“We have lost him,” Father Andrew Greeley told my mom, when she told him where I was headed to college.
Now, in a quite different — and truer — way, I can say the same thing about him: We have lost him.
Father Andrew Greeley, priest, novelist and sociologist (or “Priest, Author, Scold,” as The New York Times headlined his obituary), died in his bed May 29 at age 85.
When I first heard what he said, I didn’t understand it.
I had decided to attend an orthodox Catholic university program — was that so bad? And why “we”?
We barely knew Father Greeley. He preached at our Tucson, Ariz., parish occasionally when he was teaching sociology at the University of Arizona — on break from his beloved Chicago.
I met Father Greeley when he was becoming famous and I was entering adolescence. His great fame had come in the wake of the novel The Cardinal Sins, one of the first novels of the 66 works of fiction he would publish in 24 years. It was a story about two Irish friends who grow up to be priests, one an earnest dissenter and the other an ideologically safe cardinal — but corrupt, with a mistress.
Many families — 20 million copies were in print by the end of the 1980s — had that paperback, featuring the naked back (and backside) of a woman draped in cardinal red, and this book blurb: “Startlingly honest. Thirty years ago, a priest would have been excommunicated for writing such a book. Three hundred years ago, he would have been burned at the stake.” — Nelson DeMille
Friends of ours knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, so they invited our family to their house to meet him.
While the adults talked in the kitchen, their son showed me a secret: Father Greeley had italicized the “dirty” parts of the novel. That made them easy for adolescent boys to find and giggle over.
I have since deepened my understanding of Greeley’s work.
At the college he worried would steal my soul away, I learned that Father Andrew Greeley was an excellent sociologist whose assessment of Catholic imagination has been praised by Father Richard John Neuhaus and others. I also learned that he was a leading dissenter who did much damage to the Church’s project of speaking moral clarity in a morally murky age.
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese called Father Greeley “the greatest Catholic sociologist of the 20th century.” His work from the 1960s on gave reasoned and researched answers to anti-Catholic myths, while insisting that religion was central to human identity.
In 1972, he published Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion. In 1973, he was denied tenure (at first) at the University of Chicago, for which he blamed a bias against the kinds of conclusions that book made.
Father Greeley often took unexpectedly contrarian views that surprised his ideological allies, writing “In Defense of a Cardinal Who’s Trying” about Cardinal Francis George in Chicago (his ordinary) and writing “Critics Are Treating Pope Unfairly” about Benedict XVI.
He even once defended conservative evangelical Protestants.
In the waning years of the George W. Bush administration, which he hated, Father Greeley published a book of sociological research called The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe. “In our experience, most of those who stereotype the conservative Christians do not know any of them,” he wrote in 2006, with co-author Michael Hout.
Nonetheless, columnist Greeley in 2008 seems guilty of what sociologist Greeley decried in 2006. One Greeley column in the Chicago Sun-Times was titled “Next Chapter for Radical Right: Burn Books.”
But, as Father Greeley himself predicted, he may be destined to be remembered not as the scholar or political commentator, but as the racy priest.
Priesthood and Sexuality
“I’m a priest, pure and simple,” Father Greeley told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “The other things I do — sociological research, my newspaper columns, the novels I write — are just my way of being a priest. I decided I wanted to be one when I was a kid growing up on the West Side. I’ve never wavered or wanted to be anything but.”
After being denied a parish for most of his life, Greeley ironically titled his 1986 memoirs Confessions of a Parish Priest. His niece Laura Durkin told the Tribune after he died, “His parish was his readers. He wasn’t confined to only preaching in a parish church.”
He had a great hope in his era’s understanding of the priesthood and the new sexual openness he saw in the 1960s and 1970s.
In his 1970 book New Horizons for the Priesthood, he wrote hopefully of the priesthood: “What an astonishing irony it would be if maybe, just maybe, future generations look back on the priesthood of the 1960s and 1970s and … [see] ‘their finest hour.’”
He writes about sexuality in his 1982 Bottom Line Catechism for Contemporary Catholics. Released in the wake of The Cardinal Sins, the book attempts to theologically ground the novel’s approach, shrugging off questions about contraception, raising doubts about the personhood of embryos and gently undermining the idea that sex’s place is in marriage.
But looked at from the point of view of 2013, we now know that Father Greeley was disastrously wrong on the priesthood and dangerously naive on sex.
The 1960s and 1970s are clearly not the priesthood’s finest hour. The U.S. bishops’ John Jay Report found that nearly 2 out of 3 incidents of sexual abuse by priests occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. “The count of incidents per year increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low,” said the report.
And opening the floodgates of sexuality has deeply harmed the Church and the world. Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant — 20 million new cases a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. We kill 1.6 million children a year by abortion. Today boys aren’t leafing through novels to find racy passages — about nine out of every 10 children 8-16 years old have viewed pornography online.
Looking back in my 40s, I find it a lot harder to giggle at Father Andrew Greeley’s fictional sex scenes.
But I also understand better what he meant by, “We have lost him.”
The “lost” meant that Greeley possessed a liberal Catholic’s ideological absolutism. Father Greeley was part of a movement that sought to reshape the Church in a new, “enlightened” image. The “we” meant that Father Greeley possessed a passionate Irishman’s sentimentality and sense of belonging. I was one of his parishioners, after all. And I would not be joining his movement. I wanted the Church to reshape and enlighten me.
I will remember him as a bright presence who helped shape the parish church of my youth and the universal Church of my adulthood, for better and worse. I pray that the Church can take the best of what he had to offer — a sharp mind, a rich imagination and an irrepressible humor.
Ultimately, Father Greeley was wrong: I wasn’t lost by discovering the truths of the Catholic faith. I was found.
And I pray that I may find him one day in heaven.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas.