A blog post as homily on a rainy Sunday morning in Texas seems a fitting time and place to note the passing this past Thursday of priest, author, and sociologist Andrew M. Greeley. I try to keep our American fascination with celebrity and celebrities at arm’s length, but
I admit to being a huge Andrew Greeley fan. I was raised Catholic, first studied theology as a Catholic, and taught theology for eight years in urban Catholic high schools in Massachusetts. I loved Andrew Greeley as a sane progressive voice for American Catholicism. Although he defended priestly celibacy and the creeds of the Catholic Church, he was an outspoken advocate for women in the church, a positive view of human sexuality, including homosexuality, a critic of autocratic hierarchy especially within the Catholic Church and the Vatican, and a severe critic of the sexual abuses by Catholic priests and the cover up of the abuses by bishops. He was a huge donor to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
Andrew Greeley and his theology of religious experience being prior to and more important than creeds as well as outspoken support of justice in the church and in the world were major reasons I remained Catholic for so long and ultimately became a Unitarian Universalist.
Exuberantly combative, he could be scathing about the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops; at one point he described them as “morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt.” If the church wanted “to salvage American Catholicism,” he wrote, it would be well advised to retire “a considerable number of mitered birdbrains.”
“If there was anything tying Father Greeley’s torrent of printed words together, it was a respect for what he considered the practical wisdom and religious experience of ordinary believers and an exasperation with elites, whether popes, bishops, church reformers, political radicals, secular academics or literary critics.” – NY Times Obit
I unabashedly admit to being a fan of his novels. Yes, they were genre novels, but they always included elements of a theology of grace and the triumph of both justice and compassion. When I finally finished writing my own first novel, it was a story based on my experiences of being a Catholic high school teacher and it owed not a little to Andrew Greeley for its style and voice.
As much as I loved his novels, my favorite of his books was The Catholic Myth, a sociological study of American Catholicism that debunked many myths about that faith and its place as an American subculture. My favorite part of this work was what Greeley called The Grace Scale. The Grace Scale measured the correlation between people’s image of God and their likelihood to support progressive and liberal political view points. Distributed as part of the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago in 1985 and 1987, thousands of participants were asked to choose their image of God:
- Is God more a friend to you or more a king?
- More spouse or master?
- More lover or judge?
- More mother or father?
Participants were also asked questions about social conscience, including:
- Are you in favor of equal rights for women?
- Do you support Affirmative Action?
- Do you support LGBTQ equality?
- Do you favor or reject the death sentence?
- Do you support governmental assistance for the poor?
- Do you support civil liberties?
Greeley found there was an extremely high correlation between viewing God as friend, spouse, lover and mother and a responder’s likelihood to support equal rights, Affirmative Action, LGBTQ equality, governmental assistance programs, civil liberties and to be opposed to the death penalty and excessive military spending. This correlation held true across gender, age, regions of the country, race, ethnicity, and income. The correlation was even higher the more education a person had. People scoring high on the Grace Scale were significantly less likely to vote Republican.
It’s been almost 30 years since the sociological survey for the grace scale but I imagine the correlation still holds.
Greeley himself said, “sometimes I suspect that my obituary in The New York Times,” Father Greeley once wrote, “will read, ‘Andrew Greeley, Priest; Wrote Steamy Novels.’ ”
Rest in peace, Father Greeley. Your obituary included a great deal more than the fact you wrote steamy novels. You were a champion of grace and you were loved and appreciated by a large parish, the members of which were not all Catholics.