Wednesday 24 January 2018

The Catholic priest whose racy novels sold in their millions

Best selling author Father Andrew Greeley poses for a photograph September 28, 1988 in New York City. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)
Best selling author Father Andrew Greeley poses for a photograph September 28, 1988 in New York City. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)

Father Andrew Greeley, who has died aged 85, was an American Roman Catholic priest and the author of bestselling novels that some considered salacious.

His book The Cardinal Sins, which was published in 1981 with a provocative cover showing a young woman scantily clad in red, is about a curate who rises to archbishop while enjoying affairs, fathering a child and becoming immured in financial scandal.

Greeley was unfazed by the resulting uproar or by the opinion that this was an inappropriate subject for a clerical author. His books were "theological novels" and "comedies of grace", he maintained, and the sex less explicit than that in the Song of Solomon.

The Cardinal Sins sold more than two million copies. His next novel, Thy Brother's Wife, was about a priest who falls in love with his sister-in-law.

For the archdiocese of Chicago the books were part of a long list of provocations by a highly turbulent priest, who had earned some respect through his early sociological studies but later exasperated Catholics with his columns in the Sun-Times as well as some 80 other newspapers.

The son of a corporation lawyer, Andrew Moran Greeley was born on February 5, 1928. He wanted to become a priest from an early age, and went to St Mary of the Lake seminary at Mundelein, Illinois, where he was ordained.

His first appointment was as an assistant priest to an Irish parish on Chicago's Southside.

He was then given leave to study sociology at the University of Chicago, producing a doctoral dissertation about the influence of religion on the career choices of college students . He followed this with a stream of studies, centring on religion, education and ethnicity in America.

After about 10 years, during which he earned a Masters in Sociology, Greeley was recorded in the Catholic Directory as "on special assignment", and listed as a member of the faculty at the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago. Neither the archdiocese nor the university was keen to employ him.

He held some of the conventional liberal views of the 1960s and 1970s, approving of contraception, women's ordination and the right of the faithful to choose their bishops. Yet he criticised those priests and nuns who were more interested in a Marxist victory in Central America than the souls of their own Catholics, and was a supporter of Catholic schools. Although generally a supporter of Vatican II, he dismissed the celebration of the secular as "nonsense" in his book Unsecular Man.

He continued to deal with sensitive subjects in his novels. Fall from Grace (1994) was about paedophilia and battered women, and Wages of Sin about the sex lives of senior citizens .

During the 2004 presidential election he wrote an article in the New York Daily News under the headline 'Catholics Can Vote for Kerry'. It interpreted a memorandum from Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, as saying that Catholics could vote for politicians willing to condone abortion in certain circumstances, and drew the wrath of three bishops – one of whom declared: "It is often said by priests and people in [Greeley's] native Chicago that he long ago published all his thoughts, and in the last decade has been publishing his fantasies."

Greeley's reply to all criticisms was that he dealt with the realities of priestly life; human life was not dirty, nasty or immoral, it was a hint of what God's love is like. Such honesty, he claimed, won him the support of many women, and there was no hint of sexual impropriety in his life. "I suppose I have an Irish weakness for words gone wild," he said.

"Besides, if you're celibate, you have to do something."

Earnings from his books enabled him to maintain three homes: an apartment in Chicago; a house in Tucson, Arizona, where he acted as an assistant priest at weekends; and another on Lake Michigan. But he gave away much of his money to Catholic causes.

In his later years, Greeley's quarrel with Chicago archdiocese faded, until he claimed to be on friendly terms with Cardinal Francis George. An academic was said to be working on a comparison between Greeley and Balzac.

He continued to write, producing one series of stories about an auxiliary bishop who is an amateur detective and refers to God as "she".

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