As a young seminarian in the late 1960s, I was very taken by the writings of Andrew Greeley, a priest in Chicago, who was churning out books on popular spirituality. I found his approach wonderfully refreshing because, at least to my mind, he dealt with our perennial religious struggles in a way that was both more realistic and more hope-filled than most of the religious literature to which I had been exposed to until then. He was the spiritual bread I needed, and when I went on a retreat to prepare for final vows, I had a couple of his books in hand. He helped me make that decision.
He died last week at the age of 85, having been in bad health since suffering a fall in 2008. Perhaps the word prodigious best describes his output, both in terms of writing and preaching. He wrote more than 120 books, many of an academic nature, and countless articles and op-ed pieces for both secular and religious publications. Within all of that, he was perhaps best known for his novels, which enjoyed a circulation that most writers can only envy. Because of this prodigious output and popularity, there was often a cynicism about him in both academic and religious circles that gave voice to itself in these words: “Andrew Greeley has never had an unpublished thought!” I move in both those circles and can assure the world that envy is not alien to either circle. Greeley was disliked, perhaps for more than anything else, because, unlike so many of us who criticized him for his prodigious output, he actually did things.
But there were other reasons as well why Greeley had his critics, some to do with his ethos and others with his personality. A lot of conservatives disliked him because they considered him irreverent and overly liberal. The irony is that a lot of liberals disliked him because they considered him too pious and overly conservative. And then there was his personality. He didn’t suffer fools, or critics, easily. To criticize Greeley was to pick a fight. Nobody got to take potshots from him from the safety of a hidden bush. He flushed you out and challenged for an open fight. That’s not the route to stay on easy terms with everyone.
Since I was perennially one his supporters, I was never subjected to his sword. When his novels were popularly criticized as being “lightweight and trashy” and “harmful to the faith of Catholics”, I jumped to his defense with these words: “Nobody has ever left the church because an Andrew Greeley novel, but many people have stayed in the church because of Andrew Greeley’s novels.” Greeley found this phrase in a column of mine and wrote to me, asking permission to use it on the jacket of his future novels, which he frequently did.
In defense of his novels: The most common complaint was they were “trashy and full of sex”. The opposite would be truer to fact. As literary works, his novels suffered more because they were too pious and often thinly disguised Catholic apologia. Any true reading of his novels reveals a man who was deeply pious, much in love with his church, and not-so-subtly defending his church. Moreover he always treated sex as sacrament. Not that his critics would admit this, but his ethos on sexuality was very close to that of John Paul II and his Theology of the Body. Moreover, the strength of his novels was in the story telling. Nobody, including Greeley himself, ever confused his prose with that of Toni Morrison or John Steinbeck; but he could spin off a great tale – and most of his novels did.
I can’t claim him as a friend because, although we corresponded occasionally, we only met once. About a year before his fateful accident, when he was still teaching winter semesters in Arizona, I was in Tucson giving some lectures and he took me out to dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant. We talked about theology and literature, but mostly he shared with me his admiration for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious family of which I am a member, and his admiration for his Ordinary in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, who belongs to that same family. He talked too about his love for Chicago’s sports teams, especially its basketball team, the Chicago Bulls. I invited him to visit our school, but he begged off, sharing that at his age he wanted as much as possible to avoid air-travel. I left the restaurant grateful to have had the chance to meet a remarkable man, and one to whom I owed a huge debt of gratitude.
The anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, once commented “no community should botch its deaths”. Fair warning. A major Catholic figure has died and we, friends and critics alike, need to recognize what he brought us. Like other Christian apologists before him, Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, he too tried to give a reason for the hope that’s within us; and, in that, he succeeded, wonderfully so.