Challenging the Faith

Father Andrew Greeley dishes out morality, sex scandals and ill-fated love in an uneven yet compelling read

Andrew Greeley--priest, sociologist, prolific storyteller and part-time Tucsonan--has long been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. Through books often noted more for steamy sex scenes than for literary value, he has disclosed clerical ineptitude wherever he has found it, becoming a persona non grata in many Catholic circles. Greeley has been denied a parish, and once, when he offered to donate a million dollars in royalties to a Catholic charity, he was refused.

Greeley hasn't fared much better with book reviewers. His writing has been described as wooden, his characters thin, and his work is frequently dismissed as pulp fiction.

The Priestly Sins, a recently released novel, is vintage Greeley. Set in a Midwestern archdiocese ensnared in a metastasizing pedophilia scandal, it features two-dimensional villains and a protagonist of somewhat greater depth, a smattering of sex scenes (in this case, the word is "insipid," not "steamy"), predictable plot lines, anemic narrative and unnatural dialogue. However, in spite of its many weaknesses, it can be, at times, compelling.

The book revolves around Herman Hoffman, a wisecracking straight arrow, who from an early age felt destined to be a priest. Within weeks after being assigned a parish, he witnesses the brutal rape of a young boy by a priest, subtly nicknamed "Lucifer" by his fellow seminarians. Rescuing the boy, Herman reports the assault to the archdiocese. Instead of dealing with the rapist priest, however, the archdiocese contends that Herman fabricated the incident and packs him off to a church-controlled mental health facility. They're just buying time, though.

Herman's travails afford Greeley the chance to once again proclaim his vision of a spiritually bankrupt institution, and we are introduced to a marginally-believable cast of caricatures: pompous, self-absorbed buffoons who are absurdly rude and incredibly stupid. Even church secretaries could work part-time as Satan's gatekeepers in this ecclesiastical freak show.

Not all Catholics get a bad rap. The laity is depicted as the hardworking heart of the church, sustaining the faith in spite of the fools in power. Some clerics are wise and concerned about the mess the church is in, but no one, except Herman, does anything about it.

Herman is more than up to the task, and this simplistic morality tale yields few surprises. We know that Herman, who toyed with his teachers and roughed up campus thugs in his pre-seminary days, will outwit bumbling prelates at every turn. We also know that the evil priest will come to a bad end (he dies in an AIDS hospice) and that Herman will somehow figure in his redemption (he hears Lucifer's last confession). We know, too, that the church will get its come-uppance (like so many of its real-life counterparts, it gets its ass sued off). But in spite of this paucity of suspense, I wanted to read on.

What sustained my interest was Herman's relationship with Kathleen, the wild but staunchly Catholic girl he has loved since childhood. They made love for the first time on high school graduation night, and Herman felt the stars dance around him. He took that to mean that God wanted him to give up Kathleen for Him, and I felt like shaking the kid. The only unholy thing about their passion is bad writing.

Laden with enough deep-seated guilt for a lifetime of hair shirts, the two continue their amorous endeavors until sophomore year, when Herman makes his decision to become a priest final. Kathleen is devastated, and, quite frankly, I didn't feel much better. I'm a sucker for a love story, especially a tragic one.

It's difficult to not get attached to characters experiencing such thwarted love, and Greeley manages to convey the heartache that often results when desire clashes with beliefs.

We know, of course, that stalwart Herman will never renege on his priestly commitments, but I couldn't help but hope. In the end, Herman and Kathleen become friends again (her husband is relieved to know that Herman is committed to the priesthood). They both put up a good front, but they're still mad for each other, and we know they always will be.

There's not much insight here. Clerical pedophilia is attributed to emotional immaturity, not priestly celibacy, a plausible but unexplicated thesis. Celibacy, the book's more basic issue, is only superficially examined, and we get a justification that is just too pat: married life would hinder priests from properly caring for their flocks and fully experiencing the joy this brings.

Of course, this isn't philosophical material. It's a soap opera in book form, perfect poolside reading for anyone into topical sex scandals, tormented love stories and love play that turns into confectionary blizzards.

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