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What Has Gone Before1
I began the penultimate revision of this second volume of my memoirs, an updating of Confessions of a Parish Priest, in the week I celebrated my seventieth birthday, a fitting time to review the trajectories of my life and to try to evaluate what I have done with the gift of life, the gift of faith, and the gift of priesthood. Life is a gift which demands gratitude, even if it ends totally at death, a gift which demands gratitude even if there is no giver. Life is a gift for which one is accountable, even if there is no accountant.
I believe in a Giver who is, of all things, not an Accountant, but a Lover; a Lover, as Robert Barron has recently observed, who is as caught in the need to love me just as a mother is caught in the need to love her child, a Lover who, according to Irish Dominican poet Paul Murray, would die of sadness if I should cease to exist.
So I revise this book of memories with the obligation of gratitude firmly in my mind. The book is not about who I am but about what has happened to me in my life, especially in the fifteen years since I published the first volume of memoirs. If you want to know who I am, then read my novels. Necessarily, as I shall point out later, a storyteller reveals himself intimately and personally in his stories. The seanachie is well aware that he is notably less than perfect and that his imperfect self will be disclosed in his stories, sometimes painfully. He understands that there is no choice but to do so for if he wants to tell his stories he has to run the risk of self-disclosure. She cares whether people will like her, but not so badly that she is willing to shut up. If her stories provide grist for the mills of those who already hate her, then she is troubled, but not so troubled as to remain silent.
I therefore commend my stories to those who want to know what I'm really like. This book is an account, much more reserved (because not in fictional form) than my stories, of what my seventy years has been like.
The other day I was making a call to my office in Chicago from a public phone in the Tucson Marriott in the shadow of the University of Arizona. We had just ended a meeting about a project to study the religion of Latino Americans in which the National Opinion ResearchCenter (God and benefactors willing) and scholars from UCLA (in Tucson also known as the Hated Bruins) will cooperate. Perhaps with the thought of my seventieth birthday at hand, I found myself asking what in the world I was doing here. What unexpected processes brought me from being a quiet and studious boy growing up during the Great Depression on the West Side of Chicago who wanted nothing more than to be a priest to the person I am today.
For a moment, as I walked out into the clear light of a Tucson afternoon, I felt just a bit disoriented. Yes, what was I doing at the University of Arizona, which would shortly press an honorary degree into my hands? What was I doing as a visiting professor at the University of Cologne? What was I doing as a senior fellow at University College Dublin? I didn't belong in any of these places, did I? What had happened to my life when all I wanted during the thirties and forties and the first half of the fifties was to be a parish priest in Chicago?
The disorientation passed and was replaced by surprise and wonder—and gratitude to Lady Wisdom who paid no attention to my own plans and waylaid me down the path of Her own plans.
The continuity in this strange and often crazy journey is priesthood. I always wanted to be a priest. My core identity is priest. I will always be a priest. I will, with the grace of God, never leave the priesthood. I will not go even if they try to throw me out, something which "they" have never tried to do and are most unlikely to try now.
I wanted only to be a parish priest as a boy in St. Angela parish in the 1930s. I will not give up that definition no matter how much some of my nastier colleagues rail against it. I still like parish work and I still do it on weekends. I still like teenagers, even though at my age in life that indicates either special gifts of nature and grace or weirdness. However, as a profile in the New York Times Magazine said many years ago, my parish is in my mailbox and more recently in my E-mail. The challenge for me is to explain how I made the journey from being a parish priest in the more traditional form to being the kind of parish priest I am now, and in particular the kind I have become in the last fifteen years since the publication of Confessions of a Parish Priest.
Sometimes I'm not altogether sure of that myself, as baffled as I was when the question surfaced in my mind in the Tucson Marriott.
I am, however, surprised, and pleasantly so. I do things that I did not imagine I would ever do, that I had no strong motivation (or so I thought) to do. I'm a priest who is a mix of storyteller, research scholar, university teacher, and journalist.
How good am I at these activities? It is not for me to judge. People whose opinions I value—readers, colleagues, students—seem to thinkthat I do a good enough job at each of them. Others react with fury to any and all of my roles and all my work in whatever role and would destroy me if they could. Such anger baffles me. I don't quite understand why I'm worth such outrage. Perhaps if I knew myself better I would.
Before I began writing this book (at the suggestion of Monsignor Bill Quinn) I gritted my teeth and read (for the first time) its predecessor. I have never been able to read any of my books all the way through after they've been published. A few passages here and there perhaps but never a whole book. The passages seem all right or at least good enough, but I don't want to go on. I am especially reluctant to read my prayer journals (more about them later); after a page of one of them, I close the book with a loud bang.
Like a lot of other things about myself, I don't understand this reaction. It certainly does not result from shame or embarrassment over what I have written. Sometimes I think that I don't want to face the selfrevelation of the person who wrote them, especially in the prayer journals and the novels. That the journals have been well reviewed doesn't enter into the calculation.
I feel about all my writing that it is bad enough that one reveals oneself in books, especially in novels or poems, without having to face the revelation oneself.
Sometimes when I pick up a novel and read a passage I am astonished that I wrote it and cannot recall the frame of imagination I was in when I produced those words. It is not that such a passage is badly written. I'm not ashamed of the passages at all (even the erotic ones, the extent of which is greatly exaggerated). They are always smoothly, sometimes imaginatively, and on occasion, beautifully written. I just don't want to read any more.
Odd. Maybe the reason is that I find it hard to identify myself with the writer, as if someone else wrote the words. I never particularly wanted to be a writer and now find it hard to identify as a writer, much less with my own writings. Perhaps that is the reason I write so easily.
So I especially did not want to read Confessions of a Parish Priest, even though the reviews were favorable (save naturally for those written by priests) and the book had earned out its advance (a rare enough phenomenon in the publishing industry). I most certainly did not want to identify with the self-portrait in the book. Yet if I were to follow Bill Quinn's suggestion, read it I must.
The book surprised me in a number of ways. It was better written than I had expected it to be, thanks largely to the wonderful editorial work of Patricia Solomon. It was an interesting portrait of the American Church and one of its priests during the years of turbulence that markedthe second half of this bloody and chaotic century. The author, I thought, had covered his tracks well. No, that's not fair. He had rather been perhaps more candid than he should have been.
But I had a hard time seeing myself in that author. There seemed to be an enormous emotional difference between him and me.
The author was far more defensive than he needed to be. Confessions was written at the end of a very bad time in my life, a bad time that had begun with the death of Cardinal Meyer twenty years before, a time when I found myself pushed to the fringes of both the Church and the academic world. Moreover, my novels, astonishingly more successful than I had expected, had stirred up firestorms of criticism, mostly from those who had not read them or had read them with closed minds about what they would find. Anyone who was convinced in their heart of hearts that the stories were "steamy" before the fact would certainly find steam, even though the steam would turn out to be minimal.
I had felt for most of those two decades, especially after 1972, that I was under attack from all sides and that I had to answer the charges. I was right, I think, about the attacks, but wrong about the need to defend myself.
Moreover, I was hurting when I wrote the book, hurting perhaps more than I realized at the time. Many of the things which were being said about me were untrue; some of them in fact were deliberate lies. Anyone who is constantly under such assault is bound to be hurt, especially at first when he strains for understanding. The notion that one ought to be utterly indifferent to such assaults is naive (perhaps deliberately) about the nature of human nature.
I will not claim fifteen years later that I am immune to the pain of attack or from the propensity to react defensively. But I take the attacks much less seriously than I used to because I can now see them in context, which I was less able to do even ten years ago. Pain and defensiveness do not crowd my worldview anymore. I can still become angry when someone tells a bare-faced lie about me, but the anger goes away because I have learned that these assaults are not typical and should not be taken seriously.
I understand that to be on the margins of the academic world and on the margins of the Church is a grace, a blessing, great good fortune. The "stranger" who is not constrained by rigid structures may be a wonderful inkblot for the sick or the troubled. He is also blessed with freedom. I understand that those who like my work far outnumber those who don't like it, that I have more friends than enemies, and that support is everywhere.
All of these things were true fifteen years ago and I might well haveexpressed them verbally then. But I wouldn't have known in those dark days how important they were and how they should have shaped my worldview and my perception of my own identity. I don't claim a complete transformation, but I do claim a change which has notably altered the structure of my perceptions during the last decade.
Grace. Pure grace.
My friend (and publisher) Irving Louis Horowitz, who has produced a powerful autobiographical fragment about the early years of his life, remarked to me that it takes a great deal of narcissism to write a memoir because the work presumes that people will want to know more about you and there is no reason to think that's true of many people. Moreover, he added, you won't tell the whole truth in your story. You will tell the truth as you see it perhaps, but that is another matter.
Fair point, Irving. Still the need to tell one's story in one's own way comes, it would seem, from the nature of human nature. So I tell it again (with an emphasis on the last fifteen years) with what I hope is a somewhat (modestly, moderately) changed perspective. I write as an attempt to understand my life (thus far) and myself. If this exercise is useful to anyone in their search for understanding or if they find it interesting, fine. If not, well, they're under no obligation to read it, are they?
As I strive for a focus in this book of retractions, I realize that I have spent half my life in what historian Stephen Avila has called the "Confident Catholic Church" (the untroubled American Catholicism of the 1950s and before the Second Vatican Council) and half my life in what I call the "Confusing Catholic Church." The Second Vatican Council met at the midpoint of my life, as presently calculated. I am one of a diminishing number of Catholic clergy who remember what it was like to be a priest (for ten years) before the council and have lived through the thirty-five years after it. I grew up on the West Side of Chicago during the Great Depression and the World War II. I went off to the major seminary at the beginning of the postwar world, and spent ten years as a parish priest in one of the first college-educated Catholic parishes in Chicago. After six of those years Cardinal Meyer sent me to the University of Chicago to obtain a doctorate in sociology so I could serve the Archdiocese as a research sociologist, a role I've never played. Then, just before he died, he assigned me to full-time work as a scholar and a writer—with parish work on weekends (work I never want to give up).
The "Confident" Church was the Church of the first two decades after the end of the war. Mass attendance and vocation rates were at an all-time high. New parishes and new primary and secondary schools were popping up in new suburbs. Traditional (St. Vincent de Paul Society) and new (Cana, CFM) Catholic organizations were flourishing. Catholicsocial service groups, hospitals, and universities were flourishing. Catholics either had large families or stopped receiving Communion. Young Catholics struggled, with considerable success, to sustain premarital chastity. Catholics contributed 2.2 percent of their income to the Church, about the same proportion as did other Americans. They were proud to have their sons and daughters become priests and nuns. Catholic divorce rates were low. No one would have dreamed of questioning (out loud) the teachings of the pope, the cardinal, or the pastor (unless race was the issue). It was unthinkable that a priest would want to leave the priesthood. The Church was, in other words, efficient, strong, and, well, confident.
Then in a very few years the whole house of cards collapsed—it must have been a house of cards to have collapsed so quickly. Priests and nuns have left their ministry and married, often to each other. Vocations to the priesthood and the religious life have dried up. Church attendance has declined sharply. Contributions have declined even more. Young Catholics live together before marriage and still receive the Eucharist. Catholics defy the teachings of the Church on birth control. Untrained lay staff introduce new tyrannies into many parishes. Traditional devotions have been abandoned. Gregorian chant has disappeared. Theologians boldly disagree with the teaching authority of the Church. No one seems to believe in mortal sin anymore. Priests do crazy things, like the one who tore a rosary apart and threw it to the floor in front of a pulpit and announced, "You don't have to say that anymore." (As if people ever had to say it!) The Church, it seems, is falling apart.
For reasons that I will outline later in this book, I think the Confusing Church is much better than the Confident Church.
For the last thirty-five years I have engaged in three tasks which are about the two Churches from my perspective as one who stands with a foot, so to speak, in each of them: as a sociologist I have done research on the changes from the Confident Church to the Confusing Church and reported these changes. As a journalist I have commented forcefully, if truth be told, and at some length on the changes. I have written novels to illuminate the continuities between the two Churches.
Clearly, any one of the three main tasks enumerated above—sociology, commentary, storytelling—is enough to get someone into considerable trouble. All three of them are enough to lead people to condemn one, perhaps correctly, as a public nuisance.
My position as a public nuisance becomes clear when I note that in my exercise of these three vocations (which no one forced upon me) I have reported the following: the Catholic laity (nine out of ten), supportedby their lower clergy, now deny the right of Church authorities to regulate their sexual lives. Much of the loss in the transition from Confident to Confusing Catholicism is not the result of the Vatican Council but of the birth control encyclical of 1968. Despite the present confusion, the defection rate among non-Latino Catholics has not changed in this century (11 percent of those who were raised Catholic are no longer Catholic). However, the defection rate of Latino Catholics is over 25 percent and no one seems to be doing anything about it. Most men who leave the priesthood do so not because they want to marry but because they don't like the work. For those who are happy being priests, celibacy is a difficult but not insupportable burden. Two-thirds of the priests in a recent study say that the priesthood is better than they expected it would be. Catholic schools are a superb educational bargain and an important capital investment for the Church. There is virtually no decline in belief by Catholics in the major tenets of their faith. Their problems with the leadership are almost entirely in the areas of sex, gender, and authority. The most destructive of the changes from the Confident Church to the Confusing Church are the results of these three dimensions of Catholic teaching and attitude (which for conservative Catholics and for many leaders, up to and including the pope, seem to be the only ones that matter). Catholic laity in six nations by overwhelming numbers want more democratic Church structures (election of bishops, more power to the local churches) and the ordination of married men and women. Moreover, the United States is not the most radical country on these issues. Ireland and Spain are tied for first place on the radicalism scale, Germany is third, and the United States is fourth. Conservative Catholics are no more than 5 percent of the Catholic population.
Obviously someone who reports these findings, even with high quality data to back them up, is in deep trouble, not only with the Catholic right (The Wanderer, Crisis) but, surprisingly, also with the Catholic left (National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America). Who does he think he is?
Sometimes I wonder myself.
To make matters worse, I have engaged in two crusades: one against the destruction of the Chicago Archdiocese by Cardinal Cody, who was what the clinicians call a "borderline personality," and the other against the Church's long-time cover-up of the abuses of children by pedophile priests.
Dermot Coyne in the Nuala Anne stories has dialogues with an "Adversary," a part of himself who is highly critical of what he says and does. I have an Adversary too. He will turn up occasionally in this book.
Adversary: Why get into such fights, into which, again, no one invited you?
Adversary: Why don't you just shut up?
Adversary: Why don't you just go away and stop being a public nuisance?
Adversary: All right, just don't blame me for all the trouble you get into.
To compound the effrontery, in some of my novels there are priests who are less than perfect and in all of them erotic love is portrayed as a sacrament of the love between God and us. It would be bad enough to write such novels if no one read them, but alas, lots of people do.
To establish that this peculiar personality trait (character defect, perhaps) is not limited to my relations with the Church. I have done similar things in my university role. I have engaged in a long-run battle with most of the sociological profession on the issue of "secularization"—the alleged decline of religion. I have tried to outline a new theory of religion as story before it's anything else and after it's everything else. I have studied the incidence, prevalence, and correlates of mystical and psychic experience (though not their metaphysical reality which is a question beyond sociology). I was the first one to report on the religious revival in Russia. I have argued that Catholic schools are more successful in dealing with minority children than public schools. I have insisted that European ethnic background is still an important predictor of attitudes and behavior in our society.
Adversary: Didn't you have enough trouble with the Church? Why did you have to take on the sociological profession too?
A woman whom I've known since she was a teenager in my first year in parish work, at whose marriage I officiated, and whose children I baptized broke off her friendship with me because of the novels in particular but more generally because I was always making trouble. She was tired of having to defend me, she said. Why don't you just stop all these foolish things and enjoy life as you are entitled to?
Adversary: Brilliant question! Now, how did you answer it?
How did I answer it?
Adversary: My very question.
The way I usually answer when people tell me how much they have to defend me: Don't!
Adversary: Not a very good answer, huh?
I do miss her, however.
Do I enjoy stirring up trouble? No, not really. Then why do I do it? I don't do it deliberately. I am always surprised when the trouble comes. Consider my novels for example. I began to write them because I thought that popular fiction might play a role in our times like stained-glass windows did in the Middle Ages. I expected neither the uproar nor the success which greeted the novels. I wasn't trying to be a gadfly (a word I despise) or to create controversy. Naively, and with almost simpleminded innocence, I thought it would be obvious they were all stories about God's love—as tens of thousands of readers perceive them. I was utterly surprised by the fury they stirred up. I still am.
Adversary: You were a friggin' eejid if you believed that shite!
Yeah, but I did.
Adversary: Don't you have a character problem that drives you into such ventures?
Perhaps. At a minimum, there is something a bit unusual about me.
Adversary: To put it mildly.
That observation comes only with the wisdom of hindsight. Naïf that I was (and, much to be feared, still am) I never thought that the combination of these three activities would make me unpopular with many on both the right and the left of American Catholicism. Nonetheless, as I look back on my childhood and young adulthood, I can see a pattern of engaging, with almost complete innocence, in similar follies. I always knew the answers in grammar school, leading my classmates to describe me as a "walking encyclopedia." In high school I would, for example, turn in a history exam of a hundred questions after nine minutes. In graduate school I would give the professor a term paper in the third week of the quarter and pass my comprehensives after six months on the campus. As a staff member at the National Opinion Research Center it was bad enough in the judgment of many in the university community that I was a practicing Catholic priest. To make matters worse, I would publish articles in the New York Times Magazine, in which most faculty members would have given their eyeteeth to appear. As a novelist I've had ten books on the Times best-seller list.
Too much, as the Irish would say, altogether.
Adversary: So you're surprised that a lot of people don't like you and that you're a marginal man both in the University and the Archdiocese? You gotta be kidding!
In retrospect I ought not be surprised, but I am.
I am not apologizing for any of these activities or any combination thereof, but I do find myself wondering whatever possessed me to try them all. Moreover, whatever possessed me to think that there were nocosts in these disparate projects? As one of my colleagues at the National Opinion Research Center remarked to me, "You like to do things with flair, but you don't like the reactions your flair stirs up."
Though it escapes me why flair, such as it may be, upsets people.
Adversary: Sure, that's a dumb thing to say!
Priests claim that I have never had an unpublished thought. Now, after my novels, they claim that I never had an unpublished dirty thought. They also ask me why I didn't concentrate my energies on doing one thing "really well." They also piously tell me that it is a shame that I have discredited my sociology by writing fiction. It doesn't help much when I say that I think I do my four major tasks (weekend parish work being the fourth) better than most people.
That answer merely restates the problem, doesn't it? Maybe as the late University of Chicago sociologist Morris Janowitz (with whom I was reconciled before his death) remarked that I was nothing more than a loudmouth Irish priest. Write "smart-ass" before "loudmouth" if you want.
From the perspective of seventy years, how do I judge these madcap adventures?
To my surprise I think maybe the battle against "secularization" is being won at least within the sub-profession of the sociology of religion—with the help of such brilliant allies as Mike Hout, Rod Stark, Roger Finke, Larry Iannaccone, Philip Gorski, Wolfgang Jagozinski, and Jose Casanova. The rest of the sociological profession, however, is not persuaded. Nor are the Washington bureaucrats who fund research. What difference could religion possibly make in adolescent behavior regarding sex, drugs, and alcohol? Right? Perhaps the battle over Catholic schools is closer to being won than it has been in the last thirty years, though perhaps it would have been won anyhow. Most everyone admits that Paul VI's birth control encyclical was counterproductive.
Adversary: You win some and you lose some and sometimes by losing you win, right?
The rest? Failures, I'm afraid. The worst may be the pedophile mess. Most priests and most bishops simply don't get it. The latter now at least want to avoid shelling out tens of millions of dollars for the settlement of suits. Very few really seem to know—or care—about the suffering of the victims and their families. Whoever told me that their suffering was my problem?
Why did I bother with these other ventures? To repeat myself perhaps,I really don't know. Would I do them all again, even if I knew the outcomes? Oh, yes, as Blackie Ryan would say.
Adversary: God help you if you don't say that. And anyway, whoever appointed you to monitor and comment on the change from the Confident Church to the Confusing Church?
Patently no one. Why should I then be surprised when no one seems to listen?
Adversary: More of your shite. You know very well that a lot of people listen, that's why you are always in trouble.
A couple of years ago I analyzed data from two new studies of the American priesthood. In a report in the Jesuit magazine America, I observed that most priests were very happy in their work. You'd think priests would applaud the finding, wouldn't you? The next newsletter of the Association of Chicago Priests (which harasses me whenever it can) presented twelve articles by priests attacking me for the report. One even insisted that his personal experiences were as valid as my data.
For his personal life, sure. As an accurate reflection of the American priesthood, hardly.
Offended? No. I'm used to such reactions. Disappointed? Sure! But so what else is new?
Adversary: You're mistaken altogether if you think that the priests in Chicago are going to accept you. But weren't you knowing that when you first set a word on paper.
The question remains, however: Why have I engaged in all these behaviors which were losers from day one? Why do I say that I would do them all again? What's wrong with me? Some of my friends compare me with Don Quixote. Maybe I do tilt with windmills. But why?
The best answer I can come up with is that I might joust with windmills in an imitation (perhaps misguided) of my father's integrity, at least as I perceived it. It is too late to stop, of course. Not that I would even if it were not too late.
Adversary: Your old fella was quite a fella. You could do worse than imitate him.
What about the novels? Were those failures?
Oh, no, as Blackie would not say. They have been enormous successes, not because millions of people have read them but because they have strengthened the faith and hope and love of the tens of thousands of people who have written to me. They are the most priestly thing I have ever done.
So on with the story. You make sense of it, gentle reader, if you can.
Adversary: I'll be around, gentle reader, to make sure he doesn't get away with anything!
Copyright © 1999 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.
Posted March 19, 2014
No text was provided for this review.