+Fr. Andrew Greeley, R.I.P.

Fr Andrew Greeley
Fr. Andrew Greeley (from America magazine)

Fr. Andrew Greeley died on Wednesday.  Headlines call him iconoclastic, a critic, outspoken, progressive, popular and controversial. They classify him as sociologist, scholar, novelist, church critic — and often include “best-selling” in the description.  All include the one word which he used to define himself:  priest.

Several include a quote that expresses what I found inspiring in Fr. Andrew Greeley: his way of living the priesthood.  It was at the center of all his activities and choices.

“I’m a priest, pure and simple,” Greeley told the 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.”

He earned some of those adjectives – especially “controversial” – because he was a good  sociologist.  Tom Smith of NORC said “I think he drew many of his hypotheses from his vocation as a Catholic priest.  He then put those ideas to rigorous scientific testing.”  Martin Marty, his longtime colleague at the University of Chicago, said “Some sociologists are cautious.  He took risks all the time. But he was extremely careful to be sure he had the data. He didn’t just crunch numbers. He interpreted them….and he was never afraid to interpret things very loudly.”

The one word that doesn’t appear in his obituaries — except to deny it — is “dissident.”  Fr. Greeley loved the Church.  He loved it enough to devote a lifetime to studying it, to declaring its beauty and goodness — and to put uncomfortable facts front and center even when the hierarchy wasn’t ready to hear them.  Robert McClory, a journalism professor at Northwestern and former priest, said it well:  “He was able to be critical of the hierarchical church while balancing that criticism with sound sociological data.  It’s not as if he was dissenting. He would say, ‘The figures are there, you can look at them and the church needs to decide what to do about that’.”

Several writers call his novels “racy;” this makes me wonder if they actually read any of them.  The sex scenes are tame by almost any standard — movie trailers are more daring. Some seemed to think that celibacy requires that a person know nothing about sex and never speak of it.  Greeley once said that anyone who has heard the confessions of hundreds of women probably knows more about marriage than most men.

Fr Greeley had a reason for including sex scenes in his novels.  “At the most basic level, people learn from the novels that sex is good,” he said. “Then they get the notion that sexual love is a sacrament of God’s love, that sexual love tells us something about God. They also understand that God’s love tells us something about sex.”  His friend, Chicago’s Cardinal George, seemed to agree. “What he is doing is re-evangelizing the imagination, using fiction to express the faith and the mysteries of the faith. That’s an extraordinarily significant project.”

I only met him once, briefly — not enough to claim to know him.  For his sake, I am grateful that his suffering has ended and he has gone home to the loving God he proclaimed so vigorously for so long.  I hope to keep learning from the example of his vocation and the deep integrity with which he lived it.

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