By Peter Steinfels
Note: This commentary was first published May 30, 2013 in the New York Times.
Andrew M. Greeley, the Roman Catholic priest and writer whose outpouring of sociological research, contemporary theology, sexually frank novels and newspaper columns challenged reigning assumptions about American Catholicism, was found dead on Thursday morning at his home in Chicago. He was 85.
His niece Laura Durkin confirmed the death, saying he had died overnight in his sleep. She said he had been in poor health and under 24-hour care since suffering severe head injuries in 2008 when his clothing caught on the door of a taxi as it pulled away and he was thrown to the pavement.
In a time when the word “maverick” is often used indiscriminately, Father Greeley — priest, scholar, preacher, social critic, storyteller and scold — was the real thing. One could identify a left and a right in American Catholicism, and then there was Father Greeley, occupying a zone all his own.
Exuberantly combative, he could be scathing about the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops; at one point he described them as “morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt.” If the church wanted “to salvage American Catholicism,” he wrote, it would be well advised to retire “a considerable number of mitered birdbrains.”
But he could be equally critical of secular intellectuals, whom he accused of being prejudiced against religion, and reform-minded Catholics, who he said had a weakness for political or cultural fads.
He wrote more than 120 books, many published by university presses, and countless articles about Catholic theology in both sociological journals and general-interest magazines, often incorporating the latest scholarship. He wrote op-ed pieces and syndicated columns in both religious and secular publications.
His greatest readership certainly stemmed from his scores of novels, many of them rife with Vatican intrigue, straying priests and explicit sex. At least 10 of them appeared on The New York Times’s best-seller list, including his first, “The Cardinal Sins” (1981), a tale of two Irish-American boys from Chicago’s West Side who enter the priesthood together, one of whom contrives to become the cardinal of Chicago, takes a mistress and fathers a child.
“Sometimes I suspect that my obituary in The New York Times,” Father Greeley once wrote, “will read, ‘Andrew Greeley, Priest; Wrote Steamy Novels.’ ”
Were they steamy? The question would probably not have even been raised if the author had not been a priest and if some of the steam had not been produced by fictional priests, in one case a cardinal, breaking their vows.
In fact, most of the priests in his novels were virtuous, wise and hard-working. The big sex scenes were generally reserved for married couples rediscovering the redemptive healing of passion after trials and estrangement.
“I suppose I have an Irish weakness for words gone wild,” Father Greeley once told The Times. “Besides, if you’re celibate, you have to do something.”
No Use for Elites
The books made him rich, though he gave his first million to charity and continued to give to various causes, including a donation, decades ago, to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, then a fledgling advocacy group.
Father Greeley had been an early and vehement advocate for victims of abusive priests at least since 1989, when he began writing articles in Chicago newspapers demanding that the church take action against pedophile priests. The public criticism angered the archdiocese and many fellow priests, but his outrage and proposals for reform were eventually recognized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, among others, as prescient.
Father Greeley was not shy about his politics, a New Deal liberalism grounded in an acute sense of family and neighborhood. (One of his recent books was titled with typical directness, “A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007.”) Nor did he hide his devotion to his hometown Chicago Bears, Bulls and Cubs.
He defended parochial schools, priestly celibacy, ethnic loyalties, Chicago politics and the vivid imagery of traditional Catholic piety. He deplored negative attitudes toward sexuality in the church and assailed church leaders for paying little heed to the views of the laity. He identified the controversy surrounding “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 papal encyclical reasserting the church’s condemnation of contraception, as a turning point for the church — a time when attendance at Mass dropped precipitously and Catholics began to question church authority on an ever-growing list of topics.
If there was anything tying Father Greeley’s torrent of printed words together, it was a respect for what he considered the practical wisdom and religious experience of ordinary believers and an exasperation with elites, whether popes, bishops, church reformers, political radicals, secular academics or literary critics.
It was a thread that ran though his sociological research documenting the gap between what Catholics thought about sex and marriage — their more relaxed stance concerning artificial birth control, for example — and the more proscriptive positions of the church.
His work with the distinguished sociologist Peter H. Rossi in the early 1960s revealed the strengths of parochial schools, then being viewed by secular educators as second-rate and authoritarian and by liberal Catholics as a questionable use of church resources. The failure of many public schools soon provoked a fresh appreciation for the Catholic educational tradition.
In a 1972 book, “Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion,” Father Greeley marshaled evidence against the widespread intellectual assumption that religion was a fading force in the world. Developments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the United States and the Middle East later altered that perception too.
Religion, he argued, “is the result of two incurable diseases from which humankind suffers — life, from which we die, and hope, which hints that there might be more meaning to life than a termination in death.”
Before religion became creed or catechism, he said, it was poetry: images and stories that defy death with glimpses of hope, and with moments of life-renewing experience that were shared and enacted in communal rituals.
“The theological voice wants doctrines, creeds and moral obligations,” Father Greeley wrote. “I reject none of these. I merely insist that experiences which renew hope are prior to and richer than propositional and ethical religion and provide the raw power for them.”
This same concern for the religious experience of ordinary Catholics tied his sociological work to the fiction that he churned out with such energy. It was mostly about middle-class Irish-Americans from the same upwardly mobile milieu as the author’s, with an occasional foray into science fiction and thrillers about Vatican skulduggery.
He was criticized for never having had an unpublished thought — or an unpublished fantasy, some added, faulting his fiction. Yet even his unpublished thoughts could cause trouble, as they did in 1981.
Materials from the 1970s found in Father Greeley’s papers by a young journalist working on an article about him led to accusations that Father Greeley had been plotting to write an exposé of his nemesis, Cardinal John Cody of Chicago, that would have shown the prelate guilty of financial misconduct and paved the way for his ouster.
As part of the scheme, according to these allegations, Father Greeley wanted to see Cardinal Cody replaced by Cardinal Bernardin, then archbishop of Cincinnati, who, the thinking went, on becoming a liberal member of the College of Cardinals would be inclined to vote for a reform-minded successor to Pope Paul VI upon the pope’s death.
In fact, Cardinal Cody’s conduct had raised alarms in the Vatican beginning in the mid-1970s and eventually led to a criminal investigation in Illinois, halted only by the cardinal’s death in 1982. And Archbishop Bernardin had long been considered the likely successor in Chicago. The archived materials, Father Greeley maintained, were speculative but reasonable scenarios developed for a book on the papal election that would follow Pope Paul’s death, which, as it happened, occurred in 1978.
“This business of conspiracy is ridiculous,” Father Greeley said, adding, “I didn’t do it, but I wish I had.”
Though the furor blew over, it momentarily appeared to create an obstacle to Archbishop Bernardin’s appointment to head the Chicago archdiocese, and it severely strained relations between the archbishop and Father Greeley.
To be sure, Father Greeley had openly stated that battling Cardinal Cody was one of the chief “crusades” of his life. He was regularly and unsparingly critical of his leadership. After the cardinal closed a number of inner-city schools, Father Greeley denounced him as a “madcap tyrant.”
Success and Setbacks
Andrew Moran Greeley was born on Feb. 5, 1928, in Oak Park, Ill., the son of Andrew T. Greeley, a businessman, and the former Grace McNichols. His grandparents were Irish immigrants. Besides his niece Ms. Durkin, he is survived by a sister, Mary Jule Durkin; four other nieces; two nephews; and 18 grandnieces and grandnephews.
From boyhood, Andrew Greeley wanted to become a priest. He attended Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago and then went to St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. He was ordained in 1952. For almost a decade he worked as assistant pastor of Christ the King Church in an affluent area of Chicago, writing his first books on young Catholics and church life in the suburbs.
In 1962 he earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, adding it to earlier degrees in theology, and joined the staff of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, serving as its senior study director until 1968. The group surveys American attitudes about religious, cultural and other issues.
He never quite got over a string of setbacks. One was his failure to be granted tenure at the University of Chicago in 1973, though he had taught there for a decade and been widely published. He attributed the rejection at least in part to prejudice against a Catholic priest; others said it had more to do with his cantankerous nature.
Another blow came when the American bishops repudiated a sociological study of Catholic priests that they had commissioned from him. A two-year project completed in 1972, the study found that American priests were widely dissatisfied with church leadership.
Then there was the resistance among liberal Catholics to his positive findings about Catholic schools. His research debunked the received view at the time that Catholics had low college attendance rates. He found instead that white Catholics earned bachelor’s degrees and pursued advanced degrees at higher rates than other whites, and he attributed their success to the quality of education in parochial schools, a controversial assertion in a time of public-school ascendancy.
Finally came the unwillingness first of Cardinal Cody and then Cardinal Bernardin to give him a parish of his own and appoint him its pastor.
Father Greeley later felt that he had readers everywhere and allies nowhere. Sensitive to accusations that he was getting rich from peddling stories of Catholic failings in his novels, he gave large sums to charity, notably to aid Chicago Catholic schools that served minority populations and to endow a chair in Roman Catholic studies at the University of Chicago, a double-edged gesture to the university that had spurned him.
A Parish of Readers
The pugnacious style, sweeping generalizations and ad hominem attacks often found in his writing made him an alienating figure. “Andy Greeley shoots from the hip at practically everyone with whom he has some grievances,” Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, a leading advocate of improving relations between Judaism and the Catholic Church, complained to The Times in 1976.
Father’s Greeley’s chip-on-the-shoulder attitude may have stemmed from a belief that he had been misunderstood and marginalized. Indeed, a second volume of memoirs, “Furthermore!,” published in 1999, suggests a man who even while striving for serenity could never quite shed a sense of being embattled and having scores to settle.
This was particularly true when his fiction received poor reviews. He would never forget a bad one and would continue to denounce the offending reviewer for decades.
It was easy for Father Greeley to dismiss critics of his novels as prudes, because some of them were. Other critics, however, found the sex not prurient but preposterous. Some feminists complained that it was too often brutal and his treatment of women condescending. The criticism stung Father Greeley, whose advocacy of women’s advancement in the church had earned him feminist defenders as well.
Father Greeley knew well that he was writing genre novels, but he, like many of his readers, saw them as much more. They were theological parables and, for Father Greeley, something approaching sacramental ministrations. If he did not have a parish, he had a mailbox — and later an e-mail address. The faithful gathered there in huge numbers, thanking him for new insights into God and their church, adding their own tales of return and reconciliation.
For critics, the novels were merely publishing successes or even wasteful diversions from sociological scholarship. For Father Greeley, they were “the most priestly thing I have ever done.”
And priesthood was what, in Father Greeley’s eyes, held his life together.
“I always wanted to be a priest,” he once wrote. “My core identity is priest. I will always be a priest.”
Image: Jonathan Kirn.