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Baltimore Catechism

Greeley’s novels are vibrant discourses on human frailty, tragedy, compassion and grace. His book of meditations (The Great Mysteries: Experiencing Catholic Faith from the Inside Out) reveals their latent structure: 

Baltimore catechism

Nicean Creed
Ten Commandments

His catechism (meditations)

  • not rote learning
  • but from the inside out
    • i.e.  instead of: who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? To know, love and serve him in this world and to be happy with him in the next,  
    • he reframes the questions: what is the meaning of life? Beginning with our dealing with the limitation of death, countered by the message of hope in JC, and how to develop a meaningful life from that premise.
  • he doesn’t do the entire catechism, but chooses central elements, expounds them and then
  • closes with a series of questions for discussion or self-reflection that go beyond the expositions to each chapter, tying them into the lived world

      Then he applies these. In his first major success with novel writing “Cardinal Vices,” a semi-autobiographical novel (he studied and worked in all the places his protagonist does), he explicitly states which of the characters represents a particular weakness (“disorderly propensities in our personality that lead us to sinful behavior”) and also that these exist on a continuum with sound and healthy human proclivities, which have gone askew:

  • pride                              –            self-respect
  • covetousness               –            self-preservation
  • lust                                 –            communism
  • anger                              –            personal freedom 
  • gluttony                          –            self-expression
  • envy                                –            celebration
  • sloth                                –            relaxation 

“The cardinal sins result not from fundamental evil but from fundamental goodness running out of control, from human love that is confused and frightened and not trusting enough of love.”

From this starting point he develops a series of novels, in which he plays these out for us. His other premise is that religious experiences (flashes of it, at least) exist before organized religion and that narratives open us to spiritual development.

In what would seem to be a parallel book, Cardinal Virtues, written 10 years later, he has developed sufficiently as a novelist, that the structure is more subtle. He still lists the virtues he will be considering: justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence, but does not assign them to particular characters or rather melds them in his protagonist, who is seriously challenged by the gifts of a younger and more energetic colleague. The story is deeper, richer; the characters are more complex, which is true of all of his later work. We care about these people and about the challenges they face and the compromises they make. 

While his discontent with the shortcomings of the Second Vatican Council runs through his entire oeuvre, it often takes a backseat. His initial rage at the failure of Paul VI to address the needs of the laity with regards to birth control and of the clergy with regards to mandatory celibacy is never so prominent as in the initial presentation:

  • one of his protagonists is crushed by her fecundity (four kids in five years) and sees no relief from the Church
  • The protagonist surmises that what will happen is that neither the laity nor the clergy will enforce the bann, because it is not viable, so it is never so clearly a focus; there are work-arounds.
  • Not addressing issues of celibacy leads not only to an exodus of priests and nuns from the ministry; despite the admission of laity to some more active participation in the services, it leads to a collapse of the institutions. Not only are there not enough (competent) priests, but parochial schools are not sustainable without the dedication of the nuns. Supporting an individual living in an institutional setting costs a LOT LESS than supporting folks who may be dedicated, but who have families to support. And the cost for inner city education and the ladder it provides out of poverty and misery is prohibitive and this vital function of the Church collapses. Certainly, at the same time, public education was improving, but it did not really replace the role the Church had been playing.
  • On the other hand, the relaxation of sexual mores is repeatedly and consistently addressed, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in the Noula Anne McGrail novels, where her future husband holds back, so that she can develop her own Self, before committing to a role as wife and mother. The tension is palpable (it extends over several volumes) and the results are splendid: a vibrantly strong woman who has come into her full potentials.
  • Strong women are always a feature in his novels (see: all About Women, for example), but so is the loneliness of the priesthood. The need for a trusted female counterpart is resolved in various ways by various protagonists:
    • initially it is encountered as an obsession, as in Patric Donahue in Cardinal Sins
      but there are many other positive iterations of this problem
    • Cardinal Sean Cronin’s widowed sister-in-law in Thy Brother’s Wife and the Blackie Ryan series
    • or the female spiritual advisors in both Capital Sins and Capital Virtues

Other key problems in the Catholic Church, such as sexual abuse by priests ( in: The Priestly Sins ) and corruption in the hierarchy (always a background problem) and re-emergence of Inquisition-like organisations are dealt with at various points in the oeuvre. 

On another level, he has published sociological studies (dealt with elsewhere) and also one inter-faith discourse (a dialogue with a rabbi). 

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