Saturday, June 1, 2013

In Memoriam: Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, Ph.D. (1928-2013)

I might have drifted completely away from religion between my 21st and 41st birthdays except for two writers. C. S. Lewis kept me a Christian. Father Andrew M. Greeley kept me a Catholic.

I was twenty-five when I read How to Save the Catholic Church, which Fr. Greeley co-wrote with his sister, theologian Mary Greeley Durkin. Over the next fifteen years, I read quite a few of his books, at first only his non-fiction, then his fiction. Two books in particular I recommend for Catholic apologists: The Catholic Myth, an exploration of the Church through Fr. Greeley's model of the analogical imagination, and Faithful Attraction, a study of marriage and the factors that help make it work. Although as I reverted back to full communion with the Church I came to disagree with certain of Fr. Greeley's positions, I also knew that, in many respects, he and Dr. George Weigel had more points in common than many people would think (including them).


Pace the Trib's panegyric to the lifelong Chicagoan, Fr. Greeley was not as "unabashedly liberal" as was stated. Yes, he supported women's ordination, criticized Pope Paul VI for Humanae Vitae and contributed money to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. But he was equally critical of the bishops for shutting down Catholic schools, he believed that the reformers jettisoned too many beautiful and useful traditions, such as purgatory, the Angelus and May crownings; he perceived that the women's orders had become in the main too narcissistic and perpetually angry to attract young women; and he continued to support clerical celibacy, although he suggested at one point that priests be offered the option of returning to the lay state after ten years, as a stop-gap for the priest shortage.

Much of Fr. Greeley's criticism of the hierarchy was directed not at what the Church was teaching but at how the bishops were leading — or, more precisely, failing to lead — their people. Typical of his battles was his long-running feud with Cdl. John Cody, a latter-day model of episcopal corruption, whom Fr. Greeley in print accused of being a sociopathic manipulator. Less strident and antagonistic, perhaps, were his battles with +Cody's successors; nevertheless, he had no fear of calling them out when they fell short in his estimation.

Often enough, Fr. Greeley wasn't saying, "Here is what the Church ought to teach," so much as he was saying, "Here's what American Catholics are doing and what they're thinking." Or, as former associate Robert McClory put it, "It's not as if [Greeley] 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.'" The same iron sense of primary loyalties that led Fr. Greeley to support the Clintons and Barack Obama despite their pro-choice records also kept him in the Church as a celibate priest long after others of his age, such as McClory, left to marry. 

"Why leave?" Fr. Greeley once wrote. "Stay and bother them."

But equally important to understanding Fr. Greeley is understanding his theology of God. A devoté of Alfred North Whitehead, Msgr. Ronald Knox and David Tracy, God in Fr. Greeley's writings is passionately involved in His creation, pursuing us as a shepherd does a lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7), "almost pathetically eager to forgive at the least sign of compunction". To Fr. Greeley, the Catholic imagination is not only highly analogical but very sacramental, in which God is radically present and all things have the potential to reveal His operation in the world. Father Greeley especially saw marital sex as having high potential for revelation. With this in mind, the scenes of passion that he detailed in his earlier novels were, with one or two exceptions I'm aware of, between men and women who were already married or who would eventually marry; casual encounters were left offstage, and rapes curtly mentioned.

So okay, yeah, Andrew M. Greeley was to some extent a dissident — not perhaps shoulder-to-shoulder with such sterling representatives of the Faith as Jamie L. Manson or Andrew Sullivan, and maybe not technically out of communion with the Holy See, but a dissident nonetheless. However, like the Anglican Lewis, he had a compelling vision of God that he communicated quite well, and which was closely enough in accordance with the apostolic tradition that I was never seriously led astray. I liken him to Tertullian, who despite his late fall into Montanism remains one of the great ante-Nicene Church Fathers. Like his fictional alter ego, Blackie Ryan, Greeley was "once or twice in error, but never in doubt".

Vaya con Díos, Father.