CHICAGO — The Rev. Andrew Greeley, the outspoken Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and sociologist known for his deeply researched academic appraisals and sometimes scathing critiques of his church, died Wednesday night, several years after fracturing his skull in a freakish fall.
Greeley died in his sleep at his apartment at the John Hancock Center, according to his spokeswoman, June Rosner. He was 85.
Rosner said Greeley had been in poor health since an accident on Nov. 7, 2008. He was at Advocate Lutheran General Medical Center when a piece of his clothing apparently got caught in the door of a departing taxi and he was thrown to the pavement.
The family released a statement Thursday morning saying “our lives have been tremendously enriched by having the presence of Fr. Andrew Greeley in our family. First and foremost as a loving uncle who was always there for us with unfailing support or with a gentle nudge, who shared with us both the little things and the big moments of family life.
“But we were specially graced that this man was also an amazing priest who recently celebrated the 59th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He served the Church all those years with a prophetic voice and with unfailing dedication, and the Church he and our parents taught us to love is a better place because of him. Our hearts are heavy with grief, but we find hope in the promise of Heaven that our uncle spent his life proclaiming to us, his friends, his parishioners and his many fans. He resides now with the Lord of the Dance, and that dance will go on.”
A highly-regarded sociologist, preternaturally prolific author and unabashedly liberal Chicago priest, 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.
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.
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.
“I’m a priest, pure and simple,” Greeley told the Chicago 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. I decided I wanted to be one when I was a kid growing up on the West Side. I’ve never wavered or wanted to be anything but.”
Greeley’s research at NORC showed “that the idea that societies inevitably become more secular as they modernize is untrue,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at NRC.
“I think he drew many of his hypotheses from his vocation as a Catholic priest,” Smith said in an e-mailed statement. “He then put those ideas to rigorous scientific testing.”
Greeley criticized the church hierarchy over issues including its teaching on contraception and the way bishops handled the sexual abuse crisis. His blunt criticism set him apart from other Catholic sociologists, said Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
“Some sociologists are cautious,” Marty said. “He took risks all the time. But he was extremely careful to be sure he had the data.”
“So, he didn’t just crunch numbers. He interpreted them. … and he was never afraid to interpret things very loudly.”
Marty, who also shared the same Feb. 5 birthday as Greeley, said there was never any doubt that Greeley loved the church.
“He was a very, very faithful Catholic and he was a proudly celibate priest. He wasn’t ever changing himself,” Marty said.
Much of his more recent research on Catholicism included calls for the Church to respond to the needs of contemporary Catholics.
In his 2004 book, “The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council,” Greeley wrote that the Vatican II reforms caused a rift between leadership and laity that resulted in a new generation of Catholics who have redefined the faith in their own terms.
These Catholics, Greeley wrote, hold onto core doctrines and traditions even as they disagree with the rules in such areas as sexual behavior.
Robert McClory, associate professor emeritus at Northwestern University and a former priest, said Greeley was one of the few Catholic scholars who was able to critique the Catholic Church without himself becoming a dissident.
“He was able to be critical of the hierarchical church while balancing that criticism with the sound sociological data that he had been working on for more than 40 years,” McClory said.
“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.'”
McClory said Greeley also had the gift of making his data clear and interesting to the general public.
“He was not a scholarly sociologist,” he said. “He had a popular approach to his writing which interested people on issues that they would not normally be interested in.”
Greeley possessed an unpredictable, sometimes volatile temperament which resulted in people following his columns to find out what he would say. He lashed out at the Bush administration in a series of essays that became a book entitled, “A Stupid, Unjust, And Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007.” Before the 2008 election, Rev. Greeley wrote a column predicting Barack Obama would lose because racism would defeat him.
“He was gutsy. He was not afraid to take on the religious and political establishments,” McClory said.
His muscular writing and straightforward opinions are evidenced in an excerpt from his 2004 book, “Priests: A Calling in Crisis,” written after the church’s sexual abuse crisis:
“In the worst-case scenario, the Catholic Church in the United States … may go down the drain, but not because of attacking infidels, not because of celibacy or homosexuality or sexual abuse, not because of secularism and materialism, but because of incompetence, stupidity, and clerical culture – all enemies from within.”
Greeley’s research often contradicted commonly held opinions, according to the Rev. John Cusick of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, who called Greeley a mentor.
Cusick recalled opining that young people were leaving the church until Greeley set him straight – young people still identified themselves as Catholic, they just didn’t practice their religion in the same way as previous generations.
“He taught me to trust the data, don’t just trust hunches,” Cusick said. “He’s an intellectual. He could wax a story and in the next breath carry on a phenomenally intellectual conversation with anyone in Hyde Park.”
In Chicago’s religious circles, Greeley was praised by some as a philosopher-priest and panned by others as an irascible trouble maker.
Catholic officials often didn’t know what to make of the controversial priest. In 1986, then Cardinal Joseph Bernardin reportedly turned down $1 million Greeley offered to support Catholic Schools. Greeley instead established a private fund for the archdiocese’s inner city schools.
Seventeen years later, the Chicago Archdiocese accepted Greeley’s donation of $420,000 for a scholarship endowment.
Greeley grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and attended the St. Angela School and Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary.
He studied for the priesthood of St. Mary of the Lake seminary in Mundelein and was ordained in May 1954. He earned a doctorate in 1962 from the University of Chicago. While studying for his doctorate he was attached to Christ the King parish in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood.
His prodigious output amazed even those he knew him best.
“I was with him years ago in the summer, and he was writing three books simultaneously,” Cusick said. “Go and figure that one out.”