Still Telling Stories of Sin, Sex and Redemption

Article excerpt

Despite scorn from Catholic elites, Greeley says readers understand

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). …