Below I openly share a letter I have written to Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013). Note: I do not cite page numbers from the novel under consideration, as my copy is an e-book, with pagination dependent on the size and style of font, and hence not standardized. A search could easily discover the quotations or references in their original context.
Dear Fr. Greeley,
We have not met, and to date I have read completely only one of your novels, skimmed parts of one or two others, and wish to read some of your published prayer journals in coming months, to better understand what good you have to offer. Having just finished reading a novel you had published in 2004 called The Priestly Sins, I wanted to share a few of my opinions, and some of my analysis, of your book.
At the outset, I want to be clear that I much enjoyed reading The Priestly Sins; I read it closely. As a slow reader, when I read, I prefer to absorb what I am reading, thinking about the characters actions, and intellectual content. I do not read just “for pleasure,” but to gain some knowledge, insight, and enjoyment from what I read, whether “fictional or non-fictional.” Your novel combines fiction and non-fiction, as perhaps any writing by a human being does, whether knowingly or not. What I most appreciated from The Priestly Sins are your handling of the problem of corruption and deceit prevalent in the Catholic hierarchy, and at least two memorable characters whom you concocted in your story: Fr. Herman Hugh Hoffman, and Kathleen Quinlan Shannon. You have a gift for story telling.
For the most part, I would say that your novel is a fictionalized-yet-largely-truthful portrayal of clergy sexual abuse, and the way such cases have been mishandled by bishops and priests for many years. I would recommend The Priestly Sins to lay persons and clergy alike. Many of the Catholic clergy are indeed part of the system of wrong-doing, evil, deceit, and cover-up, as you present in your story. You chose to attach an “End Note” which reads, in part: “Like all humans, all of us priests are sinners….” The “worst sinners are not the predators possessed by their own uncontrollable urges, but other priests who know about what the predators have done and remain silent or even defend them out of mistaken loyalty. And still worse are the bishops and bureaucrats who hide the truth, then reassign these desperately ill men to other parishes, where they can continue to destroy the lives of children and young people….So in order of responsibility for the [clerical abuse] crisis—the abusers themselves (who are developmentally arrested men and not totally responsible), priests who persist in clerical culture denial, bishops who reassign abusers, and the Curial dicasteries [departments] who appoint such bishops.”
First, I would challenge your analysis of “uncontrollable urges.” These urges are not fully “uncontrollable,” or abusers would not scheme to find hidden places and times for their crimes, such as taking young boys or girls fishing or camping out without other adults present. Abusers are clever and wicked schemers, often quite bright and fiendishly scheming, driven not primarily by sexual urges, but by their lust to dominate others. The drive for power over others is what shows up not only in those who abuse children emotionally, physically, or sexually, but in the clergy (and others) who have spent years denying, excusing, and covering up such evil deeds.
More fundamentally, you neglect to analyze the lust for power at work in many Catholic clergy, and not only in child abusers. Why do you think so many priests and bishops have hidden the truth about child abuse in the Church? What motivates their silence? Is it not in large measure a desire to maintain their own positions of authority and power over others? Is not the cover-up of child abuse one symptom of the attempt of clergy to dominate the lives, minds, and actions of the people whom they purportedly “serve”? (“Service” can often be a euphemism for fleecing.”) In addition to the lust to dominate on the part of clergy (whether child sexual abusers or not), what about the desire for position and wealth? Your novel offered no reflection on priests being driven for “worldly success,” especially as measured by power, prestige, and wealth. Yet you yourself are a priest, and so am I, and we have surely seen much worldly ambition dressed up in clerical garb. And what about you, Fr. Greeley? You wrote an enormous number of books. If most of them are like The Priestly Sins, I would say that you may well have aimed more at sensationalism and sales (hence, money in your pockets) then at truth. The book, though enjoyable, shows signs of being hastily written and insufficiently edited. Did you not in some sizable measure write for profit, as distinct from writing for truth or for benefit your readers? No doubt you did have some genuine concern for truth and for benefiting your readers, but your penchant for sensationalism and the sheer quantity of churned-out books makes one wonder about the power of the profit motive in you. I propose this matter not to condemn you or your novels, but to encourage some genuine self-examination. It is never too late to change, Father.
To put the matter positively: If you had edited your book more closely, and polished its content and style, you may have been more effective in achieving what seems to be a primary aim in your writing The Priestly Sins: to expose issues of clerical abuse, and especially of cover-up and deceit, all-too-rampant in the Catholic hierarchy. The thrust of your argument is highly important, and I think that it deserves a more careful presentation. If I had your ability for story telling, I would express my thoughts and questions in story form, as you did; but I’m not an Irish-American, not so clever of tongue, but perhaps closer to what you would call “a bumpkin.”
Had you given more thought to the matter, or at least have allowed your thoughts greater weight in the story, you may not have overlooked, as you do, a major kind of clerical abuse that is practiced and permitted: Many members of the clergy today, I believe, abuse their parishioners by wanton spiritual neglect. You are effective in pointing out the authoritarianism in traditionalistic clergy (who are often too young to remember the Church they pretend to adore), dressed up in capes and birettas and similar costumes, and seeking to dominate the minds of the people through highly dogmatic views, quick to site the “rules of the Church.” At the same time, you do not seem sensitive to the larger issue: Many Catholic priests show little concern for the spiritual well-being of their parishioners. You seem oblivious to the fact that an over-emphasis on “social justice” issues is a cover for a lack of spiritual depth, and that genuine “concern for souls” is and ought to be of highest concern to clergy. You were eager to portray your young hero priest, Fr. Herman, as a most pleasant priest willing to tell stories about old monks and dragons, to sing with parishioners, tell stories, and to play the accordion—and of course indulging in beer and plenty of wurst—but you never display Fr. Herman speaking on the importance of eternal life, of seeking an ongoing union with the living God. In short, you are good at ridiculing traditionalism among elements of the clergy, but show a lack of awareness of the even vaster problems of secularism, of all-too-worldly priests who may be good at playing golf, drinking booze, or telling jokes and entertaining stories, but who really show little interest in helping ground their people in the reality of the living God.
As I see it, Fr. Greeley, you are yourself too immersed in the Church to realize to what extent clergy abuse and cover up are both symptoms of the spiritual wasteland that is the reality of churches today—reality of our “modern life.” In short, clerical abuse is far more pervasive than you present in your novel, and its roots are deeper than sex, deeper than the lust for power (as mentioned above): beneath the sicknesses of child abuse, cover-ups, lies, and the scrambling of priests to climb the ladder of success in the Church, is the stark reality of the neglect of God. How many priests focus the attention of their parishioners on God, and on deepening their own love-life with God? On the contrary, we all know clergy who would far more readily mock “the cloud of unknowing” than seek to enter into it. Although you present believable examples of clerical stupidity and anti-intellectualism (a major theme of yours), you do not uncover the enormous problem of spiritual emptiness. This spiritual wasteland is the real poverty and disease of the Church.
Spiritual neglect and emptiness are not only rampant in clergy, but in lay persons as well. When you note those who are to blame for the problem of child abuse in the church (quoted above), you do not mention the lay people. Why not? Is it not the case that many lay persons have been far too comfortable in churchianity, too complacent on their butts, far too satisfied with empty sacramentalism and ritual, and not engaged in seeking their own life in and with God? Have not our people often allowed priests to get away with poor preaching, with spiritual mediocrity, and even with serious wrong-doing? Have not lay people in the Church often turned a blind eye to clerical abuse—whether of children, or of the neglect of the souls of their people? Have not lay people tolerated or refused to admit that no few of their priests regularly steal from them, believing that they are “entitled” to steal church monies? Lay people have kept deadly silent in the face of priestly sins, wanting like little children to think of priests as “other Christs.” What dangerous nonsense. In short, lay persons as well as clergy share in the blame for the wasteland that we see in the churches today.
Finally, Fr. Greeley, I offer a few tentative observations on style and content in your novel.
First, I repeat: I recommend your novel to clergy and lay persons alike, because I think that it is worth reading. In your two main characters of Fr. Herman Hoffman and Kathleen Quinlan Shannon, you created impressive, colorful, memorable characters. (How can I forget Kathleen’s red hair, green eyes, quick wit, lively spirit?) Although not a writer myself, and surely not a story-teller, I still offer some remarks on your style and some content.
You seem far more at home, and better, at imitating Irish-American speech than that of German-Americans. You throw in a good number of Irish expressions and linguistic turns of phrase. They are enjoyable, even if rather obvious and possibly a little hackneyed. On the other hand, your writing does not indicate a deep familiarity with German farm people. Although you do lace the pages with “ja, ja,” “nein,” and “ganz gut,” and so on, I did not find in the speech of your German-American characters either some of their distinctive words in English, or the kind of syntax that one can hear from their lips. German farm people often have some unusual names for things, but I saw no evidence of your knowledge of these. Older German farm folks often speak American English with some influence from German syntax, and these you omitted. Although their diction is rarely as transparent as the Pennsylvania Dutch witticism, “Throw Mama down the stairs her shoes once,” as a priest among German farmers in Iowa and South Dakota I regularly detected a subtle influence of German in syntax, word choice, intonation, and almost always in pronunciation. (Anyone with an ear for languages readily hears German or Norwegian pronunciations in nearly every sentence.) You did not imitate the German influence well at all, and surely not as effectively as yourself used Irish-American patterns of speech and expressions. I have the clear impression that you are far more familiar with Irish and with Irish-American culture than with German farm culture of the Midwest. You can understand my meaning, eh?
Your appreciation for the talents, skills, love of learning of Volga-Germans is evident, and adds interest and pleasure to your novel. However, you may be beyond your realm of actual knowledge and understanding. Especially when you mention Bach (perhaps 20 times in the novel), your knowledge seems shallow. Very few families or communities could “sing a Bach cantata” at home or in church. Bach is highly demanding. At best, someone could play the instrumental parts on the piano, as one or more sang an aria; but I cannot imagine a family singing a chorus from a Bach cantata (a closing chorale, ja, but not an opening chorus). At some point, you mentioned “Bach at his most melancholy.” I invite you to find one composition by Bach that is highly melancholy, or even melancholy at all. Bach can express sadness and peace of soul very well, but he does not capture melancholy; for that, you can find plenty of examples in the agnostic composer Brahms, who suffered from what Nietzsche called “the melancholy of impotence.” Bach, who fathered twenty children, was neither impotent, nor melancholy.
In short, Fr. Greeley, you come across as an entertaining writer who knew how and what to write to rake in the bucks, but your writing is too facile, too unpolished. Again, I praise you for your story of clerical abuse and its cover-up, but in a later novel (if you return to earth, perhaps as Irene), you may imitate German craftsmanship and produce more polished writing. And display, if possible, a more profound insight to the way that clergy have abused their people through widespread spiritual neglect.
Finally, my friend, you tell the truth in claiming that Russian-German farmers often have a good intellectual and artistic culture. You need to broaden that out: rural Americans, especially those rooted in the land as farmers or as ranchers, are often more intellectually open and interested in learning than many urban dwellers. I have lived and worked among largely German-American farmers and ranchers for about twenty years, yet I never heard one call himself a “bumpkin,” or a “hick,” or a “hay seed.” You city dwellers call people of the land by such names. By having your main character, Fr. Herman, refer to himself repeatedly as a “bumpkin,” you reveal to your readers more about the attitude of city-dwellers towards rural people, than the way we see ourselves. You may see us as “bumpkins,” but we pity you as immersed in a noisy, congested, often meaningless urban life—dwellers in decaying, dying big cities. One day you may find a home with Irene living on the open Prairies.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB