The theology in all those Father Greeley sex scenes

Much like his friend (historian, not theologian) Martin Marty, the prominent sociologist (not theologian) Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago lived a long and astonishingly productive career in which he had few unpublished thoughts.

This is not a man whose rambunctious life would be easy to cover in a simple newspaper obituary. He was also one of the quickest and wittiest people I have ever interviewed in my life.

I think it’s also crucial to note that, while most articles about his death identified him as a “liberal,” that’s a rather simplistic term to apply to someone as complex as Greeley. It’s important to note that he had friends and associates across the spectrum of American Catholicism and, of course, it was a uniquely American brand of Catholicism that dominated his life.

All of the major newspapers have published obituaries, but — duh — it is really The Chicago Tribune coverage that matters. Here is a chunk of the lengthy obituary that attempts to sum up this loud and proud celibate priest’s work:

A highly-regarded sociologist, preternaturally prolific author and unabashedly liberal Chicago priest, the Rev. Greeley regularly took his church to task in both his fiction and his scholarly work. His non-fiction books covered topics from Catholic education to Irish history to Jesus’ relationships with women.

The Rev. Greeley authored some 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction that were translated into 12 languages. His racy novels and detective stories, which often closely paralleled real events, aired out Catholic controversies and hummed with detailed bedroom romps that kept readers rapt and coming back for more. Best-sellers like The Cardinal Sins in 1981 earned him millions of dollars, much of which he donated to the church and charities.

The Rev. Greeley filled many of his books with the results of work he did at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where he’d done work since his days as a doctoral candidate in the early 1960s. He also taught sociology at the University of Arizona. But, Greeley said his immense body of research and writing was merely a reflection of his calling to be a priest.

Now, there were plenty of critics who claimed the Greeley didn’t really write 50 novels; he wrote the same novel 50 times. I don’t think that’s fair, when considering his detective fiction. I am still waiting for someone to dare to take some of the Father Blackie Ryan novels and turn them into a wild and wooly HBO series.

All of the news coverage has, of course, stressed the “racy” sections of this priest’s novels. Still I have to admit that I have been surprised that no one has focused on the truly controversial theological point that Greeley kept making — over and over — in the plots of his book. Why ignore the priest’s blunt reason for including all of that lively sex?

A second Tribune piece on his death tried to dig a little bit deeper into the mind behind the fiction, but not really:

As part of an effort to probe his own background, he sought out University of Chicago colleague Erika Fromm, one of the nation’s leading experts in hypnosis. The trance she put him under released a flood of memories from his childhood and tapped a font of creativity that he poured into short stories and more than 50 novels.

Greeley concluded that “what a priest ought to really do is tell stories,” his good friend and former colleague Bill McCready said. “The novels were a direct outgrowth of that. The man’s imagination was unbounded.”

Full of scandal, intrigue, violence and sex, his first best-seller, “The Cardinal Sins,” raised eyebrows. The 1981 novel, about two Irish Catholic men from Chicago’s West Side who enter the priesthood, also attracted a huge fan base. Greeley made millions, much of which he poured into Catholic education and other philanthropy.

“He was really proud of his novels and that they brought people to God,” Durkin said. “They brought the stories of God to people. Love and questioning and redemption and forgiveness and the imagery of God’s love and ultimate forgiveness. Many people who would reach out to him had struggled with that concept.”

Once again, we have wink, wink references to the sexuality, but no content.

Simply stated, Greeley was convinced — damn the doctrine and full speed ahead — that God’s Holy Spirit was perfectly capable of working in people’s lives, including the lives of faithful Catholics and even clergy, through premarital and extramarital sex (even adultery) that left a wide variety of vows in shambles. He wasn’t saying that the vows were irrelevant, he was simply saying that there was this big, wild and loving God who used sex — period — when necessary to get people’s attention. God was especially fond, sort of like James Bond, of brash, brilliant, brave women who were, to state the obvious, quite well endowed.

Was any of this activity “sin”? Sometimes yes, but most of the time, apparently, the answer was no. As he told me in one interview, that sex was part of these characters’ stories and, for Greeley, God was the author of those stories no matter what. He never backed away from making that same theological point over and over and over.

So, GetReligion readers, has anyone seen coverage of this controversial piece that attempted — for good and ill — to take the contents of his fiction seriously?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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