peace returned to what had once been the Roman Empire, its Shrine of the Magi became an important pilgrimage site. It even received the title "holy city" (Heilige Stadt), a title shared only with Rome and Constantinople. Albert the Great taught at the university, Thomas Aquinas was ordained in the Dom (the one beneath the present Dom), and Duns Scotus is buried in the Minorite (Franciscan) church.
Köln became a victim of all the religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Napoleonic wars after that. The whole of northwestern Germany was a burned-out battleground until after the Congress of Vienna. Then Köln underwent another one of its periodic revivals. It became a part of Prussia, a fact that Kölner Catholics, civilized by years of French occupation (though they hated the French) and accustomed to their relaxed Kölnsch Catholicism, didn't like at all. The city prospered until the Second World War, in part because it had a very progressive mayor, Konrad Adenauer, in the 1920s and 1930s.
He built parks, improved the university, and expanded business. He opened one of the first social science research centers in the world, for which ingenuity he deserves the highest of praises. He became mayor again after the War until the British fired him, just as Hitler had done. The Americans intervened and reappointed him. He presided over the first steps in the rebuilding of the city, became the first Chancellor of the Bundesrepublic. Many give him the credit for restoring democracy to the German people.
With all this long and colorfuland tragichistory in mind, one ponders the gray gothic pile of the Dom and the scaffolding attached to various parts of it. The Kölners began to build their cathedral in A.D. 1248, at the height of the city's great prosperity, but they didn't finish it until the middle of the last century. It seems an old and dirty building, though much of it is several centuries newer than Notre Dame de Paris, which somehow looks both more modest and more youthful. It is dark from pollution and its stone is crumbling. Yet the city cannot let it perish, not now and not ever. It is the fourth largest church in Europe, larger than any of the other medieval cathedrals. Not delicate by any means but impressive, awesome even, as it rears above the railroad station, the central plaza (renamed Roncalliplatz after Pope John XXIII), the Roman-German museum, and everything else in sight like a fiercely protective Roman-German mother.
It is indeed vast. Only St. Peter's in Vatican City, St. Paul's in London, and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela are larger. Somehow its gothic arches make it seem even larger than the church in the Vatican. I should like to say that the misty light streaming through the windows create a glow that make one want to lose oneself in mystical contemplation. However, contemplation would have been about as easy as in the United Center before a Bulls' game or O'Hare International Airport at Christmas. The Dom is usually jammed with camera-clutching people of every hue under heaven, most of whom are barely aware that it is a sacred place or of what one ought to be doing there.
One wanders about indifferently, pausing to admire the astonishing collection of paintings, statues, altarpieces, tombs, and stained-glass windows. The place is a vast and striking museum, a reminder of a thousand years of history and art. Not exactly a church, but a special kind of Catholic sacred place.
The raison d'etre for the Dom and the city, the Shrine of the Magi, is the largest gilt reliquary in the West. It looks much like a golden Roman basilica, thought in fact it is three boxes, one on the top of the other two. Heaven forefend that each of the Magi would not have his own private tomb. The Magi themselves are carved in gold on the back panel along with Emperor Otto IV. Various apostles and prophets, all tall men who look like kings, are arranged on either side and on the front. Above it all, on what would have been the facade if it were truly a basilica, sits the King of Heaven looking down in approval at the whole scene. The shrine is covered with neatly arranged, multi-hued jewels. Emperor Otto IV had pillaged the precious stones from Byzantium and figured that they entitled him to a place near the three kings, observing them respectfully. The tomb of the Magi is a massive, overdone but sumptuous jewel box, 1.53 meters high, 2.2 meters long, and 1.1 meter wide and weighing approximately a ton.
The relics had belonged to the Dom in Milan for centuries. In 1164 Frederick Barbarosa confiscated them"stole" would be a better wordand turned them over to his Chancellor for Italy, one Reinald von Dassel, who was also the archbishop of Köln. It's not hard to imagine Reinald saying to Frederick, "You owe me a favor" and picking up his marker in the form of the relics. Seventeen years later, a certain Nicholas of Verdun established a workshop here to redo the reliquary. It was probably finished by 1225, a couple of decades before work started on the Dom. If the reliquary was designed to hold the remains of the Magi, so was the Dom built to hold the reliquary. Three million visitors come to the Dom every year, some days 40,000 pilgrims and tourists. They want to see the shrine even if they don't believe the legend.
In a corner of the Dom, one encounters the polychrome Madonna of Milan (another borrowing from the Italian city). The young woman, in robes of dark red, blue, and gold with a crown and a halo of stars, is lovely. Small wonder that the barechested (and crowned) Child reaches for her face with His right hand, while His left hand holds the world like a twelve-inch softball (in which we Chicagoans do not believe, taking it as only somewhat less than Gospel truth that a true softball is a sixteen-inch Chicago softball).
Köln is a city dense with religious history, pagan and then Christian, much of it acrimonious (for centuries the archbishop dared not live in the city) and some of it violent. The Alte Stadt (Old City) seems to have churches at almost every corner, most of them with colorful histories. Some, including the Dom, are built above pagan templesoften, like the Dom, above several layers of previous worship places. The city itself is arranged in a series of concentric rings radiating out from the remnants of the walls which once protected the heart of the city and the Dom. The outer rings are separated by parks or forests, a pattern which makes a charming and cosmopolitan (and very friendly) city all the more attractive. When the railroad came to Köln in the last century, the Kölners wanted it to circle the city in the same pattern and then go on to the north, but the Prussian-dominated government thought this was nonsense. With the same efficiency with which it launched two world wars, Berlin insisted that the Hauptbahnhof be constructed in the very center, right next to the Dom and a stone's throw from the Rhine. The noisy protests of the Kölners were ignored. Now, the locals admit ruefully that there is considerable charm in the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the sacred and the profane, the medieval and the modern. They will even concede that station is where it belongs. Besides, its location makes it easy for the tourists and pilgrims to find their way to the heart of historic Köln.
One might ask rather whether it was ever a Christian city, and whether there has ever been or indeed ever can be a city that honors the vision of the Gospels. In earlier eras, when the archbishop was in charge of the city and the institutional Church dominated its life and culture far more directly and explicitly than it does or wants to today, were the Gospel teachings any more influential on everyday behavior? The Shrine of the Magi, which attracted thousands of pilgrims to the city and was partially responsible for its importance for so many centuries, was stolen goods. So are the jewels on the shrine. The Karnival starts in Köln not the week before Ash Wednesday but on November 11, a date without religious significance to Catholics. There never was an age of faith anywhere and certainly not in Köln, only great works of art shaped by religious imagination, works which drew folk to God, often in spite of themselves. Unable to impose virtue on its members or to impart much religious education, the Church shaped faith by shaping imaginations. The resulting faith was limited, but not necessarily more so than is faith today.
Köln, then, is surely Catholic by heritage and tradition if not by religious devotion. Rhinelanders consider themselves to be more civilized than other Germans, and Kölners consider themselves to be more civilized than other Rhinelanders. Like the natives of all German-speaking countries, they regulate themselves with more rules than any other country in the North Atlantic world. Yet they are relaxed and friendly folkthe most friendly city in Germany, they will tell you, and not without reasonwho approach life and its problems with a mixture of fatalism and humor not unlike that of the Irish. They attribute this ethos to the fact that they are Kölnsch Catholics, by which they are saying nothing about their loyalty to the papacy. One of my colleagues in the city told me that she had left the Church in 1988 (in anger at the pope) but that of course she was still and always would be a Kölnsch Catholic. She meant that she would always look at the world from the vantage point of one who lives in the shadow of the Dom.
I'm not celebrating this style of being Catholic. Like all styles of religious behavior, it has strengths and weaknesses. It may well be too casual, too indifferent, too relaxed, too tolerant of the weaknesses of human nature, too ready to accept the imperfections of the human condition. However, fanatical it is not, nor oppressive, nor narrow and rigid. Moreover, it is still Catholic if on its own terms, an approach that it now has in common with most of the Catholic world.
Is the Dom responsible for this religious style? Having come to know the city and its people pretty well, I suspect that in the absence of the Dom and what it stands forand to make this point is the reason for my extended celebration of the cityKöln and the Kölners would be very different.
Catholicism has always believed (until recently, at any rate) that church buildings were important. If the whole of creation was sacred, if God was present in some fashion in all the objects, events, and persons of ordinary life, then there were some places which were especially sacred because God was present in them in a special way by virtue of the celebration of the Eucharist. From the very beginning of the Church's legal existence and its appropriation of unused basilicas (courthouses) in Rome, places of public worship assumed great importance, first on pragmatic grounds as houses enabling Christians to assemble, and then on aesthetic grounds as places to be made beautiful precisely because they were especially holy. It did not take very long for a theory to develop asserting that the beauty of a sacred place made it a teacher of Christian truth and that the objects of beauty within it should tell the essential Christian stories to a mostly unlettered population.
Have the great Catholic churches of the world never been quiet, prayerful places where the faithful came to pray in reverent silence as a Gregorian chant floated in the background and incense wafted heavenward? If you want that sort of austere setting, you must go to a Benedictine abbey like that in the Brother Cadfael stories. The great Catholic churches of the worldwhether Romanesque like Great St. Martin's, gothic like Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris, or baroque like St. Peter's in Rome, the Martinkirche in Bamberg (on the Jesuit-instrasse!), or the partially bombed out Jesuitinkirche in Mannheimhave always been crowded with people, tombs, chapels, altars, statues, shrines, altarpieces, paintings, tapestry, votive candles, and stained glass. They always have noisy bells which will keep you awake at night. The Dom in Köln is no more cluttered than St. Peter's or your local Italian parish church. Catholicism has tried to crowd all the metaphors from its forest inside its churches. The great cathedrals of Europe are in fact treasure houses of stories located inside of storied cities.
At a time when both social conditions and technological limitations made it impossible to teach the faith by the book or by formal education, the church inundated its people with stories. In a time of widespread literacy when religion courses, textbooks, and how-to manuals can reach out to the whole population, the churches are still treasure houses of stories, save in some sterile modern churches with which architects and clergy, in a burst of mistaken ecumenism, have tried to placate the Protestant suspicion that Catholic churches hoard idols. A rule of thumb: if there are no votive candles in it, a church really isn't Catholic.
In the Catholic imaginative tradition churches overflow with stories, not only the central story of the Eucharist and the ongoing stories of the liturgical year (in which sacred place and sacred time combine), but many other stories, all of which tell of God's unremittingly merciful love. Even the Shrine of the Magi, with its dubious provenance and its blatant history of theft, tells of a birth in Bethlehem of Judah in the time of Caesar Augustus which brought hope to Jew and Gentile alike.
Some of the stories in the cathedrals flowed out into the city: the miracle and morality plays sprang out of the liturgical cycle at the altar, gathered force as performances inside the church during nonliturgical hours, and finally broke forth into the cathedral plaza as plays for the general populace. Similarly, the oratorios developed out of the polyphonic masses, gradually moved into the theaters, and eventually became operas. Very few Western artistic traditions were not shaped first in the churches. Ironically, the Catholic Church which presided over artistic works for so long and which let them develop freely beyond the church building has in the last couple of centuries lost interest in them, especially in this country.
What motivated the artists and benefactors who paid the artists? The desire to tell stories for the faithful, a wish to praise God with created beauty, the need for money to live, the artistic impulse for self-expression, the will to celebrate oneself?
How would it be possible to sort out these motives? And why should it be necessary? St. Peter's is no less stupendous, and the Pieta is no less a story of maternal grief, because the Borghese family has its name over the basilica entrance. Granted, by modern standards this obvious expression of patronage is a bit vulgar (and maybe the whole basilica is a bit vulgar), but there is no reason why the mixed motives that affect all human behavior should interfere with the stories being told.
But do we still need the stories that are being enacted, one way or another, all around us in such churches? Can't we leave alone the simple layperson who just wants to spend a few moments with her God in prayerful silence? Are there not enough catechisms, religion textbooks, theological monographs, papal encyclicals, and hierarchical statements that we no longer need to tell stories as much as we did during the preliterate epochs?
Only if our members are angels, creatures lacking in bodies. Stories are as important now as they ever were. Religion is story before it is anything else and after it is everything else. It is not necessary that all the story forms be maintained. It is possible that we can tell stories now more skillfully, more reverently, more effectively than we did in the past, though I wouldn't bet on it. But when a church ceases to be the center of events which bind together sacred time and sacred space through sacred narrative, it may be a very beautiful, dignified, reverent place, but it isn't Catholic anymore. When a church stops being a treasure house of stories, it stops being Catholic. Likewise, when even a simple church, like the wooden huts about which Gregory wrote to Augustine of Canterbury, is dense with stories, then it is surely Catholic. The more artistically skillful the church and professional the works of art which accompany the central narrative of the Eucharist, the better the storytelling and the more Catholic the church. The honoring of God and the passing on of the stories are tasks far too important to be done poorly. A Catholic church is a place where the rich stories of the Catholic heritage are told over and over again, with every skill that human ingenuity possesses. That is the reason for the Dom in Köln and the reason the city is called the Heilige Stadt. Without the city, no Dom. Without the Dom, no city.
The stories are also told in the mission church in Arizona which is called the "White Dove of the Desert" because it looms up from a great distance like a peaceful bird.
San Xaviernamed after St. Francis Xavier, an early Jesuit follower of Ignatius of Loyola and a missionary in Asiawas the last mission station that Eusebio Kino founded on the trail north from Mexico. When the Jesuits were suppressed in the late 1800s, the mission was abandoned for a quarter century. Then, toward the end of the century, the Franciscans reestablished the mission, named after a Francis other than theirs. They built the present structure in the last decade of that century, and it has served the Tono Odham Native Americans ever since. It is the supreme artistic product of the mission trail, though, alas, it was built at the very end of the missionary thrust north from the center of New Spain and thus is a monument not to a new tradition but to one that had lost its energy.
The architecture of the mission is described as ultra-baroque or sometimes as late Hispano-Moorish baroque. The prefix "ultra" is appropriate. When one enters, the eyes are assaulted by a mass of dense, colorful, and exotic imagery. There are statues, paintings, frescoes, murals everywhere: not a space on the walls lacks an image, not a corner is free of niche and statue. One feels that one has entered a surrealistic world filled with saintsor, perhaps, is having a nightmare after reading a book about the saints. Indeed, angels and saints and the mother of Jesus are everywherewatching, enchanting, inviting. After gasping in surprise, one becomes aware that these saints are not like the saints in one's own parish church. These saints are real people, handsome, attractive, each with a personality and a character of his or her own. "Who are these people?" one asks. Yes, of course, here is Santa Maria da Gloria, but she is no mere plaster statue of a woman. She is a real person. The artist who created her made her a full-bodied and full-blooded woman, an exercise in piety that exceeds even Bernini.
Only if one reads the guidebook available in the gift shop, or listens carefully to the taped lecture piped in over the public address system, does one perceive that there is a careful plan regulating the arrangements of the angels, the saints, and the mother of Jesus (of whom, it is alleged, there are one hundred and fifty images in the church). They are arranged hierarchically, with God and Jesus and Mary and St. Francis all fitting in their proper places and all telling us their own stories. Moreover, so we'll know that, though the church honors a Jesuit saint, the Franciscans built it and continue to staff it, the cord of the Franciscan habit circles the inner walls.
The parishioners have developed their own cycle of rituals and feasts to celebrate their saints, a mix of Catholic and Native American customs. While the result is certainly folk religion, it is substantially within the boundary that distinguishes Catholicism from paganism, though one could not imagine a sacred place or sacred time more different from those of the Kölner Dom. Yet both churches are treasure houses of stories, the same stories of a God who is deeply involved with His creation, but stories told with different accents and different dramatis personae. God is present both on the frequently overflowing banks of the Rhine and on the almost always dry banks of the Santa Cruz River.
In San Xavier one always returns to the compelling faces of the statues. We do not know who designed the White Dove of the Desert, nor do we know who made the statues. It seems unlikely that the natives sculpted them. Perhaps artisans from Mexico City deserve the credit. The faintly Semitic cast of the faces of many suggests that the artists may have been Sephardics (as they still call themselves), Jews who converted to Christianity lest they be expelled from Spain. However, while the images are similar to those in some baroque churches in Europe, the humanity of the icons is strikingly original. God, the saints in San Xavier seem to be telling us, lurks in the stories and in the faith of real people and not sub- or super-humans frozen in artifice.
Saints are important to Catholics because their lives are stories of God's love. Like the angels, they are sacraments of God's love, of God's immediate care for humans, and of the response of some humans to that love. God hides in the lives and the images of the saints. Hence Catholics are not ashamed of the saints. In some Catholic art, like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Georges Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest and Under the Son of Satan, Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, and Nancy Savoca's Household Saints, the question of the nature of sainthood is agonized over. The nameless whiskey priest is a coward in Greene's novel. Bernanos's two priests are clumsy dullards. The women in the two films (played by Emily Watson and Lili Taylor) seem to be simpleminded misfits and are arguably crazy. Bess is denied Christian burial by her church. A thoroughly modern nun-psychologist tells Teresa Santangelo's parents that the young woman is a victim of psychotic delusions and religious obsessions. Yet God vindicates all of them: the whiskey priest dies a martyr; Bernanos's priests both work miracles; bells peal in the sky in honor of Bess; and the garden in front of the mental institution where Teresa dies blooms overnight despite a snowstorm, and the scent of roses fills her death room. Saints are perhaps a bit mad. God sometimes seems to display bad taste in the choice of His special loves. But there is no accounting for tastes when it comes to love. The stories of saints, which fill Catholic churches from Köln to the Sonoran desert and beyond, tell how magical human nature can become when it is filled with God's love.
The point need not be labored any further. Catholic churches (some more than others and some hardly at all) are strongholds of the analogical imagination, of stories of God's presence in the human condition. They cannot help themselves. If they're Catholic, they cannot be anything else.
But surely no claim can be made that these treasure houses of stories have an impact on Catholic behavior today?
In its 1993 General Social Survey, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) included a module about culture. The data collected made it possible to raise again the question of Catholics and the fine arts, a question which was debated in the 1950s and early 1960s. Might it be that the analogical imagination has an impact on Catholic involvement in the fine arts?
The question may seem absurd. While it presided over the fine arts for more than a millennium, the Church in its present Counter-Reformation modality could not care less about them. True, there are Catholics working in the fine arts both as performers and creators, but they are invisible Catholics who keep their religion to themselves and whose work is not, to all appearances, influenced by that religion. The Catholic elite which once lamented the lack of interest by Catholics in culture is now more concerned about ideological crusades of the left or the right. To the extent that the elites think at all about the subject of high culture, they picture suburban upper-middle-class Catholics as materialist, consumerist, secularist pagans who have little concern for the mind or the spirit, a position which corresponds to the Vatican's image of American Catholicsaffluent couch potatoes who would rather watch a film on video than go to a theater. A similar image exists in the media and among the academic elite: Catholics are not interested in the fine arts and the fine arts are not interested in Catholics. Catholics are no longer seen as illiterate and anti-intellectual immigrants, but neither are they viewed as sophisticated enough and refined enough to enjoy high culture. Instead, they watch television every night.
Five types of fine arts patronage were addressed in the survey and are pertinent to the present investigation. Respondents were asked whether they enjoyed classical music or opera, and whether they had in the previous twelve months attended an art gallery show, an art museum exhibition, or a live performance of classical dance, classical music, or opera (excluding school performances).
Most would assume, I believe, that Catholics are less likely than Protestants to respond positively to these questions, or at least their responses would be no different from those of Protestants. My own expectation was the opposite: the analogical imagination would, I thought, lead to greater Catholic involvement. The stories that shout at Catholics in their churches, in the liturgy, and in the liturgical year will open them to the quieter but still powerful stories which are told outside of church.
My expectations were sustained. Catholics were more inclined to say that they liked the opera (27 percent to 19 percent) and classical music (55 percent to 47 percent). They were also more likely to report attendance at a fine arts performance in the preceding year24 percent to 15 percent for dance, 21 percent to 13 percent for music, and 47 percent to 35 percent for visual arts. Fifty-six percent of Catholics had attended at least one fine arts performance or exhibition in the previous year as opposed to 44 percent of the Protestants. Twenty-seven percent of Catholics attended two or more events, as did just 15 percent of the Protestants, and 10 percent of Catholics attended all three kinds of performances (dance, music, visual arts) compared to 5 percent of Protestants. All the differences are statistically significant.
How can this be so? Members of a Church whose one artistic interest not so long ago was censoring films and who are only a single generation removed from the immigrant neighborhoods of their heritages, how can it be that American Catholics today rank substantially above the national average in their demonstrated interest in the fine arts?
First of all, one must consider the possibility that this surprising finding might be the result of demographic and social factors. I elected to investigate further the greater Catholic propensity to leave the couch for the opera house, the concert hall, and the art gallery. Such variables as age, gender, race, city size, region, education, and income reduce the correlation between Catholics and fine arts attendance by 36 percent, with education and city size being the most powerful predictors. Catholics are in part more likely to attend fine arts performances because they are better educated than Protestants and because they live in large cities where more such opportunities are available. Still, the majority of the difference in fine arts participation between Catholics and Protestants remained constant irrespective of these factors.
My theory led me to wonder whether Catholic church attendance, steeped as it is in a sacramental or metaphorical context, would have a special impact on fine arts consumption. If one is surrounded by cultural artifacts (however weakened and compromised) when one worships, one might perhaps also have a greater interest in the fine arts. Frequency of churchgoing correlates dramatically with Catholic fine arts attendance and does not correlate significantly with Protestant fine arts attendance. The largest difference between Catholic and Protestant fine arts attendance is concentrated precisely among the regular churchgoers. Indeed, the interaction between Catholics and church attendance eliminates the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
Some readers will doubtless say that they are not surprised by the fact that Catholics have caught up to and surpassed the rest of the country in interest in the fine arts. But I challenge anyone to say that they are not surprised by the fact that it is the regular Sunday (or Saturday afternoon) Catholics who are most likely to be interested in the fine arts.
Can I demonstrate that this phenomenon is linked to a distinctively Catholic imagination? In my work on narrative religion I have developed a four-item scale, which I call the Grace Scale, that measures a respondent's image of God as mother versus father, lover versus judge, spouse versus master, and friend versus king. I discuss the development, rationale, and predictive power of the scale at great length in Religion as Poetry and will not repeat the discussion here. Catholics, as one would expect from Tracy's theory, score higher on the scale than do other Americans. In the present context, the question arises of whether this scale also influences Catholic fine arts participation. Indeed, a graceful image of God does affect attendance at artistic productions, but only for Catholics. For Protestants there is a (nonsignificant) negative correlation between the Grace Scale and the fine arts; for Catholics there is strong and positive correlation. The difference between Catholics and Protestants in fine arts participation is concentrated among those who have high scores on the Grace Scale. Not only is there a link for Catholics between church attendance and the fine arts but there is also a link between religious imagery (that is, views of God) and the fine arts.
A third link in the chain might be the establishment of a stronger relationship among Catholics between religious imagery and church attendance. Should such a link be established, one could well call the emerging model an example of the liturgical imagination. There is strong evidence of the existence of such a link. There is a negative correlation for Protestants between religious imagery and frequent church attendance and a positive link for Catholics. Catholics with high scores on the Grace Scale are more likely to go to church; conversely, Protestants with a low score are more likely to go to church. Or, to put it perhaps more plausibly, frequent church attendance for Catholics enhances their gracious religious imagery and for Protestants frequent attendance diminishes such imagery.
What People are saying about this
(Michael Hout, University of California, Berkeley)
(Robert Bellah, coauthor of Habits of the Heart)
Meet the Author
Andrew Greeley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona and Research Associate at the National Opinion Research Center. He is the author of numerous books, including Religion as Poetry (1996), Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics (1994), Religious Changes in America: Social Trends (1989), Confessions of a Parish Priest (1986), and American Catholics: A Social Portrait (1977), in addition to more than thirty novels.
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