A question of sex and the single priest

October 17 1983

A question of sex and the single priest

October 17 1983

A question of sex and the single priest



At a time when the Roman Catholic Church in North America faces tumult and discord on several fronts, Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, 55, has emerged both as an acute analyst and a forthright spokesman. Long a controversial sociologist at the University of Chicago ’s National Opinion Research Center, Greeley has, in the past three years, written three provocative best-selling novels that deal with the problems of his church: The Cardinal Sins, Thy

Brother’s Wife and Ascent into Hell. A fourth, The Lord of the Dance, is scheduled for release next March. The books have generated a welter of criticism and have brought him fame, wealth—including an apartment in Chicago, a summer home in Michigan and a winter home in Arizona—as well as the ire of many fellow priests. Maclean’s correspondent Brian J. Kelly spoke with Greeley in Chicago.

Maclean’s: When you look down the list of the church’s problems, what stands out at the top?

Greeley: The shortage of priests. In the United States, for example, I think we could get about a half-million young Americans to consider becoming priests if they were told they only had to make an active commitment for a limited period of time—for five or 10 years. That

would be similar to what the Buddhists do. You can make a case that an awful lot of us burn out in our middle 30s. It might be a good idea to have waves of young people coming in. Our research shows we could attract a lot more people to the priesthood if we abolished celibacy, but I thing it should be retained. The celibate priest has time to relate more intensely to more people. There is a mystery around priests because they live differently. Their life

points to something that transcends this existence. As Kevin Brennan says in The Cardinal Sins: ‘Some of us have to live in such a way that it is possible to care passionately about people without jumping into bed with them.’

Maclean’s: In your books your fictional priests certainly do not remain celibate. Is the incidence of affairs in real life that high?

Greeley: They are novels. They are not sociology, so I am not estimating proportions. And, indeed, even in the books, most of the priests do not get involved. But the interesting stories are about those who do. We do not have any hard data, but my impression is that most priests keep their vows.

Maclean’s: How do women generally fare in the church?

Greeley: Catholic women are madder than hell at the church and the anger is

not just coming from the nuns who want to be ordained priests. It comes from perhaps half the Catholic women under 40 who feel church leaders are determined to keep them within their narrowly defined gender roles. And those women are not necessarily militant feminists. But they are angry, and I think they are going to be angry for a long time. The basic problem is that women are being treated as little girls by everyone from the Pope down to the parish priest. I think the Pope is on their side. But, unfortunately, the press accounts of his statements do not always take in the nuances and the qualifications of his statements and so he is wrongly perceived. If you ask most Catholic women, they will say ‘the Pope has told us to stay home and have babies.’ Now he has not said that or anything even remotely approaching that. But that is how he is perceived. I personally think women should be ordained tomorrow. All that has been said against it is a crypto form of male chauvinism which implies that women are inferior.

Maclean’s: In your novels and your academic studies you repeatedly raise the issue of sex. Why does that become such a central focus for the future of the church?

Greeley: There is a general feeling that the official church has no idea of how important sex is in marriage. Sex has become a central focus because the church has permitted itself to be preoccupied with it. Jesus was not preoccupied with sex. During its first thousand years, the church had very little to say about the subject except to condemn immorality in general terms. Its obsession with regulating what goes on in the bedroom has become a 20th-century phenomenon. Instead of providing people with the motivation they need to grow in love, we are trying to regulate the mechanics of how they make love, which is a bad strategy. The whole birth control issue is not important anymore—as far as birth control goes— because most people do not take it seriously. But it is important as a symptom that church leaders have no notion of the role of sex in marriage. They are afraid of unbridled passion, when the real problem is bridled passion. The more passionate a man and woman are with each other, the more sacramental their marriage, the more effectively they reflect God and God’s love. The church is too busy saying ‘no, no you can’t do that,’ with fingers crossed be-

cause they know people are going to end up doing it.

Maclean’s: What is the purpose of the sex in your novels?

Greeley: I want to make the point that sexual sins are not the worst sins. Kevin Brennan in The Cardinal Sins is a victim of pride, which is the worst of all the cardinal sins. It is much worse than lust. No Catholic reviewer has ever complained about a proud priest in the book, but they all complain about lustful priests. It seems to suggest to me that they may have missed the point of Christianity.

Maclean’s: You have talked of the obscurity of some of the Pope 's statements. What good is a Pope who is so abstract that he cannot be understood?

Greeley: He is an Eastern European romantic philosopher. It would be better if he were clearer, but I do not think he can be. The real problem is the Vatican press office, which does not mediate between him and the media—and may not want to. They may not want to clarify what he is saying for fear that, if they do, it would be a threat to their careers. It is a curious kind of press operation— they seem afraid to explain. The classic example is the Pope’s passage of two years ago about not lusting after your wife. What he meant was not turning your wife into a sex object. Clearly that is what he meant in context. The Pope has no sense of the importance of the world media; he has spent most of his life in a country where television, radio and the papers are discounted because people know there is no truth in them. He has stage presence, but he has no sense that a newspaper reporter has got 700 to 900 words, a TV reporter has 30 seconds, maybe 60 at the most. He has no sense that you simply have to fit what you want to say into that. And there is nobody around to tell the man. Maclean’s: Was Cardinal John Cody, the Archbishop of Chicago who died last year, your nemesis?

Greeley: Not really. While he was in office I continued my social research, became a professor at the University of Arizona and switched to writing fiction. He did not interfere with my career at all. I began my battle with him over the closing of Chicago’s black inner-city schools. I thought the finest thing the American church had ever done was to maintain those schools for black kids. I could remain silent about a lot of other things that were happening, but when Cody started to arbitrarily close those schools, then I had to speak out.

Maclean’s: How do you define your role in today's church?

Greeley: I try to interpret the noise. I turned to storytelling because stories are a good way to talk about religion. I suppose I realized there would be controversy and hostility. Still, I did not

write the books for that reason, but because I thought people would enjoy reading them and that the books would make religious points.

Maclean’s: What do you hope people will get out of the books?

Greeley: The same thing they would get from a parable by Jesus, although Jesus is a much better storyteller than I am. The parables were to make people stop and think about how God works. That is really what I am up to. But I do not want to beat people over the head. It has to be a good story. That is how religion was passed on for most of human history. Maclean’s: Has your success—both financial and professional—created any jealousy and envy among your fellow priests?

Greeley: That was inevitable. The money does not really matter that much to me. I will try to use the money both responsibly and generously—I will be funding more social research. The money matters a lot more to other people. Some of my critics in the church are obsessed with it. The implication is that it is all right for a priest to write novels, but not to have a lot of people read them so he collects royalties. That is absurd. But my success, the money and my general notoriety, stir up envy. I do not like it, but I am not going to stop doing what I do just because it offends people. The resentment is far greater among the clergy than the laity—it is widespread. It bothers me; I would like my fellow priests to realize what I am trying to do and be proud of it instead of knocking it. The sex in my books is pretty mild, certainly compared to most modern novels. The sex in those is much more explicit, although I suspect many priests do not read modern novels so they have nothing to compare it to.

Maclean’s: How have you survived in the church for so long?

Greeley: It goes back to the pragmatism in the American church today which says, ‘Why mess with Greeley? He is not going to leave the priesthood. He is doctrinally orthodox. The research he does is embarrassing but useful, and he fights back. He can be mean so just leave him alone.’ Now I have my own base, my own audience and I have become a very difficult person to take on. Maclean’s: Do you love the church? Greeley: Yes, and I love being a priest. My emotions about the church are passionate. I like what is good in it—the traditions that shaped me and formed me. I have enormous affection for it, but I do not like the things that are bad in it. At the end of The Cardinal Sins, Herb Strauss, the Jewish psychiatrist, says the church is sometimes a whore and sometimes a fair bride. That comes from one of St. Peter’s epistles. I think it is a fair image of the church. You love the fair bride and you want to reform the whore.