Rev. Andrew Greeley, religious scholar, 1928-2013

Update: A wake for Rev. Andrew Greeley will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. June 4 at Christ the King Catholic Church, 9235 S. Hamilton Ave., Chicago. Visitation will be held at the church beginning at 10 a.m. June 5, followed by a funeral Mass at noon.

Rev. Andrew Greeley, a leading sociologist of religion, social change, ethnic groups, the priesthood and other subjects at the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, died Wednesday in his apartment at the John Hancock Center. He was 85.

He had been convalescing at his Chicago home since a serious accident on Nov. 7, 2008.

At NORC, Greeley was a research associate for the Center for Study of Politics and Society, which investigates societal change in comparative perspective. Greeley’s work on the sociology of religion included research on Catholicism, peoples’ images of God, trends in belief in life after death and many other aspects of religion.


“He was a true renaissance man: a priest, a man of faith; a sociologist, a man of science; and a novelist, a man of creativity. These were the three corners of his integrated soul,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at NORC.

“He incorporated religious themes from his homilies into his novels; conducted rigorous, empirical social-science research to study religious beliefs and behaviors; and used his studies of Chicago Catholics to help the Church better reach out to and serve its congregants.”

Born Feb. 5, 1928 in Oak Park, Greeley grew up in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. He decided to be a priest when he was a second-grade student at St. Angela’s School. He received a S.T.L. degree from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in 1954, and was ordained a priest the same year.

He was assigned as an assistant pastor to Christ the King parish in the Beverly neighborhood. He started writing for a religious newsletter, and when a Catholic publishing house asked for something longer, he wrote his first book, The Church and the Suburbs (1963).

While continuing his work as an assistant pastor, he received permission to study at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in 1962, and that year became senior study director at NORC. Although he continued being a priest, he was not assigned to a parish and was allowed to continue his work as a scholar.

At NORC, he forged a research career rich in seeking the details of religious experience, particularly the Catholic experience in the United States. His early research came at a time when the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962, was changing Catholicism worldwide.

Greeley was the author of more than 100 non-fiction books and 50 novels. His most influential books on American Catholicism include The American Catholic (1977), The Catholic Myth (1991) and The Catholic Imagination (2002). These books helped Catholics and non-Catholics alike understand what made Catholics different and they interpreted the changes among Catholics brought on by Vatican II and upward social mobility. His scholarly books and articles were devoted to studying the academic contributions of Catholic schooling and the changing roles of women and married people in Catholic life. He also published an autobiography, Confessions of a Catholic Priest (1986), and an addendum to it, Furthermore! in 1999.

“Greeley busted myths about American Catholics. In scholarly and popular writings, he brought to light Catholics’ upward mobility and interpreted what that meant for American society and the Catholic Church,” according to Mike Hout, his longtime collaborator and the Natalie Cohen Professor of Sociology & Demography at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1983, he made a donation to the University of Chicago establishing a faculty chair in honor of his parents. The Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Chair in the University’s Divinity School has been held by distinguished theologians.

“For the last quarter-century, my life as a priest has been devoted principally to trying to establish a bridge between the church and scholarship, to being a priest in the world of scholars and a scholar in the church,” he said at the time of the donation.

Twenty years after making that donation, which he hoped would encourage dialogue between Catholics and academics, he examined the controversies that had fallen upon priests in the wake of sex scandals. The University of Chicago Press published Priests, A Calling in Crisis in 2004. Again, he drew reliable national survey samples of priests to refute stereotypes about the percentage of homosexual priests, the level of personal and professional happiness among priests, and the role of celibacy in their lives, among other issues.

His work showed that priests reported higher levels of personal and professional satisfaction than doctors, lawyers or faculty members; that the overwhelmingly would choose to become priests again; and that younger priests were far more conservative than their older brethren.

In 2004 he and Hout wrote The Truth about Christian Conservatives. It was based on surveys from NORC’s General Social Survey on practices, beliefs and attitudes among conservative Christians and found a wider range of opinion than people previously thought.

In addition to leading survey research, he also taught sociology at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. His course “God in the Movies” drew hundreds of undergraduates a year at Arizona; the course “Sociology of Religion in Film” was also popular at Chicago.

Besides his scholarly career, Greeley also was a prolific author of fiction. One of his novels, The Cardinal Sins (1981), sold more than 3 million copies in English and was translated into a dozen other languages. His series of 17 Blackie Ryan mysteries sold more than a million copies total. He also authored the dozen Nuala Anne McGrail novels, which reflect on the many changes in Ireland from the 1970s to the current decade, while the O’Malley family series was a microcosm of Catholic Chicago that followed a family of Irish Americans from their immigration in 1900 to prosperity in 1999.

For 40 years he wrote a syndicated column that appeared in dozens of newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times and the Tucson Citizen. He was a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Catholic periodicals including the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America.