What Explains Andy Greeley?: Taking the measure of a many-sided man
Father Andrew M. Greeley’s prolific career halted in Chicago on a chilly November day in 2008. His overcoat snagged as he stepped out of a taxi, throwing him down to a fractured skull. Vibrant at 80, Greeley underwent brain surgery. He returned to his apartment high above Chicago in the John Hancock building, and in-care nursing.
For a mind so alive, the last four-and-half years of silence must have been like purgatory. He died on May 30 at age 85.
I was one in the constellation of Andy’s far-flung friends. We shared letters, emails, phone calls, some delightful meals when I visited Chicago and once at my home in New Orleans. We dedicated books to each other. After the injury, as I kept in touch with people clsoe to him, I felt a hollow sadness. I missed his optimism, wit and eye for hubris.
The obituaries called him a “maverick,” echoed the riff that he never had an unpublished thought and praised his output. We have yet to take his measure as a writer, to appreciate the tension in his melding roles as priest, social scientist, novelist, critic, memoirist and journalist. He delivered his story, the Catholic Church since Vatican II, with an industrial-strength output of 138 books, including 66 novels (the data courtesy of John Allen in National Catholic Reporter, who actually counted the titles.)
Fiction brought Greeley celebrity, wealth and a philanthropic role of which we know too little. His nonfiction was well regarded, particularly The Catholic Myth and Confessions of a Parish Priest. The novels drew their share of praise as genre fiction. In life, Andy was both detective and critic of the hierarchy, more radical than his fictional alter ego Bishop Blackie Ryan who solves murder cases. The priest who considered sexual love a sacrament was driven to expose crimes of the church, as when he called Cardinal John Cody “a madcap tyrant” and helped Chicago Sun-Times reporters as they dug into Cody’s feudal handling of archdiocesan finances; the news series sparked a federal criminal investigation that cornered the cardinal just as he died in 1982.
A Social Scientist
Andrew Greeley was the preeminent sociologist of the church, a pioneer in using survey data from random probability samples to explain Catholic attitudes. Being a social scientist gave him cover during the investigations of Hans Küng and Charles Curran, among other theologians, for challenging the magisterium on infallibility or birth control. Greeley hammered church officialdom, pointing out why lay people recoiled from the 1968 birth control encyclical, or gave less money on Sundays than Protestants.
Andy could be a fierce critic, as when he called bishops “mitred birdbrains.” Were it not for his injury, I’m sure he would have praised Nuns on the Bus and blasted the USCCB effort to discredit Obamacare.
The pariah status of never making pastor bothered him; but he relished his independence. Greeley said things bishops knew they had to hear, even if they resented his blunt style: he said what many of them felt on certain issues, but kept silence for fear of retaliation by Rome.
And he had his jagged blues. “I feel very fragile this morning, discouraged, beaten, pushed to the end of my rope,” he noted on June 1, 1996. “All the hard work of my life is a waste. Life is tragic loss....I wish I could go back to bed and sleep all day to avoid it” (I Hope You’re Listening, God: A Prayer Journal, 1997).
But the workaholic who produced several books a year, teaching alternate semesters at University of Chicago and University of Arizona in Tucson, with summers at his beloved house in Grand Beach, Michigan, could not sleep off the doldrums. His waking life was too urgent.
I Hope You’re Listening, God was one of the soft cover diaries sent to his Christmas mailing list. I read mine ever curious about how he prayed: “Reading St. Augustine this morning. He thinks the world is evil and You are the only good. I believe the world is good, though often flawed, and that it is a sacrament of You.”
Peter Steinfels’s long obituary in the Times gave Greeley a pass on the “steamy” novels: “The big sex scenes were generally reserved for married couples rediscovering the redemptive healing of passion after trials and estrangement.”
Andy considered sex a sacrament. “I’m not kidding,” he said in a 1988 interview book. “Marriage is a great sacrament. Human passion is the reflection of divine passion...Sacrament, symbol, mysterion—they all mean the same thing. They all mean ‘sign.’ A sacrament is a sign of grace. In the most elementary sense of the word, a sacrament could be called a metaphor. It’s a reality that points to a reality beyond itself...namely, divine passion.”
“Sex is sex,” he continued. “It’s romantic sex, it’s the sexuality that’s structured into our being.... [I]t can be potentially demonic. It can be terribly destructive. But when one talks about the sacramental aspect of any reality, one doesn’t talk about its destructiveness.”
‘A Loudmouthed Priest’
Although he had a publicist to handle the many media requests, Greeley did not achieve the literary stature of Garry Wills, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg,or James Carroll who earned a National Book Award in nonfiction for An American Requiem—among other Catholic writers worth naming. Greeley wore his Catholicism so totally as to marginalize himself in some quarters.The self-styled “loudmouthed Irish priest” (with a long memory for those who gave him bad reviews) was no darling of The New York Review of Books, The Nation or The New Republic. “Hard work and celibacy,” his explanation for his success, ill fit a liberal intelligentsia’s view of religion as history, or anachronism.
“You got the sense that he was born with his fists up and his loyalties fully formed,” E. J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post. “He was ready to do battle at the first signs of disrespect toward those he cared about.”
Greeley cared about the ethnic Catholic experience, the loyalties and resilience of people, notably the Irish, who carried the church in their rise from rough immigrant roots to post-war prosperity. His string of bestsellers began with The Cardinal’s Sins (1981), which prefigured the abuse crisis in its morally compromised prelate, albeit with a woman.
The essayist searched for clues of the sacred in culture. In “Magical Realism and the Problem of Evil,” Greeley notes that Gabriel García-Marquéz
wrote that the reason some people found it hard to understand the marvelous in his fiction is that they think the dead are far away from us. In fact, he said, they are very close to us, a sensibility that the Celts share....Do I really agree with my Celtic ancestors (pagan and Christian) that the boundaries between the Land of Promise in the West and the world of daily life are thin and permeable, especially at times when the seasons edge into another? Do I really think that the ‘supernatural’ lurks all around us? Do I really believe that the "magical" can be "realistic"?
Sure, to all questions.
Thus did he sing praises of Bruce Springsteen in America for rock songs “of religious realities—sin, temptation, forgiveness, life, death, hope—in images that come (implicitly perhaps) from his Catholic childhood, images that appeal to the whole person.”
Greeley credited David Tracy’s work in treating the Catholic imagination as a symbolic interior, a thought field of sacred imagery that we carry in our lives.“Though he modestly disclaimed the title of theologian, in fact, he was one of the major theological interpreters of our day," Tracy told the Chicago Tribune at his funeral.
Jimmy Breslin or C. S. Lewis?
His novels, articles and prayer journals offer clues on the sleuth driven to make the church face justice. Was he more like Sherlock Holmes, Jimmy Breslin or C.S. Lewis? What explains Andy Greeley? His collected letters, whenever they come, will yield some answers. Greeley’s freight train life in motion with the church he loved, fought and tried to change would make a great miniseries.
“The church is sitting on a time bomb to which the leadership tries to pay no attention,” he wrote in a 1986 Sun-Times op-ed. “Who is left to be shocked after pederast priests become the subject for feature articles in the national media?”
In 1989, I did a long piece in The Chicago Reader exposing clergy abuse cases the state’s attorney did not prosecute and how archdiocesan lawyers stiff-armed victims’ families. I called upon Greeley at his office at National Opinion Research Center, seeking leads. We talked for an hour. He was helpful, a gritty realist, with a disarmingly calm pastoral tone.
I was writing a book that branched out from my 1985 coverage of a cover-up in the Lafayette, La. diocese, investigating similar situations in other parts of the country. Chicago loomed as the last chapter. Greeley asked to read the manuscript. To my relief, he praised the work with minor suggestions on points to revise. I began sending chapters as I finished them. When he offered to write a foreword, I was delighted. He referred to “the greatest scandal in the history of religion in America and perhaps the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation.” Lead Us Not Into Temptation was done when he called one spring day in 1991, telling me to send it to Thomas Cahill, the head of religious books at Doubleday. I told him Doubleday had already passed (among thirty houses by then.) Andy said Cahill had autonomy for his division. Cahill read it quickly and offered the contract.
Andy, meanwhile, was prodding Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to form a review board and weed out clerics with records of abuse. Greeley’s novels had caused a rift with Bernardin. Andy was championing victims’ rights when my book was published in fall 1992 amid media attention of the burgeoning crisis. When he appeared with me on “Donahue,” defending Bernardin’s review board (despite his own differences with the cardinal over a case in litigation), Greeley the priest was vying with his inner detective. The priest wanted a reform mechanism for “scandals” that the writer knew were entangled with bishops’ reliance on ham-fisted lawyers and church-run treatment centers that kept offending clerics from being prosecuted. And, on a human level, Andy wanted to rebuild the friendship with “Joe,” his bishop. Their reconciliation is a leitmotif in his prayer journals.
In 1993 a dying AIDS victim accused Bernardin of having abused him years earlier. “It’s open season on priests,” declared Greeley, defending the cardinal. When the man withdrew the case, saying he could not trust his memory, the heavy media coverage of clergy abuse dissolved. Andy grieved deeply when Bernardin died 1996.
Six years later, the Boston Globe ignited a chain reaction of media coverage and an explosion of lawsuits, bearing out Greeley’s prescience on the magnitude of the crisis. Andy rebuffed dozens of interview requests. He told me he didn’t want to be “one sound bite in a feeding frenzy.” Greeley, a man of bedrock loyalties, had many priests among his friends. I believe now that he saw his own identity under attack.
In Priests: A Calling in Crisis (2004) he analyzed the extensive Los Angeles Times survey of 1,854 clerics taken in 2002 amid the cascading news coverage. In that book, referring scornfully to “The Year of the Pedophile,” he dismisses the critique of celibacy by several prominent psychologists and sociologists for lacking an empirical base comparable to the poll findings. “Priests, the data seem to show us, are emotionally mature men,” he wrote, “happy in their work.” He argued that celibacy had been given too little probative research to support theoretical generalizations.
My purpose here is not to endorse Greeley’s position or criticisms, rather to mark Priests as a thematic shift in his chronicle of the church. He did not swing full circle; but knowing the pain many priests felt, he defended the clerical culture as basically sound against his view of a sensationalist media. (He gave a backhand to the bishops for being “clueless.”) He draws complex interpretive threads from the survey data in Priests; but complex threads match the personality that stationed himself, as priest, on a time-spinning carousel with the sociologist, novelist, essayist, critic, populist theologian, media commentator, polemic and diarist of deep texture. Andrew Greeley was one of the most extraordinary writers of our time. He was also one of the happiest men I have known.