Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet: Andrew Greeley

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet (Blessed is the Righteous Judge) is something that Jews say upon hearing about someone’s death.

ImageA teacher of mine once told me that he thinks of the sociology of religion articles that he reads in three categories: the economies of religion people (like William Sims Bainbridge, Roger Finke, Laurence Iannaccone, and Rodney Stark), applied statisticians looking for correlations between (Protestant) religiosity and various social outcomes (including some tremendously creative people like Mark Chaves and Christian Smith), and Andrew Greeley, who sits in a category all by himself.  While I might not agree with those categorizations, I do agree that Andrew Greeley was a singular figure in the sociology of religion.
First of all, he was an ordained Catholic priest who wrote bestselling novels on the side in addition to being a world renowned sociologist.  In fact, he once wrote “Sometimes I suspect that my obituary in The New York Times will read, ‘Andrew Greeley, Priest; Wrote Steamy Novels.’”  (For what it’s worth, the NYT’s actual headline was “Andrew M. Greeley, 1928-2013: Priest, Author, Scholar, Scold“).  But he wrote more than 120 books including not just his novels (almost a dozen of which reached the New York Times’s best-seller list), but academic tomes (The American Catholic: A Social Portrait), books commissioned by the Church (American Priests. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center), public sociology (How to Save the Catholic Church), spiritual books for lay Christians (When Life Hurts: Healing Themes from the Gospels), Catholic apologetics (The Catholic Why? Book), and political commentary (A Stupid, Unjust and Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007) in addition to other non-fiction books aimed at a variety of audiences.  All told, the National Catholic Reporter says he wrote “72 nonfiction books and 66 novels”.  As the New York Times puts it:

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.

Obviously, his work–literary, religious, and academic–did not pass without controversy.  After the success of his third novel, Cardinal Sins, the National Catholic Register declared Greeley had “the dirtiest mind ever ordained”.  His major 1972 study, commissioned by American Bishops, which found widespread dissatisfaction among American priests was soundly rejected by its sponsors, who Greeley called “morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt.”  He was initially denied tenure at the University of Chicago, though its unclear whether it was because of anti-Catholic bias or Greeley’s own cantankerous nature.
Despite being denied tenure by Chicago and a parish by Archbishop Cody (who Greeley called a “madcap tyrant”), Greeley managed to go it alone quite successfully.  As the Chicago Tribune states:

Robert McClory, associate professor emeritus at Northwestern University and a former priest, said the Rev. Greeley was one of the few Catholic scholars who was able to critique the Catholic Church without himself becoming a dissident.

“He was able to be critical of the hierarchical church while balancing that criticism with the sound sociological data that he had been working on for more than 40 years,” McClory said.
“It’s not as if he 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.’ “

His careful path paid off–he become not only a powerful Catholic voice, but eventually a professor at the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago simultaneously.  The proceeds from his novels gave him academic freedom and an ample research budget, even after donating large sums of money to charity (including at least 1.4 million to K-12 parochial education) and endowing a chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago (at the cost of another million) and another at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., the school where he had prepared for ordination to the priesthood in the 1950s.Among sociologists of religion, Greeley was known for being one of the first to anticipate the down fall of the “secularization thesis” (Unsecular Man, 1972), about two decades before most sociologist caught up.  He was rigorously empirical and creative, not only in his findings but in the questions he asked.  More than anything, though, Greeley was a true public intellectual, even at one point having a weekly column in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Though his later work was often aimed more at a popular than academic audience, he only slowed down stopped ground breaking sociology after his 2008 traumatic injury–checking my Zotero account, I’ve recently cited both his “The Center Doesn’t Hold: Church Attendance in the United States, 1940-1984” with Michael Hout, 1987, ASR, and his “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States” with Michael Hout and Melissa Wilde, 2001, AJS.
The influence of his early work is clear in the fact that it has gone from controversial to canonical, and not just his crticism of the secularization thesis.  As the LA Times reports:

Andrew Greeley YoungThe superiority of Catholic school education “is so widely accepted now that it is hard to grasp how new and controversial that idea was then,” said Michael Hout, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and Greeley co-author. He said Greeley’s early work in such books as “The Social Effects of Catholic Education” (1961), “The Education of Catholic Americans” (1966) and “American Catholics: A Social Portrait” (1977) were “path-breaking in their scope and stereotype-breaking in their findings.”

During the 1970s, Greeley studied ethnic Catholics and showed how religion influenced their political behavior. Greeley, who also taught at the University of Arizona, was one of the first scholars to point out the growing schism between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity in the wake of Humanae Vitae, the controversial Vatican encyclical from Pope Paul VI that banned artificial birth control.

In the mold of the best public sociologists, Greeley spread his ideas widely.  As the Chicago Tribute reports,

Andrew Greeley NORCThe Rev. Greeley’s research often contradicted commonly held opinions, according to the Rev. John Cusick of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, who called the Rev. Greeley a mentor. Cusick recalled opining that young people were leaving the church until the Rev. Greeley set him straight — young people still identified themselves as Catholic, they just didn’t practice their religion in the same way as previous generations.

“He taught me to trust the data, don’t just trust hunches,” Cusick said. “He’s an intellectual. He could wax a story and in the next breath carry on a phenomenally intellectual conversation with anyone in Hyde Park.”

Its hard to summarize a man of such deep, varied, and erudite interests, but it seems fair to say that he was a relentless but loyal critic and an educator through and through.  He will be missed.

Andrew Greeley praying


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