Godly Gadfly

Article excerpt

HE'S THE AUTHOR of 26 best-selling novels, many of which feature men wearing clerical collars and women wearing nothing but cologne.

He's a sociologist who shuttles between university posts in Chicago and Tucson, Ariz., and he's the author of a 1993 study on religion in Russia and a 1980 book titled "Ethnic Drinking Subcultures."

But to some Catholics, the Rev. Andrew Greeley is a gigantic pain in the neck.

He's a persistent critic of church leaders, whom he calls "damn fools." And of the conservative Pope John Paul II, Greeley says, "His papacy is a disaster for the church."

A self-appointed godly gadfly, Greeley, 65, has long criticized official teaching on birth control and has backed up his criticism with sociological data indicating that many Catholics disobey church decrees in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Greeley's current hot-button issue is sexual abuse of children by priests, a religious and legal crisis for the church.

"Fall From Grace," Greeley's latest pot-boiler novel, features a promiscuous priest with connections to an underground Satanist movement. The priest is the subject of a lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Greeley says he wrote the novel in 1991 and 1992, before the archdiocese and Greeley's boss, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, became embroiled in a now-famous lawsuit. Steven Cook, 34, sued Bernardin in November, charging that Bernardin and another priest sexually assaulted him when he was a teen-ager. A trial is scheduled to begin May 9.

Greeley says he believes the claims against Bernardin are "pretty crazy."

"It's dangerous when a man's reputation can be attacked that way," he says.

But he believes many claims of sexual abuse are true. The church's vigorous defense against some claims and its slowness to respond to others has seriously tarnished its image, Greeley says, despite Pope John Paul II's precedent-setting public condemnation of abuse in a Denver speech in August and some programs to help victims.

"At this stage of the game, it does not look like people are leaving the church over it, even though they're disgusted, they're angry, and they want to put a stop to it," Greeley says.

"But the priesthood as an institution is in deep, deep trouble, and most priests don't even begin to get that. The priesthood is now a profession in disgrace. The vocational shortage is going to get worse."

In "Fall From Grace," Greeley uses the fictional priest Brandan McNulty to express his passion and outrage over what he believes is the church's effort to duck responsibility for wayward priests and its tendency to use hardball attorneys to intimidate victims. Anger, Greeley says, influenced the way he wrote the book.

From 1954 to 1964, Greeley worked at Christ the King parish in the Beverly neighborhood of his native Chicago.

In 1964, the archdiocese granted him permission to leave the parish ministry and focus on study and writing. The result has been more than 100 books, most of them serious nonfiction studies. …