US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A tribute to the late Father Andrew Greeley

| Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

“It is not surprising,” wrote the editors of U.S. Catholic in the intro to their April 1984 interview with Father Andrew Greeley, that he “is often heard to quote the line from Hilaire Belloc, ‘When I am dead, I hope it may be said, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.” ’ ”

Father Greeley died early Thursday morning at his home in Chicago.

Greeley was a frequent U.S. Catholic author and longtime friend of the house. His writing first appeared in the magazine in 1965, and for more than four decades and in more than two dozen articles, he fearlessly spoke his mind about the Catholic Church and its leaders, about politics, about the shortcomings of our society. He was famous for saying exactly what he thought and letting the chips fall where they might.

A professor at the University of Chicago and a research associate at the National Opinion Research Center, Greeley conducted groundbreaking sociological research into the faith lives of Catholics in the U.S. He studied college students, Catholic priests and parishes, ethnic drinking subcultures; he tossed aside common assumptions in his books about the outlook for marriage in the U.S. and about what conservative Christians really believe. He spoke and wrote eloquently about the importance of the Catholic imagination; the power of images such as the merciful Mother of God or the Christmas crib set spoke wordlessly and powerfully to Catholics, he said, about the essence of who God is.

This appreciation for the Catholic imagination led Greeley to become a prolific fiction writer: his novels sold to readers across the country who would have been unlikely to encounter either his social commentary or his sociology.  U.S. Catholic published an early example of his fiction, “Ms. Carpenter,” in 1978, featuring an encounter between a present-day bishop and Mary of Nazareth. Fiction was another way for Greeley to get his point across: that we can always count on God’s unending love and mercy.

Greeley’s towering intellect made even more tragic the brain injury that he suffered in 2008. He was ever committed to using research from science and the social sciences (and not just his own sociology) to inform the church about science, human behavior, sexuality, and countless other subjects.

Chicagoans might often encounter Greeley at performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera (which he attended at times with Cardinal Francis George). A lifelong proud Chicagoan and a die-hard fan of the Cubs, Bears, and Bulls, Greeley personified the independent streak coupled with fierce loyalty to the church that has long been characteristic of the priesthood of Chicago.

He always had a great respect for women in the church (he was the 1993 recipient of the U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in the Church) as well as a boundless confidence in the faith, good sense, and resilience of lay Catholics. 

While others in the Catholic Church have been grumbling about today’s “cafeteria Catholicism,” Greeley, in a January 1985 interview with U.S. Catholic, flatly said that cafeteria Catholicism was one of the best things that happened to the church in the aftermath of what he called the “crazy … birth-control decree.” He explained, “The best benefit of the birth-control encyclical was people decided they could be Catholic on their own terms…. Paul VI … wanted to tighten up the lines of authority in the church: to reinforce church authority. Instead, … people decided, ‘He’s wrong on birth control, and we’re going to practice birth control—but we’re not going to leave the church.”

In this magazine, he frequently took on the sin of “sacramental tyranny,” deriding the ”clericalist neo-authoritarianism” that all too often violates the rights of the laity by preventing their due access to the sacraments.

In other articles, Greeley explained why Catholics “have more fun” and extolled what he liked to call the “gracious religious imagination” and the specifically “Catholic imagination.”

What is the purpose of the church, the U.S. Catholic editors asked Greeley in 1984. “That God loves us. I think that’s what Jesus came to tell us, and that’s the core of it. And unfortunately, that core has often been overlooked…. I don’t want to deny that there are moral and ethical implications of the gospel, and I think those implications should be preached. But unfortunately what has happened in the course of history is that the ethics and morality of the church’s messages are stressed, and the core revelation is just ignored—that God loves us.”

Thanks, Father Greeley, for continuing to remind us.

In honor of Fr. Greeley, here is a collection of a few pieces from U.S. Catholic that have been written by or about him over the years:

Ms. Carpenter (May 1978, pages 17-20)

In the politics of the chancery, granting favors is all in a day's work. But in this short story, one archbishop gets a very unusual request. This is one of Fr. Greeley's first published pieces of fiction.

Andrew Greeley: The most outspoken Catholic in America (April 1984, pages 22-28)

In this interview with the editors, Father Andrew Greeley shows why he's called the priest with an "opinion on just about everything."

Cafeteria Catholicism: Do you have to eat everything on your plate? (January 1985, pages 18-25)

Just what is a "do-it-yourself Catholic"? The editors interview Fr. Andrew Greeley, who says that Catholics who abide by every church law may now be the exception, not the rule.

Sacraments shouldn't be the outward signs of a power trip (July 1998, pages 24-28)

This Sounding Board urges church leaders to stop playing traffic cop about sacramental regulations. Feedback respondents report mixed feelings, telling tales of inflexibility on the part of ministers and laity alike.

It's fun to be Catholic (November 2000, pages 32-33)

After the sins of the past and the foolishness of the present, why do so many people choose to remain Catholic? Because, says Fr. Greeley, it's so much fun!

Let's stop harassing couples who finally commit (June 2001, pages 24-28)

Young people these days are already terrified of commitment, argues Fr. Greeley in this Sounding Board. The last thing priests—or parents—should do is make it more difficult for couples who have been living together to make their relationship sacramentally legit.

Image: Wikimedia photo cc by Chemalurgy