Seven years ago when I became a Catholic, I soon wearied of hearing cradle Catholics ask, "Why in the hell would an intelligent Episcopal woman do a thing like that?" The church is living in the past, my friends told me. Women get no respect. A punitive conservatism is on the rise.

I could have used Andrew Greeley's latest book, "The Catholic Imagination," back then. Not that Greeley would disagree with my friends' misgivings. Yet he cheerfully admits that he is, as one of his critics has charged, "biased in favor of Catholicism." After years of pointing out the church's sins, Greeley has finally published his Apologia.

"Catholics live in an enchanted world," Greeley writes. They are "haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace." It is a world of churches stuffed with saints and candles, each with a story to tell; of festivals, lusty lovers, and compassionate mother love; of community bonds and social concern--a world where there is more than enough grace to go around. It is a world Greeley clearly loves with all his heart.

Had he been content with providing a paean to the religious imagination of Catholic artists, Greeley's book would be an interesting corrective to the idea that religion puts a straitjacket on creativity. But Greeley, a professor of sociology as well as a priest and novelist, marshals a wealth of survey data to argue that the majority of contemporary Catholics share in the Catholic enchantment--and in so doing, are quite different from most of their Protestant neighbors.

Here are some of Greeley's surprising but quantified conclusions: Catholics, particularly those who are regular churchgoers, are more inclined than Protestants to like the opera, classical music, and fine arts exhibitions. Catholics have sex more often, more creatively, and for more years, especially if they are married to other Catholics. Catholics are more communitarian than Protestants: they place higher value on social networks and keep closer ties to family members. Catholics are more likely "to feel that the world is good rather than evil," "to think that a good person must be involved in the problems of the world," and "to see God present in His creation."

The arts, as Greeley points out, show this Catholic imagination writ large. The Catholic sense of sacred space, for example, has produced magnificent architecture, from the "gray gothic pile of the Dom" in Cologne, Germany, to Tucson's San Xavier, the "White Dove of the Desert." Catholic appreciation for sacred desire is seen in erotic, mystical poetry (St. John of the Cross), sculpture (Bernini's St. Teresa), and painting (Carlo Cignani, Pieter Lastman, Renaissance Madonnas). Catholic community values undergird the work of Catholic-born filmmakers (Martin Scorsese) and novelists (James T. Farrell). Catholic belief in grace and salvation becomes a theme in music (Mozart, Verdi, Gounod) and fiction (Graham Greene, James Joyce, Georges Bernanos, David Lodge).

I once asked a writer friend what prompted his own journey to Rome. "I felt at home with the vision of Catholic novelists," he told me. Greeley names this vision grace. "Catholic artists and writers tend to hunger for the salvation of their characters," he observes, because "they find themselves in a grace-filled world, a world in which grace surges all around. A God who discloses Herself so recklessly, so prodigally, must necessarily be a God who wants salvation for all her children."

And for Catholics, Mary too brings grace as representative of "the Mother Love of God, the generous and loving, life-giving power of God, the tenderness of God, the fertility of God, the nurturing of God." How, given the obvious problems and abuses in the Catholic church, do Catholics come to such a grace-filled view of the world? Not through the "high tradition"--the "cognitive, propositional, didactic" teachings of theologians and the magisterium that Greeley calls "prosaic Catholicism." Enchantment comes rather through the "imaginative, experiential, narrative" teaching Catholics imbibe from birth from "parents, family, neighbors, and friends"--in Greeley's words, "poetic Catholicism." Rome's pontifications, in other words, are overwhelmed by Grandmother's stories.

A middle-aged Episcopal woman turned Catholic obviously faces certain frustrations. But, as Greeley points out, "there is more to the Catholic heritage than sex and authority." Greeley has done a favor for the old and jaded as well as for newly minted enthusiasts by this book-length assertion that ordinary Catholics "tend to picture God, creation, the world, society, and themselves the way their great artists do-as drenched with grace, that is to say, with God's passionately forgiving love."

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