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Priest was a ‘permanent outsider’ inside the church

  • Washington Post
  • Published Thursday, May 30, 2013, at 11:08 p.m.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, an iconoclastic priest and sociologist who irked the Catholic hierarchy by writing best-selling novels that featured churchly misdeeds and graphic sex, died May 29 at his home in Chicago. He was 85.

His publicist, June Rosner, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Father Greeley had reportedly suffered a traumatic brain injury and skull fracture in 2008 after his jacket was caught in the door of a taxicab.

Ordained in 1954, Father Greeley served for a decade as a parish priest in Chicago before being assigned by the church to work full time as a writer, researcher and teacher.

As the author of more than 100 nonfiction works and 50 novels, as well as a syndicated newspaper column, the outspoken priest became a self-described “permanent outsider” in the church he served throughout his life.

As a sociologist beginning in the late 1950s, he documented that rank-and-file Catholics were ignoring the church’s ban on birth control.

For the next half-century, his advocacy of more liberal church policies on divorce, the ordination of women and married men and the election of local bishops by priests and laity put him at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, whom he labeled “mitered pinheads.”

At the same time, Father Greeley’s opposition to abortion and his support of priestly celibacy offended many liberal church reformers.

He outraged defenders of conventional Catholic doctrine with his outspoken belief that sex is a sacrament and an expression of God’s love rather than a sin, when it is not a means of procreation.

In his 1986 memoir, “Confessions of a Parish Priest,” Father Greeley wrote: “I suspect Catholic historians of the future will describe the Church’s obsession with sex and particularly with an attempt to deny the pleasures of sex to married men and women as a chapter in our history comparable to the Inquisition and the Crusades.”

In his book “Sexual Intimacy” (1973), Father Greeley endorsed naughty marital sex play. In a chapter titled “How to Be Sexy,” he suggested that a wife greet her husband “wearing only panties and a martini pitcher — or maybe only the martini pitcher.”

Father Greeley began writing about the sexual abuse of minors in the mid-1980s and repeatedly castigated bishops for failing to stop abuse by the clergy and covering up for pedophile priests. Fellow priests told him the rumors were untrue and, even if they were, he shouldn’t be airing dirty laundry.

He kept writing about the burgeoning scandal for the next two decades, both in his long-running syndicated newspaper column and in such books as “The Priestly Sins” (2004), a novel that tells the story of a young cleric whose career is nearly destroyed when he witnesses and reports the sexual abuse of a boy by a fellow priest.

Father Greeley’s other novels included “The Cardinal Sins” (1981) and “Thy Brother’s Wife” (1982). Literary reviewers were rarely kind to the books, which also drew criticism from fellow priests for their unflattering depictions of the church.

Father Greeley said his books attracted a large following among lay people and that he received letters by the thousands from readers saying that his novels had brought them back to the church. He considered his novels his most important ministry.

Andrew Moran Greeley was born Feb. 5, 1928, in Oak Park, Ill., and decided to become a priest as a second-grader on Chicago’s West Side. He was 19 when his father died, and his mother went to work so he could stay in seminary.

At age 22, while a student at Chicago’s St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, he had an epiphany. He had been associated with other young Irish Catholic men at the University of Chicago and had been impressed by their views of how the church should be more resolute in meeting its obligations to the poor.

“It was my turning point,” he told the New York Times. “I realized that the Catholic world in which I was going to be a priest in a few years was to be an astonishingly different world from the world I’d grown up in, and I thought I ought to prepare myself for it, because they certainly weren’t preparing me for it in the seminary.”

He graduated from seminary in 1950 and was ordained four years later.

When Father Greeley became a parish priest in 1954, it was not among the working poor as he envisioned while a young seminarian, but at Christ the King in southwest Chicago, a church whose parishioners were primarily college-educated and affluent. He called them “the new breed.”

They believed, he wrote in America magazine, that “all issues, minor or major, must be brought into the open and discussed. . . . They are appalled when their honesty is taken as disrespect and their desire to discuss is understood as disobedience.”

Father Greeley’s experiences at Christ the King prompted his first book, “The Church and the Suburbs” (1959), about how increased affluence affects religious belief.

Later, after finding success as a novelist, Father Greeley offered to created a foundation to help inner-city students through a $1 million grant to the Chicago Archdiocese. The archdiocese turned him down but never explained why.

Father Greeley established his own foundation to distribute money to Catholic schools in Chicago with high minority enrollments.

He received a doctoral degree in sociology in 1962 from the University of Chicago, where he taught for the next decade and relied on the data-compiling capabilities of the university-affiliated National Opinion Research Center.

In 1973, the university denied him tenure, even though he had published 40 books on a variety of topics. He said to the New York Times in 1984 that he was told he wrote too much for the university to consider him a serious scholar. He also said he thought the sociology department had trouble with his “blurred identity” as sociologist, priest and author.

In 1978, the University of Arizona made Father Greeley a tenured professor of sociology. He continued publishing as a sociologist and, at age 50, began writing what became known as his “stories.”

He said he really didn’t know how to write fiction, so he learned to hypnotize himself, which, as he told the New York Times, “put me in touch with the imagery of my past. It made the early years of my life far more vivid. It almost compelled me to want to get everything down on paper. It was now or never, and I plunged.”

His first two novels sold poorly but his third novel, “The Cardinal Sins,” sold more than 3 million copies. His novels rarely received glowing reviews — a Chicago Sun Times reviewer once wrote that “The Cardinal Sins” “is enough to give trash a bad name” — but they continued to sell and to attract a faithful following.

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