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The Rev Fr Andrew Greeley, the outspoken best-selling novelist and sociologist, died recently. This obituary from The New York Times.


The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley SJ 1928-2013

- by Peter Steinfels

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, died recently at home in Chicago. He was 85.

His niece Laura Durkin confirmed the death, saying he had died 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.’

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 paedophile 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 neighbourhood. (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…’

- Daniel E. Slotnik and Richard Severo contributed reporting.

Full obituary: The New York Times:

Obituary on NCR Online:

Obituary in America magazine:

Obituary on The Huffington Post:

PBS link

Image of Fr Andrew M. Greeley: Google Images