By E. J. Dionne

Father Greeley: Loving Pugilist

June 3, 2013 12:00 am Category: Memo Pad, National News 4 Comments A+ / A-
Father Greeley: Loving Pugilist

WASHINGTON — You wanted Father Andrew Greeley as your friend and not your enemy. You got the sense he was born with his fists up and his loyalties fully formed. He was ready to do battle at the first signs of disrespect toward those he cared about.

Understanding Greeley, the priest, sociologist and novelist who died last week at 85, is essential to understanding the last half-century of American Catholic history and the glorious contradictions of politics.

He was a liberal whose impatience with actual liberals was legendary. This applied especially to reformers who disparaged his beloved Daley machine in Chicago. Yet this resolute Irishman who once used the phrase “marginal but not alienated” as an apt sociological description of himself was bolder than so many others in the positions he staked out. Not one for understatement, Greeley titled one of his last books A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007.

Did I mention books? Greeley wrote so many that his obituary writers couldn’t agree on a count. In a lovely New York Times article on Greeley, Peter Steinfels pegged the number at “more than 120.” Joe Holley wrote in The Washington Post of “more than 100 non-fiction works and 50 novels.” John Allen risked precision in the National Catholic Reporter: 72 non-fiction books and 66 novels.

“I suppose I have the Irish weakness for words gone wild,” Greeley told The New York Times in 1981. “Besides, if you’re celibate, you have to do something.”

Oh, yes, and he had a fine gift for revenge recast as generosity. He always harbored a grudge against the University of Chicago, which granted him a Ph.D. in 1962 but denied him tenure 11 years later. He believed he was the victim of a classic form of academic prejudice: against Catholic priests.

But then he made piles of cash on his best-selling novels, typically described as “steamy.” (The Cardinal Sins and Thy Brother’s Wife sold in the millions.) So in 1984, he was able to endow a chair in Roman Catholic studies named after his parents at his former school. He was uncharacteristically diplomatic at the time, but everyone knew the joy he felt when a university that wouldn’t offer him tenure was quite happy to take his money.

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  • Ray Bowler

    I am grateful to have one of my favorite commentators give her this tribute to one of my favorite authors. He’sYou telling the truth was magnificent. Yet there was a gentleness in his writing. Star Bright was one of the gentlest most brilliant things he wrote. It remains my favorite along with 3 of his angel stories. He understood humanity and his church. He showed the grandeur of his church but also its failures. Rest in peace.

  • latebloomingrandma

    I loved Fr. Greeley’s novels, not because they were steamy, but because they reflected the realities of the struggles of people of faith on this earth. The stories were almost like parables. If you could get over your shock of a priest writing in such an earthy way, and rather than be offended by it, look for the deeper meanings of faith and our particular religion of Catholicism. Though many “traditionalist” Catholics were dismissive of him, thinking of blasphemies, I felt that reading his stories clarified many issues and made me a stronger Catholic. I think E.J. and I are on the same wavelength much of the time.

  • Sand_Cat

    I respect Greeley, and I haven’t read the book he wrote on the topic, but it seems to me that religion is very much on the decline: if not in numbers, then in quality. Much of it has become brutish and irrational – not good news – while it does seem in decline in the next generation, which I for one think an improvement.
    Whatever he would think of me, I found him to be an engaging, humane, and often humorous person through my limited exposure through his books, and what good is left in the Catholic and other Christian churches has taken a hit with his death.

  • hilandar1000

    I loved reading everything Andrew Greeley wrote, even though I am not Catholic. He never pushed his religion on anyone, but made spirituality appealing. Although not a disciplinarian, but rather, a motivater, he was the greatest of teachers. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed!

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