I can't say I was a particular friend or foe of Andrew Greeley, but his death last week made me sit down and think about him. He was a man apart, yet he reminds me of the Chicago Catholic Church in which I grew up. Here is what I wrote:

Andrew Greeley’s death at 85 in Chicago on May 29, came more than four years after he suffered a serious brain injury. In November 2008, traveling to a train station after speaking at a suburban parish, his coat was caught in the door of the departing taxi and he was pulled to the ground. Family and friends rallied to his care and from time to time photos or short videos showed him at celebratory events, but the accident, in effect, cut short his lively and provocative contributions to the U.S. Catholic church.

He was a prolific scholar, writer, journalist, speaker, and thorn in the side of many, including the U.S. bishops. A theologian and sociologist, he had degrees from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary and University of Chicago, the yin and yang of Chicago educational institutions. Greeley was the author of data-rich studies extolling the value of Catholic schools (The Education of Catholic Americans) and the vitality of U.S. Catholicism (The Catholic Imagination) as well as novels, featuring a priest-detective, Blackie Ryan. Critics and many of his fellow intellectuals disdained the novels, but they were wildly popular among Americans, both Catholics and others, often at the top of best-seller lists.

Though he was vocal on most issues that mattered to U.S. Catholics, he did not fit neatly into any single group; in many ways he was his own group. He annoyed Catholic liberals by defending priestly celibacy and opposing abortion. He annoyed Catholic conservatives with his criticism of the church’s teaching on contraception, his criticism of the bishops, and his sexually tinged novels. He criticized secular liberals for their anti-Catholicism, though it’s doubtful that this annoyed them. Long before the secular media took up the clerical sex abuse scandal, Greeley wrote and warned the bishops that they were foolish to ignore the problem and the families who came with complaints. His advice was prescient.

For all of his frank talk and critical views, Greely did not take kindly to criticism himself and wrangled with those who questioned his data on Catholic schools and his assessment of Catholics’ loyalty to the church. I was sometimes the object of Greeley’s pointed pen. In one of his columns, he called me a “vulgar Marxist”). And though I wrote a vociferous rejoinder to his unseemly and (inaccurate) attack, I came to prize the phrase, and enjoyed bragging about it, especially to real Marxists. In his later years, he made peace with many of his critics, yet he never lost the impulse to provoke and annoy.

Though in recent decades, he had come to seem one-of-a-kind, he was part of a large coterie of U.S. priests trained in the mid-twentieth century, especially in Chicago, who were active in an array of lay-oriented organizations and enterprises. It could be said of them, as of Greeley, that they were true allies of the laity. The late Monsignor Daniel Cantwell and Monsignor Jack Egan were among this breed toiling in various community, labor, housing, and civil rights organizations bringing the imprimatur and wisdom of the Church to a wide variety of civic and social justice endeavors. Greeley stood out because of his scholarship, his willingness to vigorously criticize the hierarchy, and the wealth he accumulated from his best-selling novels. He is said to have supported many important causes with this money, especially inner-city Chicago Catholic schools. In another act of provocation, and perhaps payback, he endowed a chair in American Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago where he had been denied tenure.

The advent of John Paul II priests and bishops in the U.S. Catholic Church makes real the often-repeated eulogy, “We will not see his like soon again.” In a brief note, the editors of the New York Times, with which he sometimes quarreled, captured what he was and what will be sorely missed, “Andrew Greeley, Defender of the Faithful.”

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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