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A Priest 50 Years, Greeley Is Still Going Strong

The prolific author and biting critic of Catholic bishops is a 'permanent outsider' in his church.

May 01, 2004|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

"There is a certain truth-telling that goes on in his novels that mirrors the kind of truth-telling he has brought to the church as a social scientist. That was a dramatically new thing for the church when he was doing his work early on," Roberts said. "He made us face real facts."

Before Bernardin's death in 1996, the two men reconciled, and the Chicago Archdiocese has accepted Greeley's contributions. He has also given hundreds of thousands of dollars more to his seminary and additional donations to Catholic schools.

Greeley still has his critics, however, among them William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

"I regard him as a man who's gotten increasingly embittered as he's aged. Unfortunately, his finest hour in terms of his contribution to scholarship is when he was middle-aged," Donohue said.

For a long time, Greeley said, he was saddened by such animosity. No longer.

"I am still an outsider," he said. "But now I understand marginality is a great asset ... because of the freedom that comes with marginalization."

Despite his outspoken views, Greeley has not embraced every "reform" advanced by liberals. Advocates of optional celibacy as a solution to the sexual abuse crisis, he said, fail to understand the nature of sexual pathology. And a married clergy, as in Protestant churches, presents its own problems.

He laments that Gregorian chant is not heard more often and that the church has de-emphasized some distinctive Catholic traditions.

"We have given up too readily too much: the saints, the angels, the souls in purgatory," he said.

Greeley said all the talk of his "blurred" identity hadn't obscured the central fact of his life, one that Rosner said was illustrated by an encounter Greeley had with a young mother who was six months pregnant.

Greeley was waiting in an office lobby several years ago when she asked him to bless her unborn child. "I knew instantly what the mother wanted and I did it," he said. He placed his hand on her stomach and prayed.

"I'm a priest," Greeley said this week. "I'm a priest that does a lot of other things.... That may blur it for others, but I'm pretty clear. I'm a priest."

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