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Still telling stories of sin, sex and redemption

NCR Staff

Fr. Andrew Greeley’s beef with the intelligentsia of the American Catholic church boils down to this: They still don’t get it.

After 20-plus years of writing novels, after selling approximately 20 million books -- making him arguably the best-selling priest/novelist in the history of the planet -- Greeley believes his fiction still hasn’t gotten a fair day in court from what he once called the “murmurantes,” the church’s chattering classes.

That’s except for one -- many would say surprising -- prelate who had more than a few nice things to say about Greeley in an interview with NCR.

Greeley knows that most Catholic elites, the types who edit journals and staff chanceries and teach seminars in literary theory, dismiss his novels as lowbrow potboilers. They sneer and snicker at the sex scenes, writing him off as an object lesson in vanity and hucksterism. He doesn’t need their approval, he says, but he worries they’re missing the point.

What’s the point? According to Greeley, in a time when the church has never been more estranged from the dominant mythmaking systems in the culture, he’s proved that the gospel sells. He’s exposed millions of people to the themes of sin, grace and redemption, and left them clamoring for more.

“Let him whose evangelization net spreads farther cast the first stone,” as Greeley once put it.

He thinks the lesson of his success matters: Religion is best communicated by story, and good stories -- not great literature, necessarily, just good stories -- can make religion phenomenally attractive.

Having just turned 71 on Feb. 5, Greeley is still going strong. He says he writes about 5,000 words every day and always has 4 or 5 ideas for books percolating. As his 43rd novel, Irish Mist, hits bookshelves this St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps it’s time to reconsider his fiction on Greeley’s own terms.

A scion of Chicago’s Irish Catholic middle class, Greeley has always received high marks as a sociologist, a university lecturer (he splits time between the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona in Tucson) and a journalist. But he’s not wrong about the vitriol his novels elicited from some Catholic commentators.

A superstar

In 1981, when strong sales of The Cardinal Sins helped make Greeley a superstar, a reviewer in NCR wrote that the book “cried out to heaven for vengeance” -- and that was one of the more flattering remarks. “As a novelist, as distinct from a pamphleteer, Greeley is an awful stinker,” it continued. (In fairness, Greeley took a few shots of his own at NCR in that novel, painting it as a scandal sheet that had engaged in character assassination of his hero, Fr. Kevin Brennan).

Later, the National Catholic Register opined that Greeley had “the dirtiest mind ever ordained.” In 1987, Commonweal ran a long piece that accused Greeley’s fiction of glorifying violence against women, of suggesting that rape has redemptive power (on this last charge, Greeley’s reply to NCR was “bullshit”).

In the 1990s, such broadsides have been replaced largely by benign neglect. The novels continue to sell, but they haven’t been reviewed in any of the major national Catholic publications. Despite his astonishing output, most Catholic opinion-makers appear to have decided that his fiction isn’t worth talking about.

It’s not that Greeley lacks admirers. One academic is currently working on a comparison of Greeley and Balzac, focusing on both authors’ “layering of all kinds of different but sometimes related people living in the same place, going through similar life paths.” Another university professor in Oklahoma operates an on-line Greeley fan club.

Yet in the public discourse of the Catholic church, Greeley’s fiction is a non-topic. On one level, Greeley professes not to be bothered. “The readers get it,” he said in a recent interview with NCR, pointing to the thousands of pieces of fan mail he’s received (and edited into a two-volume, spiral-bound set).

Correspondents of all ages and walks of life write of their heartache over lovers, the church or God, and tell Greeley how much his novels have meant to them. Many tell Greeley he’s the reason they’re still Catholic or still believe in anything.

Greeley says he loves getting such mail. “I get ecstatic, I get high -- that’s what I became a priest for,” he says. He answers all the letters, conducting what he calls a “parish in a mailbox.” It’s the basis for his argument that whatever critics may say, he’s getting through.

They miss the point

Yet Greeley is also clearly ticked off that his confreres, the elites in the church, haven’t come around. “Sure, it bothers me,” Greeley said in a recent interview. “I thought a lot of the criticism was unfair, that it missed the point of the novels. The novels are open to criticism, but that criticism becomes fair only when it addresses itself to what the books are striving to do,” he said.

Greeley says his books are stories of grace and redemption, that they spread the gospel using literary fiction -- and that they work. “I think writing the kind of fiction I write is an exercise in priestly ministry. It’s talking about the good news of God’s love in a format where it will be accessible to lots of people,” Greeley said. “My stories have had an enormous effect. That’s good news.”

Readers perturbed by overt sexuality would probably gag at Greeley’s use of “spreading the gospel” to describe what he’s up to. For them, words like “smut” and “sleaze” leap more naturally to mind. Yet Greeley insists that the sex -- which, truth to be told, is not as all-pervasive in his novels as some believe -- is a huge part of his theological agenda.

“At the most basic level, people learn from the novels that sex is good,” Greeley said. “Then they get the notion that sexual love is a sacrament of God’s love, that sexual love tells us something about God. They also understand that God’s love tells us something about sex.

“God operates through attraction,” Greeley says. “He is the alluring God, the God that’s calling, the God that’s appealing, the God that’s seductive. That’s the important influence of God in our life. Wherever there is allurement, wherever there is attraction, there is God.”

Greeley knows that plenty of folks have wondered just how he got to be such an expert. “Either I don’t know anything about sex because I’m a priest and am pretending,” Greeley said, “or I know too much for a priest. Either way I lose.

“So people ask cute and snide questions about my sex life, which is none of their business. The erotic dimensions of my stories should be judged on what they are and not who wrote them,” he said.

For the record, Greeley has written elsewhere that he has upheld his priestly vow of celibacy.

Other recurrent themes in the novels, Greeley says, include that -- pace Thomas Wolfe -- “you can go home again,” and that “God’s always giving us new chances. We can begin anew.”

Question of taste

Fellow Catholics working in the pop culture arena seem supportive. “We’re storytelling animals, and every story has a point of view. When a Christian tells a story it will reflect the gospel. Andy is trying to continue that tradition, as I am,” said Paulist Fr. Ellwood Kieser, maker of such films as “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels.”

Kieser said that whether Greeley’s novels contained too much sex is “a question of taste,” but he argued that sex is a very Catholic theme. “Our complaint about pornographers is not that they overemphasize sex, but that they miss the human beauty and the sacramental character of it,” Kieser said. “Sexuality can reveal God, can hold up a mirror for us of God’s tenderness.”

Greeley said the church’s failure to grasp the evangelizing potential of pop culture is not restricted to criticisms of his novels. It was also clear, he said, with Catholic reaction to “Nothing Sacred,” last year’s ABC-TV series set in an urban parish. “We let ABC, with an assist from the Catholic League, destroy the best exercise of the Catholic imagination that came along in years,” Greeley said.

“If the author had been a woman or black or a Latino or a gay, the Catholic liberal crowd would have rallied to the program’s support,” Greeley said. “We don’t stand by our own. The besetting sin of the conservatives is inarticulate anger, of the liberals articulate envy.”

Noting that Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain had won the highly prestigious Writer’s Guild prize for the pilot episode of “Nothing Sacred,” Greeley said, “I wonder how much the Catholic media will cover that?”

Cain returns Greeley’s praise. He told NCR that it was a Greeley book -- Young Men Shall See Visions -- that led him to consider becoming a priest when he was a student at Regis High School in New York.

“I was in a discussion group led by a Jesuit using that book,” Cain said. “Four or five of us entered the society out of that experience.”

Cain said he responded to the book’s focus on an engaged life. “It had a welcoming tone, with a graciousness that I’ve come to expect from Greeley,” he said.

Cain said he likes Greeley’s novels, especially the Blackie Ryan series. “I think he catches the feeling of decades, of eras, especially well,” he said.

Surveying his readers

Unlike novelists who just scorch their critics rhetorically, Greeley has used sociological research to refute the bad reviews. In the mid-1980s, he included surveys with each book he sold. In a 1984 America article, Greeley published results purporting to show that solid majorities of readers thought the books increased their respect for the priesthood and for the Catholic church. Readers also reported, according to Greeley, that the books caused them to think deeply about religious problems, to better understand God’s love and to better understand the connection between religion and sex.

One member of the clerical elite who seems untainted by any anti-Greeley consensus is the current archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George. Contacted by NCR for this article, George came as close to endorsing Greeley as any American prelate is likely to.

“Father Greeley has given great attention to the role of imagination in the life of faith,” George said. “What he is doing is re-evangelizing the imagination, using fiction to express the faith and the mysteries of the faith. That’s an extraordinarily significant project. Pope John Paul talks about faith creating culture. Using fiction is one way to do that,” George said.

“I’ve read four or five of the earlier books [of fiction] and a recent Blackie Ryan novel. I caught what he was trying to do,” George said. “How well he’s doing it is for someone else to judge.”

Informed of George’s comments, Greeley said simply: “I’ll take that.”

As a novelist, Greeley says his influences range from Georges Bernanos to Graham Greene (he said The Power and The Glory is the best book on the Catholic priesthood he’s ever read). “I’m not conscious of imitating any of them, except a fair number of them were trying to do the same thing I was doing, with their own sensibilities,” he said.

Greeley says his best novel is the new one, Irish Mist -- then cheerfully concedes that he always thinks the latest one is the best. Pressed for his favorites, he listed Patience of a Saint, Lord of the Dance and A Midwinter’s Tale. His favorite Blackie Ryan stories, he said, are The Three Kings and The Bishop At Sea (also, coincidentally, the most recent Blackie novels).

Greeley said one writer with whom he would love to be compared is G.K. Chesterton. “His stories were just wonderful,” he said, citing as a personal favorite The Man Who Was Thursday.

Unabashed liberal

Like Chesterton, Greeley would stir controversy even without his fiction. An unabashed liberal, Greeley draws scorn from the Catholic right for his advocacy of women priests, his support of electing bishops and his general embrace of Vatican II. Yet he has also gored numerous liberal oxen over the years.

He remains critical of liberation theology (“It was a terrible mistake to get in bed with Marxism”), some strains of feminism (“If you define reality as a class conflict between men and women, you’ll never get out of it unless men surrender”), and Catholic pacifists such as Daniel Berrigan (“We’re still friends, but I completely disagreed with his tactics during the war”). He has been a vigorous defender of clerical celibacy, though he now says a married clergy is inevitable because the church has made raw obedience the point of the celibacy rule, as opposed to any spiritual significance.

Greeley says he’s tried to hold together the pre- and post-Vatican II epochs in American Catholicism. “I think one of the inevitable results of the council was that much of what was good in the pre-Vatican II church was swept away,” Greeley said. “I have tried to preserve the richness of that.”

It is an approach, he says, that has endeared him neither to left nor right, though in fact he believes it’s where most laity are coming from. “They don’t understand how sharply the distinction has been drawn,” Greeley said. “They think they can have good liturgy and Mary, mother of Jesus. I think so too. The Catholic tradition at its best is both/and.”

Greeley says he started writing novels in the belief that America’s increasingly literate, affluent Catholic population represented an underserved market for popular fiction. “I had no idea how many people were going to read the books. I certainly wasn’t writing for a vast audience. I was writing the kind of stories I would like to read,” Greeley says.

Yet “vast” his audience is, measured by the usual standards. Greeley says he has a core readership of 250,000, meaning people who buy almost every novel he puts out. At $6.99 a pop for a paperback edition, that’s $1.7 million in sales per novel virtually guaranteed, with the potential for higher sales if a book breaks out beyond the core. Not for nothing is Greeley on the racks at airports and in supermarket checkout stands.

Greeley doesn’t pocket all that money, of course. While he won’t reveal the terms of his own deal, a novelist generally gets a percentage of whatever is left after the publisher pays for printing, distribution and marketing.

A typical reader

He says two-thirds of his readers are women, but that’s true of popular fiction generally. He actually gets a higher percentage of male readers than most novelists, he says. Three-quarters of the readers are Catholic, and most are college-educated.

Put another way, “My typical reader is a Catholic woman in mid-30s, married, college-educated, who doesn’t go to church regularly,” Greeley said.

Talking about numbers inevitably raises one of the charges that has dogged Greeley these past 20 years -- to wit, that he’s churned out so many novels primarily because they sell. It’s a charge Greeley testily denies.

“I didn’t write them to make money, and I have given away most of what I’ve made,” he said. Two such high-profile gifts include a $1 million fund established in 1986 for Catholic inner-city schools in Chicago, and another $1 million for a chair in Roman Catholic studies at the University of Chicago.

Greeley told NCR that he plowed some of his earnings into a retirement plan, which has done well in the stock market, “but other than that, I don’t have anything stashed away.” He was especially eager to stress that he doesn’t have a pool of money sitting around waiting to fund someone’s pet project.

Greeley won’t reveal exactly how much money he’s earned. “I don’t have the slightest idea. I’ve got an accountant who keeps track of things. Most people think I make more than I do,” he said. He declined to allow NCR to contact his accountant to get a precise figure and grudgingly said that he lives the lifestyle of a college professor -- save that the income comes from books, since he stopped taking his university salaries years ago.

His only real indulgence, he said, is that he buys top-of-the-line computers every two years instead of every three, a rational move, he said, given how much of his day he spends at the keyboard.

Witty cleric on the fringe

Money aside, there’s another kind of accounting some have suggested motivates Greeley’s fiction -- settling scores with church authority. His hierarchs are often drawn as evil, incompetent or libidinous, while it’s the witty, urbane cleric on the fringes who either exposes the bad guys or does the dirty work so the good guys won’t sully their halos -- a thin veil, some have asserted, for how Greeley fancies himself.

Greeley, however, says his relationship with church authorities has actually been pretty good. He was released from regular priestly duties to pursue his sociological scholarship by Archbishop Albert Meyer, and he remains a priest in good standing in the Chicago archdiocese (recently retired “for purposes of health insurance,” he said).

Of the four archbishops Greeley has seen come and go, he has mixed opinions. Meyer “died too young” and was “awfully smart”; John Cody remains “a madcap tyrant” (Greeley says his opinion about Cody “hasn’t softened at all”); Joseph Bernardin “died a saint” but “sought consensus on everything and wanted to make everybody happy.”

Greeley’s highest praise is reserved for the current man at the top, Cardinal Francis George. “We lucked out,” Greeley said. “He’s the brightest man I’ve ever known. He’s neither conservative nor liberal, and he’s very funny -- 75 percent Irish, with 200 percent Irish charm.”

Greeley spoke glowingly of watching George recently care for a young women suffering from brain cancer who had only two weeks to live. “His sympathy, his compassion, his lack of embarrassment -- it’s hard to describe how remarkable it was. It’s exactly what a priest should be doing.”

“You can also say that I admire his courage with that lame leg of his. It has to hurt like hell with almost every move, yet you’d never know it because he’s so vivacious,” Greeley said.

Even some Greeley fans suggest he writes too much -- “never an unpublished thought,” as the saying goes -- but it’s not a criticism he takes seriously. “I don’t think that’s my problem,” he said. “I enjoy doing it, people enjoy reading it, so I don’t see why I should practice contraception on my ideas.”

As to the charge that Greeley’s novels aren’t great literature on the order of James Joyce or William Faulkner, he says: “Why compare me to them?”

“I didn’t want to be the kind of novelist that reviewers could say, ‘This is an intelligent book,’ meaning that nobody else but a college professor is going to like it -- even though I’m a college professor and some of my best friends are college professors,” Greeley said.

So, at 71, what mountains are left for Greeley to climb as a novelist? “Well, I’d like to eliminate the typos,” he said.

More seriously, “I would like to think that in each novel, the characterization is more subtle, and that means the dialogue is more subtle. So I guess it’s that each character’s conversation and behavior contribute more and better to knowing who that person is. Which is another way of saying that I want to keep becoming a better storyteller.”

Ought to be in pictures

Greeley also says he’d like a shot at the Holy Grail of mass-market fiction, a movie deal. “There’s been talk about films but nothing else,” he said. “The standard excuse is that they are afraid of offending the church.”

“I’d love to see Blackie or Nuala Anne in a film. I think the Catholic League would have a fit, but I think there is a huge potential market out there for ‘evangelization’ films, films about God.”

Who could he see playing Blackie? “Martin Sheen, maybe.”

Nuala Anne? “Julia Roberts, minus 10 years. Maybe Gwenyth Paltrow with a black wig.”

Retirement seems nowhere in sight. “Writing fiction is really an enormous amount of fun,” Greeley said.

Upcoming projects include a new Blackie Ryan novel (the premise is that an elevated commuter train disappears with a bishop on board) and the second volume of his memoirs. He wants people to buy the book, of course, but says it’s the wrong way to understand him.

“If you want to know what’s happened to me, read the memoirs,” Greeley said. “But if you want to know me, read my novels.”

Perhaps Greeley’s ultimate rebuttal to the chattering classes is that millions of readers, mostly Catholics, have chosen to get to know him in just that way.

This story was reported with assistance from Gary O’Guinn.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999