Sed Contra: Poisonous Charm

Deal W. Hudson
January 1, 2000

Fr. Andrew Greeley has been quite busy lately. In the October 30 issue of America, he spent a full page lambasting the Crisis Catholic Voter Report, saying it “would probably earn a failing grade in most graduate seminars on survey research.” Then on the November 29 Early Show, he said to Bryant Gumbel it was “probably” a mortal sin for a Catholic to vote Republican since they “tend to be the party of the affluent, the self-righteous, the haters and racists.”

These kinds of expectorations are what I have come to expect from Fr. Greeley, who is so fearful that his grip on America’s Catholics is slowly slipping away. The Catholic Voter Report told a story he didn’t want to hear, certainly not with the numbers and analysis to back it up.

What makes Greeley’s present bitterness so interesting is the article he published in the November 20 America (thanks for the birthday present, Father!) entitled “Authority as Charm” Here Greeley exhorts “authority figures” in local parishes to “invite, charm and enchant the laity…instead of imposing rules and regulations:’ After all, Greeley points out, “Jesus was perhaps the most charming man who ever lived.” Talk about a low Christology!

For the reader who suspects I am making this up in the sense of playful parody, I should explain that Greeley is arguing that the beauty of the Church’s message is crucial to her evangelical mission. Absolutely! I am not sure that the place to learn the how-to of the Church’s beauty is from the management of the Four Seasons Hotel, as Fr. Greeley suggests. But then, I’ve never had the pleasure of staying there.

Although his wry attempts at charm fail to shine very brightly through the aforementioned Crisis critique, Fr. Greeley’s arsenal of winks and nods was on full display when asked by Gumbel if he recalled calling all Republicans “racists” in his recent memoir. “I said that, did I now?,” Greeley winked. Gumbel laughed, “You want me to show you in the book?” “No, I said it,” Greeley admitted. “I’m a Chicago Democrat, you know.” I suppose being a Chicago Democrat does justify describing 52 million people as racists and 16 million Catholic Republicans as “probably” in a state of mortal sin.

I happened to catch Greeley’s appearance on the Early Show and thought he extricated himself, with the help of Gumbel’s charm, from an embarrassing situation. Too bad Gumbel hadn’t seen Greeley’s encomium to “authority as charm”; he could have asked Greeley if he thought what he said about this nation’s Republicans was a luminous witness to the encompassing heart of the Catholic Church.

In his critique of the Catholic Voter Report, Greeley also complains that Steve Wagner of QEV Analytics did not make use of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center with which Greeley is associated. A few days after reading his column, I interviewed William Prendergast, the author of the now-definitive study of the Catholic vote in the United States, The Catholic Voter in American Politics: The Passing of the Democratic Monolith. Prendergast, who penned an as yet unpublished letter of protest over Greeley’s column to America, laughed that during his research he had sent several letters to Greeley asking for an audience but received no word back.

I myself wrote to Fr. Greeley suggesting a public debate on the Catholic vote, saying we could explore “common ground,” but his reply was a charmingly terse, “Thanks, but no thanks.” You’d think Father would feel spiritually obliged to meet with a man whom he had labeled as sectarian, exclusionary, racist, self-righteous, and in a state of mortal sin.

All from a Catholic priest (and don’t forget Chicago Democrat) who writes, “Beauty and the charm it exercises are not options.” Yet they do seem optional for Fr. Greeley when he hears bad news from people he refuses even to talk to. The trouble with Greeley’s charm is that it masks a type of authoritarianism far worse than the one that troubles his dreams.

Upon going to press, we received news of the passing of William B. Prendergast. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, Dr. Prendergast taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and various Catholic universities before becoming a researcher, writer, and consultant for the Republican National Committee, U.S. Department of Defense, NATO, and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Bill Prendergast was a wise and generous man who will be missed by all who knew him.


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