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Rev. Andrew Greeley — author, church critic — dies at 85

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Updated: July 2, 2013 7:39AM

There were many ways to describe Andrew Greeley: best-selling and prolific author, college professor and newspaper columnist, University of Chicago sociologist, outspoken-yet-tolerated critic of Catholic hierarchy and doctrine.

But he preferred only one title.

“I’m a priest,” he wrote in his 1986 memoir, Confessions of a Parish Priest. “Not a priest-sociologist or a priest-journalist, or a priest-novelist, or any multiple variation of those hyphenates. I’m a priest, a parish priest. The other things I do in life: sociological research, journalistic writing, storytelling, are merely my way of being a priest.”

Greeley — who had been in poor health after snagging his coat in the door of a taxicab and being dragged after it pulled away in 2008 — died early Thursday at his condo in the John Hancock Building. He was 85.

He was the author of more than 150 books, some academic texts, others steamy potboilers. His first mystery novel, “The Cardinal Sins,” published in 1981, sold three million of copies, spending eight months on the New York Times best-sellers list.

Yet he bristled at any identification other than one: “a loud-mouthed Irish priest,” to use the phrase he said he wanted engraved on his tombstone. He certainly was a thorn in the side of established Catholic authority.

“He was a great author, but what I loved about him he was one of those courageous voices that always pushed the envelope,” said Rev. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken priest at St. Sabina on the South Side. “He pushed to think outside the box and wrestle with a church too often locked into itself, and caused it to think broader than itself and be better.”

Andrew Moran Greeley was born in Oak Park. His parents were devout Catholics — his mother would sprinkle holy water around the house during thunderstorms. His father was a stock trader, ruined in the Great Depression. Greeley attended St. Angela’s elementary school, where he decided he wanted to be a priest in the 2nd grade and never changed his mind. Later he attended Quigley Prep in Chicago, and received his STL in 1954 from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein and was ordained that year.

Greeley’s first post was at Christ the King parish in Beverly. But he clashed with the older priests and, seeking intellectual challenge, received permission to do post-graduate work and got his master’s degree at the University of Chicago — he wrote his thesis on his parish — and his doctorate there as well. A Catholic publishing house asked him to expand his writings, which became his first book, “The Church and the Suburbs.”

He received his Ph.D. in 1962, and joined U. of C.’s National Opinion Research Center as its senior research director. He had trouble with hierarchy both ecumenical and secular — he called Chicago’s Cardinal John Cody “a mad tyrant” yet was seen as too Catholic for Hyde Park academic success. Greeley was put up for tenure in three departments and denied each time, due to bald anti-Catholicism, one professor saying “he would no more hire a Catholic than a Communist.”

The snub did not prevent him from donating $1.25 million to the University of Chicago in 1984, used to endow a chair in Catholic studies.

At least the university took the money. In July 1986, he tried to give $1 million to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s inner-city school fund, but the gift was rebuffed without explanation. So Greeley established his own foundation, the Catholic Inner-City School Fund.

He was a prolific author — setting a goal of writing two novels a year, one year he wrote four. He also was a syndicated columnist for 40 years; his column was a popular fixture in the Chicago Sun-Times.

His scholarly books — such as “The American Catholic” (1977) and “The Catholic Myth” (1991) ‚ were also widely-read and influential. No subject was taboo — in 2004, the examined the sexuality of priests in light of the on-going sex abuse crisis in the clergy with “Priests: A Calling in Crisis.”

Greeley was known as a critic, but his criticism was seen as offering the faithful a route back to the church, and helping the church find its way toward embracing them.

“Father Greeley came along after World War II, when Roman Catholics, picking themselves up out of the Depression, attained a prosperity earlier undreamed of,” Brown University Prof. Jacob Neusner wrote in 1988. “When many thought that Catholics would leave the church in the city and melt into undifferentiated (Protestant or atheist) suburbs, Father Greeley insisted otherwise... But he also insisted that the church, for its part, faced a new kind of Catholic, one as loyal as the prior generations but with a different understanding of the world, the church and therefore, in context, Christ. Father Greeley set out to measure the change, explain it, but also address Catholics (and other Americans) with the message of what was happening to them.”

Despite his intellectual impact and material success, he always insisted he was at heart simply a man of the cloth.

“I’m a priest, pure and simple,” he once said, “albeit a priest with a condo in the John Hancock Building and a home in Arizona.”

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