Obituary: Andrew Greeley / Priest/writer irked Catholic leaders

Feb. 5, 1928 - May 29, 2013


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The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, an iconoclastic priest and sociologist who irked the Roman Catholic hierarchy by writing best-selling novels that featured churchly misdeeds and graphic sex, died Thursday at his home in Chicago. He was 85.

His publicist, June Rosner, confirmed his death to The Associated Press. Father Greeley had reportedly suffered a traumatic brain injury and skull fracture in 2008 after his jacket was caught in the door of a taxicab.

Ordained in 1954, Father Greeley served for a decade as a parish priest in Chicago before being assigned by the church to work full time as a writer, researcher and teacher.

As the author of more than 100 nonfiction works and 50 novels, as well as a syndicated newspaper column, the outspoken priest became a self-described "permanent outsider" in the church he served throughout his life.

As a sociologist beginning in the late 1950s, he documented that rank-and-file Catholics were ignoring the church's ban on birth control.

For the next half-century, his advocacy of more liberal church policies on divorce, the ordination of women and married men and the election of local bishops by priests and laity put him at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, whom he labeled "mitered pinheads."

At the same time, Father Greeley's opposition to abortion and his support of priestly celibacy offended many liberal church reformers.

He outraged defenders of conventional Catholic doctrine with his outspoken belief that sex is a sacrament and an expression of God's love rather than a sin, when it is not a means of procreation.

In his 1986 memoir, "Confessions of a Parish Priest," Father Greeley wrote: "I suspect Catholic historians of the future will describe the Church's obsession with sex and particularly with an attempt to deny the pleasures of sex to married

men and women as a chapter in our history comparable to the Inquisition and the Crusades."

In his book "Sexual Intimacy" (1973), Father Greeley endorsed naughty marital sex play.

Father Greeley began writing about the sexual abuse of minors in the mid-1980s and repeatedly castigated bishops for failing to stop abuse by the clergy and covering up for pedophile priests. Fellow priests told him the rumors were untrue and, even if they were, he shouldn't be airing dirty laundry.

He kept writing about the burgeoning scandal for the next two decades, both in his long-running syndicated newspaper column and in such books as "The Priestly Sins" (2004), a novel that tells the story of a young cleric whose career is nearly destroyed when he witnesses and reports the sexual abuse of a boy by a fellow priest.

Father Greeley's other novels included "The Cardinal Sins" (1981) and "Thy Brother's Wife" (1982). Literary reviewers were rarely kind to the books, which also drew criticism from fellow priests for their unflattering depictions of the church.

Father Greeley said his books attracted a large following among lay people and that he received letters by the thousands from readers saying that his novels had brought them back to the church. He considered his novels his most important ministry.

Andrew Moran Greeley was born Feb. 5, 1928, in Oak Park, Ill., and decided to become a priest as a second-grader on Chicago's West Side. He was 19 when his father died, and his mother went to work so he could stay in seminary.

He graduated from seminary in 1950 and was ordained four years later.

When Father Greeley became a parish priest in 1954, it was not among the working poor as he envisioned while a young seminarian, but at Christ the King in southwest Chicago, a church whose parishioners were primarily college-educated and affluent. He called them "the new breed."

His experiences at Christ the King prompted his first book, "The Church and the Suburbs" (1959), about how increased affluence affects religious belief.

Later, after finding success as a novelist, Father Greeley offered to create a foundation to help inner-city students through a $1 million grant to the Chicago Archdiocese. The archdiocese turned him down but never explained why.

Father Greeley established his own foundation to distribute money to Catholic schools in Chicago with high minority enrollments.

He received a doctoral degree in sociology in 1962 from the University of Chicago, where he taught for the next decade and relied on the data-compiling capabilities of the university-affiliated National Opinion Research Center.

In 1973, the university denied him tenure, even though he had published 40 books on a variety of topics.

In 1978, the University of Arizona made Father Greeley a tenured professor of sociology. He continued publishing as a sociologist and, at age 50, began writing what became known as his "stories."

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