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(not theologian) Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago lived a long and astonishingly productive career in which he had few unpublished thoughts.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?